The Memories that Remain

It's the fourteenth anniversary of That Day, and it seems that the whole of the country--especially the internet--is turning to the act of memory. Those who are old enough, repeat the stories of where we were, what we were thinking and feeling and experiencing that day.

Four years ago, I watched the 10th anniversary specials with the same sort of numb disbelief that I watched the news that morning. I relived it all, as much as anyone can relive something by watching TV. But That Day felt more real than it had in a decade.

I was living in my first real place That Day. I'd moved out of my parents house only weeks before to start a graduate program at Penn State. I'd taken to lazy mornings on the days I didn't have classes, mornings where I watched the Today Show--I'd never had time to watch the Today Show before that. But I was watching That morning, and I saw the first reports of a plane--or something--on fire at the World Trade Center. And I watched the live reactions when we all saw the second plane enter.

I remember being shocked and shaken by the rumors of a country being thrown into chaos--attacks on the White House and Pentagon, planes lost and possibly heading for Ohio, no one knowing or understanding what was happening. I still went into campus for an appointment with a student, because I didn't get it yet. The student didn't show, and on the bus back, 30 minutes later, I learned that the first tower had already fallen. I tried to call my boyfriend (now husband), who worked two blocks from the White House, and when I couldn't get through. I think that's when I really started to panic.

I remember going to class the next night. I was taking a Post-colonial Literature seminar, and we decided not to meet, but not to have a regular class. We met at bar. We didn't talk about the readings for that week. We talked about what would happen next--the blame, the anger, the violence that would be directed toward Muslims.

I was young--barely 22. I didn't understand what they were talking about at first. At first, I only thought of the horror of the attack, of the gratefulness I felt when J finally made it from DC to my apartment and I knew he was safe, the fear I felt when we heard a plane pass by overhead that night, when no planes should have been in the air. I didn't know anything yet about post-colonial anything. I didn't realize the patterns of history.

I should have. I understood racism. I understood unfounded hatred toward people who weren't like you. I'd seen it too often to not be aware. But I don't think that the morning of September 11, 2001, I'd really ever thought anything at all about Muslims. I'd barely heard of the religion, and I didn't yet understand terrorism and the hatred it inspires on both sides of the divide.

I started thinking about it that nigh, as I sat with my classmates and professor and listened to them talk. ButI didn't really understand until that next weekend, when I traveled to DC to help J move into his new apartment. I saw flags hung from highway overpasses and felt a stirring of patriotism that I'd probably never felt before as I approached the city.

But then we went to a Target in Gaithersburg, MD, just outside of the beltway, and I saw more than one person had taped a sign--a stupid photocopied piece of 8x11 paper-- to their car windows. With a camel. And a bomb. And a target. And hateful words about rag heads and killing and vengeance.

It's 14 years later. Most of my students were babies when Sept 11th happened. They don't remember the before.

It's 14 years later. I get on planes, I trek to NYC, I walk around DC and do not let myself think about what-if or admit to being afraid.

It's 14 years later, and the shock and horror I felt that day is still there, but that memory is one I have to work to recall. I don't live with it anymore, in the same way I lived with it during those first days and weeks. 

It's 14 years later, and a lovely young blogger, who I admire for her intelligence and activism Tweets about what this day means for her and her family, as Muslims. And the memory of those signs in a Gaithersburg Target parking lot is more visceral and real than even the memory of the towers falling. 

It's funny sometimes, the things we remember. The stories we tell every year to keep the memories alive. To keep them contained and manageable. Those stories reshape the history into something we can carry with us, into something we can set down when the burden feels too heavy. The stories we tell can bring to light, but they can also obscure.

It's 14 years later, and I wonder how the stories we tell are shaping our memories of those days. I wonder how the stories we tell about the day the towers fell shape our present. And how they'll shape our future.