Monday, 12 September 2011

Children's Stories

September 11, 2011

This morning I watched the sun come up in New York City. At Ground Zero, the two square pits that were once the Twin Towers are now two massive fountains, the largest of their kind in North America. The water was lit from beneath, and the four walls of each hole seemed to glow against the last of the early-morning dark. Supposedly, you can hear the water falling even at great distances, above the noise of the city.
It is beautiful. I hope this memorial will be some small comfort not only to those who find their loved ones’ names engraved on it, but to all of us who found our lives irrevocably changed ten years ago.
But what am I supposed to feel? An ocean away, in Grantham, England, it is eleven o’clock, not sunrise. Outside the window of my TV lounge in Harlaxton Manor, it seems a normal day—blue sky, some clouds, too cold for September. On the news, various important and forgettable people are talking about what this day meant. There are messages of unity, of perseverance, and even of victory, as Osama Bin Laden’s face appears on the screen, swiftly covered by the word “DECEASED.” According to President Obama, the past ten years have proven that “those who do us harm cannot hide from the reach of justice anywhere in the world.” The nation, he says, “pulses with optimism.”
What does this mean, to “pulse with optimism”? As far as I know, my generation does not see it that way, except perhaps when it is an election year. Over the past ten years, we’ve fought two drawn-out wars, traded security for individual liberty, and witnessed economic recession, Islamophobia, and the collapse of governments around the world. If we pulse with anything, whatever that means, it’s fear. And for 2011’s university students, who were born at one turning-point of history, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems as if the first ten-odd years of our lives belonged to a different world; September 11, 2001, marked not just an end of childhood but the end of what felt like peace (even if it wasn’t), as history returned from holiday and the world’s next big bad emerged.
But Grantham, even on September 11, does not feel like a place where children are plucked from their childhoods and made to face the evils of the world. Cut to the afternoon: we are taking a historical tour of the town. Our guide, a toothless man nearing eighty, greets his neighbors and, gesturing to us, says that his family has grown. They laugh. He was born in Grantham. He shows us the tallest church spire and the pub whose sign is an active beehive, landmarks he must have passed as a child; he makes us promise not to cross the street until the walk sign is lit.
He also shows us the side of an ordinary stone building, where there is a very faint mark. It looks something like the sign for woman—a circle with a line pointing downward, but with no horizontal cross. It was a sign, he tells us, painted on the wall during the Second World War. The line was to show people where water had been stored, thousands of gallons of it, in case of a firebombing. “It’s the only one left in Grantham,” he says, running his fingers over the paint. “This one’ll be gone soon, too.”
“I was bombed,” he says, and I find myself doing a quick calculation of his age. “The bomb dropped across the street. Father was coming home from work. It was cold, and he was expecting to have a proper cup of tea when he came home, so mother had set the table with the milk, and the sugar, and the cup and saucer. Every time they dropped a bomb, the chimneys would shake, and you’d get smoke all in your house. Mother came into the kitchen and there was a film of soot over the milk, the sugar, and in the bottom of the cup.” He moves his hand horizontally, miming that film. “And do you know what she did then?” We shake our heads. He makes a stirring motion with his hands. “So Father drank sooty tea that night. You only got half a pound of sugar a week.”
“Did he notice?” I want to know.
“Well, he never complained.”
We all laugh. Across the street, a child is calling, “Mummy. Mummy.” As he comes into view with his parents, we turn from the mark on the wall and move on to the next sight.
In the instant that passed, I could believe more easily that one woman, sixty-some years ago, made tea for her husband while bombs dropped, than that ten years ago today, in my own country, three thousand people died because of a premeditated act of terror. This town, this country, is steeped in memory, not just because there are war memorials in every church and public park but because men and women tell stories. Our toothless guide will soon be, like the mark on the wall, one of the last.
There has never really been a generation who grew up without terror, and if September 11, 2001, seemed for us like an end of childhood—if it seems, in drastic simplification, that the first decade of our lives was spent in peace and the second spent in war—it is partly because disaster struck just when we were old enough to remember it forever. We each have a story, and I hope you, readers, will share them in the Comments section. What grade were you in? What did your teacher tell you, or not tell you? What were you doing when you found out?
I remember that I had a dentist appointment, so it was my mom who told me and not my teacher. She told me a plane had hit a building, and I couldn’t figure out why she was crying for people she did not know. I was in the fourth grade. I wonder what she was thinking as she drove me away from the school. And I wonder about that dentist, who resolutely tapped and checked each one of my teeth as the rest of the planes sped toward their targets. Was he afraid yet?
That dentist will remember that day for the rest of his life, as will our parents and our teachers. But those of us who were children are in a unique position to tell the story. Those only a few years younger—not only many of our siblings but those who will someday be our colleagues and perhaps even our spouses—will know September 11 only as a date. We are the youngest to remember.
But we will be old someday--when the world’s current threats have come to a head; when the balance of power has shifted, for better or worse, and our grandchildren’s youth is shaped by new and related fears. If we are lucky, they will have an interest in history, and they will ask us where we were when the Twin Towers fell. By that time, we, like the old man I met today, will be the last to remember.

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