We had scheduled a Mad Science program on bubbles and surface tension for later that morning in the Children’s Room. I’d forgotten to buy, of all things, the dish soap. On my way out the door to get soap a colleague said, “Hey, someone just flew a plane into one of the twin towers in New York.” I said, “Good grief, how dumb are you that you can’t see one of those towers?” We had a chuckle, hoped no one got too badly hurt and I headed for Publix. By the time I got to the store the news about the second plane was everywhere and I picked out the soap in a daze. By the time I got to the cashier the Pentagon had been hit and I headed back to work with the radio on, spreading the growing horror of the day far and wide. I was sitting in the Decatur Library parking lot, still with the radio on, when there was a report on the fourth plane having gone down in Pittsburgh. I love Pittsburgh and I love a lot of people in Pittsburgh. There in my car, looking out at a perfect, crisp, blue sky I quietly came unglued while frantically trying to get my family in Pittsburgh on the phone. I finally gave up and went back in to work, that pretty September morning forever in ruins.
We never made the soap bubbles that day—no one showed up for the program and maybe that was just as well. Someone went home for lunch and came back with a television for the staff room. Few people came in that day, and fewer still were interested in much beyond planes and towers. I don’t need to go on. Most of us have this story, most of us will never forget the mundane, idiot details of life up until 8:46 on that day, or the wrenching hours after, waiting for survivors to be wrested from the jaws of fate, their families frantically posting photos and fliers, begging into cameras and microphones for news of their loved ones.
I knew when I became a parent there were things I would have to give up—sleeping in on Sundays, privacy, getting what I want on the pizza and watching Cops. I didn’t really think I’d have to give up NPR in the car but since Spring it’s caused me a lot of difficult conversations, and the worst ones have been this past week. My grandma could never discuss Pearl Harbor without falling apart and I just didn’t get it. It was thirty years ago, I’d think. Get over it and move on. I’m so sorry, Gram, I get it now—I can’t explain 9/11 to my child without coming apart and I doubt I ever will. She doesn’t have her own 9/11 story, thank goodness, and I can’t discuss it easily so I turned to books. There are plenty on the subject of course—just choose September 11 for your subject search—but these two are exceptional for giving life and heart to the story: September Roses by Jeanette Winter and Fireboat: The heroic adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman. Your little one may not be ready for the words of the middle-aged French woman who broke my heart by saying “Aujourd’hui, nous sommes tous Americains” (“Today we are all Americans”), but 14 cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy will help you explain the world’s response to our heartbreak.