Where We Were

You know that tomorrow is that day, 20 years since the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Pennsylvanian attacks, and we’ve been reminded of them everywhere, all this week: the Story Corps voices resonating, attaching to our hearts; the endless images still compelling and horrifying us; the the decades-long tragedy marked most recently by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The War on Terror is joining Vietnam in our collective emotional memory—those desperate evacuations and attempted escapes from the runways and the buildings and the rooftops—no VE Day equivalent (no VV; no VA) to celebrate, with immortalized kisses and ticker tape parades in Times Square. 

In the fall of 2001, my sons and I had just moved to central Texas a couple months ahead of my husband, who had a work project to finish; he was going to fly to see us every weekend and then move our furniture—including the washer and dryer—with him, when he joined us permanently. That morning of September 11, after eating breakfast around a kid-sized craft table, sitting on kid-sized camp chairs, I had settled my second grader and my kindergartener into their safe and happy classrooms. I was on my way to a laundromat in Austin with my preschooler to work my way through our many pounds of grubby clothes (three boys and caliche and hard play), but I didn’t leave before the news spread throughout the school, minutes after the 7:46 a.m. (Central Time) and 8:03 a.m. events. I will always associate the repeated images of fire and dust and disaster with the pervasive smells of laundry detergent sudsing clockwise and cotton crisping in a gas dryer.

Within weeks after the world wobbled on its axis around the destroyed towers in New York City, the breached Pentagon, a plane-plowed field in Pennsylvania, my sons and I experienced a tornado, a flash flood that parted its furious waters neatly around our house even as it stormed across the rest of our property, and an infestation of black mold in the elementary school, requiring its closure—all this, while separated from my husband with flights grounded on the states between us. On the phone with my husband near the end of what now—in the pandemic era—looks like a short, if intense stint, of things not being what we expected, of everything going terribly wrong (but we were among the protected ones, the lucky escapees), I held out the phone to our youngest son, a three-and-a-half-year-old at the time.

“Do you want to talk to Daddy?” I asked.

“Daddy?” he said. “What Daddy?”