Tag Archives: 9/11 memoir

Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 9 of 15)

Italian-American kids absorb a lot — maybe too much — about the rites of death and burial. From my childhood perspective, my parents visited the cemetery much too often, laying wreaths and attending memorial masses. On the other hand, we kids were seldom made to take part in these rituals. The dead were, for the most part, elderly relatives we’d never known, and my parents were seldom grief-stricken, always concerned with doing the right and respectful thing, a responsibility they took with utmost seriousness. Example is everything, and after the attacks, no one had to tell me what to do. It was instinctive, a shred of vestigial Italianness to observe a period of mourning, to honor the dead, to pay one’s respects.

Prayerful ritual begs the question of faith — not doctrinal faith but mystery, the connective tissue of life itself. I was raised in the Roman Catholic church, a faith tradition which carries with it a sacramental view of the world, one in which everything in the created order is a sign inviting us to enter into a deeper reality, one which connects us to each other and to every living thing. Ultimately we are one sacred body, and we live and die in each other. In this context, the attacks of 9/11 were a violation of the holy, a sacrilegious act. To this truth, I wanted to bear witness.

With this in mind, I went downtown again.

 *

Since our first visit the previous fall, they’d built an elevated observation platform on Fulton Street, just to the south of St. Paul’s Church, spanning Church Street. The visitors in the long line were quiet, even reverent. It felt as if I’d stepped from the crowd on Lower Broadway into an eerie stillness, made more so by the odd refractions of daylight in the emptiness up ahead. A policeman moved us along toward the ramp with the gentle sense of order appropriate to a gravesite. His words were kind, as if each of us had lost someone here.

The tall wooden hoarding running alongside the ramp was covered with graffiti. Someone had drawn a tiny replica of the two towers, placing within each rectangle a cross, a Star of David and a crescent. The scribbles on the hoarding included prayers, but also greetings. Be strong, my American brothers, read one. Your friend from Israel. Opposite the wall was the elegant spire of St. Paul’s, and behind the church was a bare tree etched into the sharp blue of the sky. I heard a woman whisper, “Do you think that tree will ever bloom again?” In spring, I thought, I’d come back and answer that question for myself.

The police officer allowed us up to the platform, one small group at a time. I found a place along the wall facing the Hudson River. Unlike the previous fall, it was possible to see down into the pit. What had become of…that big sooty building, Number Five. The one that looked like…the back of a dirty old fridge. Not words, just the static of my nervous system, my panicky brain trying to sort things out as fast as my eyes could see them, trying to register what should have been obvious last fall. No, not soot, nothing the Sanitation Department could scrub clean. Not salvageable, not even by God. Charred and burned in a terrorist attack — a total of seven buildings, plus the Greek Orthodox church at the southwest corner of the site. All the burnt-out wreckage had been cleared away.

Down below were workers in hard-hats, backhoes and grapplers beeping and rumbling, the enormous foundation wall exposed and Manhattan’s bedrock below it, the gaping holes dug into the subterranean levels of the plaza, seven stories deep. Before us was a desolate grave.

To the west were the World Financial Center and the forlorn shell of its Winter Garden. Corners clipped off, windows punched out, the cladding-draped structure of the Deutsche Bank on the south side of Liberty Street — damage beyond naming. Surrounding the pit, these injured buildings carried the breath of the missing and dead. Awful in the truest sense: full of dread. Yet I felt safe confronting the truth at Ground Zero, and it was for the safety of truth that I’d come — to pay my respects to the presence of lives whose dust was in the very air I breathed.

We were standing in the soul’s dark night. On either side of me, cameras were flashing, as if their owners understood that, too.

…More tomorrow.

Photos: (2) courtesy of the New York State Education Dept (3) Heather Cross, 2002, licensed to About.com (used with permission).

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 8 of 15)

In late February 2002, I went to New York. At the time, I was doing research for my novel An Ordinary Star, and this provided a convenient cover for a journey much deeper and harder to explain. It was a period of recollection, the Christian season of Lent. In New York, the mark of ashes had awful resonance, but the ash of mortality is also meant as a sign of oneness with the earth.

In Manhattan, I could feel this profound connection. I was staying with my cousin in Chelsea, and in the morning I’d stride along West 23rd Street in the chill air. I felt like a cell in the city’s body, humming with the racket of trucks and buses, alive with an astounding energy. I savored everything: Chelsea’s galleries and restaurants, the subway rides, the long conversations with my cousin Mary Ellen. After a long walk, I relished the chilly day’s pleasure of coffee and hot buttered cornbread, as if I’d never tasted anything in my life. I went to Mass, but my deepest communion was with the city, with the solid earth beneath my feet. Then I took the subway north, to the Bronx neighborhood where I’d spent much of my childhood.

 *

No doubt because of my meditative mood, it was the church that seemed most alive and beckoning — Immaculate Conception on East Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, its two blue-domed towers setting it apart from the grayness of its surroundings. It was the place where my parents were married, where we children were baptized and where, in a temporary classroom in the Capuchin monastery, I began first grade. I hadn’t visited it since the Sixties.

Silent and beautiful, it still inspired awe. The parish, once Italian, is now for the most part Hispanic and Dominican. The  aesthetic sensibility has remained the same — a palette of vibrant blues and reds, restored ceiling frescoes of Christ and the saints, the statue of Mary with an aureole of stars, the serpent crushed under her foot. The church gleamed with care and attention. A stained-glass window at the front of the left aisle was inscribed: a gift of John Dursi, in memory of his mother. John Dursi was my Uncle John, a wealthy businessman who married my mother’s oldest sister, Aunt Frances. My family roots, in glass and stone, were in this building, too.

Here, on June 3rd, 1939, my parents were married — three months before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. I wondered what they knew about the turmoil across the ocean, or if they suspected the horror that was about to engulf the world. It’s likely that they sensed what was coming. Yet in this beautiful place, I could still imagine their innocence, still conjure up the simplicity of their young and hopeful lives. I wanted to walk the symbolic path that drew them together, that ushered them into the world where one day we would encounter them.

At the back of the empty church, I began, with great deliberation, to walk down the aisle. Through their eyes, I saw the well-wishers on either side — aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins and friends. It wasn’t a long aisle, but in a moment I understood that for my parents, it must have been a very long walk away from their childhoods and the world they knew — a journey that would lead them through war and suffering and the birth of their beloved children. We were the flowering of their story. We were to become their hope fulfilled. It was merciful that they hadn’t lived to see their city attacked. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what they would have thought if they’d been alive, what wisdom they might have offered us.

A portrait photo shows two attractive and brave young people on their wedding day. Antoinette is twenty-three; Jimmy is twenty-seven. Their eyes are warm and full of trust as they gaze at what’s impossible to see, at everything that is just about to happen.

…More tomorrow.

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