When the first astronauts walked on the moon, I was just a year older. My parents awakened me and my little sister to watch it unfold on television. I remember that night--and I'm grateful.
Of course, the moonwalk was a happy event, while the two assassinations were deeply shocking. What they share in common, however, is that all were sacred national events.
Now I have two little boys, ages 6 and 3. In the weeks since the terrorist attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, like a lot of parents, I've been carefully shielding them from ideas about chaos, pain, and destruction. Yet I'm also asking myself: What should they know? What should they not know? How can I explain this to them? What memory should they carry?
I wasn't prepared for this. Like most of us, I was in the midst of happy small tasks on that morning, at the moment our world changed.
I had just finished driving the boys to school, when I heard the radio newscaster say: "There's been an explosion at the World Trade Center." In a kind of trance, I drove to the top of a mountain in the town where I live, 17 miles from New York. I stood, stunned, with a dozen or so people and watched the smoke engulf the silver towers.
By the time I picked the boys up early that afternoon, their teachers were panicking, wondering whether I would arrive. Danny, 3, had already fielded questions from his teacher about whether his mommy had gone to New York that day and whether his daddy had been on an airplane. He answered yes to both questions-even though neither was true. (Either question could have been true on any given day, however.) Ben, 6, had seen parents pick up his classmates in a daze, or a panic.
That night, Ben wanted to know why the Yankees and Mets games were cancelled. He also wanted to know if Jack's daddy had died. He wanted to know if his daddy would die, or if I would die. He rushed over to me, and threw his arms around me. "You're the best mom in the whole world," he said, over and over. This is not normal behavior for my 6-year-old.
I explained that the bad guys who knocked down the big towers had made people afraid and sad-still, I said, we are all safe.
And I told him baseball would return.
When I took Danny back to school two days later, he burst into strange, hysterical tears. "Mommy, don't go!"
That night, Ben said, "I think Jack's daddy died."
The next morning, Ben woke up early and went outside to dig in the flower beds. He gathered some large stones and arranged them around the hole. Finally, he announced the reason: He was making a grave for our aging cat, Maggie. I didn't ask who else he was thinking of.
On Friday, I took the boys downtown for a candy treat after dinner. There, people clustered, holding lighted candles in the falling darkness. I took one and lingered, talking to a group of strangers. The boys kept grabbing me, saying, "Come ON, Mom." They wanted to rush home to watch cartoons before bed. And when I suggested we drive to the top of the mountain to see the wounded Manhattan skyline, they were even unhappier.
I had a flicker of irritation-didn't they KNOW what happened? Of course, they really didn't. And suddenly, it seemed that my job was not just to shield them. It was also my job to give them a memory, even a faint imprint, of what happened to their country that day.
As I looked toward Lower Manhattan, I could see a black tunnel of smoke spewing into the sky, lit from below by white lights. It looked like the pit of hell. Still twinkling in the distance on that warm night was the skyline of the city that drew us to live in our suburban New Jersey town-a city so close, and, mercifully, so very far away.