In the scheme of things, the effect of 9/11 on my kids was small.
One family member, who was working in one of the towers, was late for work that day. She watched the attacks from the Staten Island ferry. A friend who was working with us to run a bike event upstate the following weekend was forced from his lower Manhattan apartment and unreachable for several days. The bike event itself was cancelled, of course; even had our friend been able to let us know he was OK, many of the event participants couldn’t fly in, or were called to active duty. But really, for my immediate family, it was something experienced from afar.
But still. We had always meant to take the kids to see the World Trade Center. My five-year-old had developed an interest in tall buildings. He loved to build skyscrapers with his wooden blocks, and could identify several New York landmarks — the Flatiron building, the Chrysler Building. Like a good GeekMom, I tried to encourage the positive aspects of my kids’ obsessions. So we admired his wooden cities and tried to arrange visits to New York whenever we could manage.
On Christmas Day, 1999, we took the kids into Manhattan to see the Empire State Building. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least. First there was the metal detector — at the time, a rarity for a family destination. Then of course the tiny elevator, and the many flights of stairs we had to climb to the top. But the thing that really set me on edge was the constant drum of warnings in my head that a terrorist attack was planned for mid-town Manhattan to coincide with the Millennium, just days away. However, our son was ecstatic at finally getting to go to the top of one of his favorite tall buildings. We looked down the length of the island towards the Twin Towers at the water’s edge, and promised him we’d get there next year.
We didn’t get to Manhattan the following year, but no matter, there was no rush. On the morning of 9/11, I was getting my sons ready for a field trip to a local nature center. My sister called to tell me to turn on the TV: a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I called the boys over to see, thinking not of the earlier car bombing of the Twin Towers (although the following year, when the kids were too little to appreciate it, we stayed in the hotel there with more than a little trepidation), but of the small plane that had long ago hit the Empire State Building.
I was watching the footage and puzzling over the fact that the plane appeared to be a commercial jet as the second plane hit the second tower. At that point, there was no doubt in my mind: our country was under attack. I kept the set on, glued to the screen, and saw the towers fall. Then — feeling like it might be the last normal thing I ever did — I packed up the kids, picked up a friend and her son, and drove us all to the nature center.
As we will all remember forever, it was a gorgeous day, a little cool and crystal clear. We moms talked and worried and speculated. And in the days the followed, as events continued to unfold, I watched the news obsessively. My husband eventually had to ask me to turn it off when the kids and he were within sight of the TV. Never did it occur to me what the images might be doing to my children — I was too focused on finding out what was going on.
Every week, I took the kids to an art program, where they could draw whatever they wanted. As always, my younger son would draw tall buildings. But now, there was something extra in every picture: a plane barreling in from the side.
I got the message, and pronto. No more scary news reports when the kids were in the room. And sadly for my son, I suggested we put away the blocks, and encouraged him to find other things to play with. Although looking back, I think he was glad we steered him away from his interest in buildings.
There is a coda: On Thanksgiving Day 2001, before going to visit the in-laws for dinner, we took the train into Manhattan and headed uptown for the Macy’s Day Parade. The police presence was again unnerving. But when the city’s float came into view, with Rudy Giuliani — never my favorite politician — at the helm, my heart swelled. I was so glad that I was still able to share New York City with my kids. And hopefully, more aware of what it takes to be a good mother in times of crisis.