2016-06-30
I was six when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I have no memory of either event. This astounds me, given that my parents were heartbroken over their deaths. Yet to my knowledge, we had no memorial, made no special mention of either tragedy.

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.

On the way home, I made up something quickly: Bad guys had knocked down the World Trade Center. It would be OK, and we were all safe. A look crossed Ben's face. "Is that the twin towers?" he wondered. Yes. It was. "Jack's daddy works in the twin towers," he said.

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.

On that Friday night, we drove up the dark, wooded mountain overlooking the Manhattan skyline. The boys quieted as we walked to the lookout, where hundreds of candles burned on what looked like a gigantic semi-circular altar. Flowers were strewn among the candles. Taped to the rocks and lashed to the trees were letters and posters. People poured out grief ("Why?"), rage ("This will never happen again!"), and hope ("Let there be peace on earth") over the national tragedy-and about our town's dead. There were several personal letters: "Dear Michael, I'll miss you. I wish I'd been a better friend. We'll take care of Sarah and the kids for you."

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.

At that point, the boys forgot about the cartoons and began asking me: Why are all these candles burning? What did people write on those posters? Where are the twin towers?

Is that where Jack's dad worked? And: What happened in New York, Mommy? What happened?

I vowed to learn whether Jack's dad had survived. The next afternoon, I drove by his house. Maybe I would see a clue. As I turned up the street, I looked-and there, standing on the lawn, was Jack's daddy-explaining to someone, probably for the 30th time, why he was still alive.

When I came home and told Ben, his only reaction was to smile and say, "OK."

Through the next week, he seemed to lose all interest in the question of "What happened in New York." Or so I thought.

Each day after school, he hurried downstairs to work at his art table. Eventually, he emerged with a collection of small paper American flags. He had cut each brooch-sized paper, drawn and colored a tiny flag, then wrapped them in blue cellophane. On each pin, he had attached a safety pin. Quietly triumphant, he carried them upstairs on a tray--and in that bashful offering I saw my little boy refashioning a deeply frightening event into his own sacred moment.

Ben declared that he planned to sell the flags for 50 cents each. He agreed, with his parents' help, that he would give half of that money back to charity, to help the children whose moms and dads were killed in the attack.

I will keep one of the little flags in his box of childhood treasures. Some day, he will remember.

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