The tragedy of 9/11 confronted me with all that I’d put aside when I left home years ago to study in Toronto. After college, I’d chosen to remain in Canada, a country temperamentally different from my own, rich in natural beauty and serene in character, an ideal culture for a working writer. Yet in spite of its size, it’s a small country both in population and in influence, painfully sensitive to the weight and power of a southern neighbour which demands its attention without returning it. Over the years, I’d begun to distance myself from my sense of American identity, from a country which, in the eyes of my Canadian friends, behaved like an overbearing sibling. After the towers fell, I began to realize that I had a claim on my native land, that I had a rich past in a city that I loved. It was one thing to leave home, to let go of childhood, to grow up. The loss of identity is a deeper kind of erasure. I felt in danger of losing who I was.
I, too, became a digger, rescuing my history.
Here were the facts — unearthed, dusted off, long set aside: My dad Vincent — known as Jimmy — was born in Harlem, my mother Antoinette in the Bronx, and they gave their children a claim to New York as their home town, both in fact and spirit. At the time of the attacks, my father had been dead for fifteen years, my mother for three. Dad was a man with a thousand-watt smile, quick-witted, always opinionated and sometimes bombastic; mom a kind-hearted and creative homemaker, a patient and devout Catholic who, like the earth itself, came with a solid core of iron. She had survived the poverty of the depression and a tyrannical live-in mother-in-law who might have destroyed a less solid marriage. Antoinette was a prayerful woman, and mindful of that, I started to explore meditation, discovering in myself a quiet place where the letting go of painful thoughts was healing. On the eleventh day of the month, I would light candles and recite the ancient prayers for the dead. At home in Toronto, in the winter of a new year, a sense of balance began to return.
Yet in the stillness, I became aware that I had to go back to New York City to restore my ties of friendship with my birthplace. Among the dead I would find my parents and claim, once again, their gifts to me. It was a visit I had to make alone.
A slight memory, a family story, poignant only now, otherwise forgotten. How my dad danced with my mother at the Windows on the World Restaurant, high up in the Trade Center, how it was their anniversary, how they waltzed to an old-fashioned song, composed by the singer Al Jolson.
“Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed…”
My mother was a shy woman, and they were the only ones dancing in the bar and she was embarrassed, but she must have forgotten herself because “The Anniversary Waltz” was their special song, because they were two graceful dancers, because the music must have swept her away. Dancing on top of the tower, this is how you remember them, your loved ones gone to air.