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I'm too young to remember 9/11
In my family, I’m the cutoff point between those who remember 9/11 and those who don’t.
In September of 2001, I was about to turn 4. Apparently that’s too young to remember whatever was being said on the radio in static white men’s voices. Too young to remember disquiet or unease, too young to remember at least that something was wrong even if I didn’t know what it was.
My two older brothers, who were 5 and 6, have said they knew something bad had happened. Clarity about what came later. They have vague memories of hearing about the plane crash and the people who died and the radio playing all day with whatever news there was.
I don’t have any of that. We didn’t have TV in the house growing up, so the imagery of two smoking towers came to me years later and without a timestamp. They arrived in the same context as pictures from WW2 or the Civil War, a glossy GettyImages photo with a hefty caption, something that screamed HISTORY but didn’t scream EXTREMELY RECENT, JUST ASK YOUR MOM.
It took years for it to dawn on me that 9/11 happened while I was alive, just on the other side of the borders of childhood memory.
During undergrad, my nonfiction class read “Leap,” a short essay by Brian Doyle. Only after we started discussing the text as a group did I realize what I had taken as a surreal exploration of some wild dream (nonfiction is a wild and wooly genre) was actually an attempt to remember the jarring reality of burning towers and people jumping knowing they wouldn’t survive. My fellow students were all in their early 20’s, but you could draw a line through the room, dividing us into those who did remember and those who did not.
If I have a defining 9/11 memory, that would be it. Brick classroom, three in the afternoon, listening to a person just my age recounting a day that doesn’t exist in my head. Being one of three people in a room of seven, the first of the ones who learned about 9/11 on other days of the year.
It’s a little surreal to exist on the outside of a national memory. Even more so when you can do the math and say “I was alive and breathing in the world when this happened, but I do not remember it.” I’ve heard people talk about time as “before” and “after” a major event. I have no such divide. I feel like I’ve always known, in the same way I’ve “always known” about World War II and the Civil War. The information came to me gradually, naturally, handed down through history books and context clues, through pictures in the Beginner’s Dictionary, through “We Remember” slogans every year two weeks before my birthday.
I don’t remember 9/11 happening, but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know it had. I don’t think we get to remember who we were before we heard abstracted accounts of the worst things people can do to each other.
Learning about 9/11 from the vantage point of not knowing gives a different color to a national tragedy. Like how in the U.S., there’s only this one defining moment we talk about when we think about national terrorism, but in other countries every generation has their own. And how on the “We Remember” days we acknowledge heroes, but we never have “We Need To Atone For Our Actions” days to acknowledge and apologize for the Islamophobia and racism that followed.
In the days immediately before and after Sept. 11, I frequently overhear people talk about how people helped each other, how affiliations didn’t matter, how we were great and good. (I'm treating "overhear" very flexibly to also refer to what people share on social media). I'm starting to wonder if they're remembering the same event I've read about. Is the flaw their memory? Or my lack thereof? Personal experience is one type of reality, but I'm mostly going off everyone else's and they don't always line up.
Maybe it helps that I’m not living with aftershock of being jarred out of whatever world existed before 9/11. I have no particular, personal grief attached to this day. Maybe not remembering leaves more room for clarity and the complications of context. Photos and firsthand accounts provide secondhand feelings and conflicting narratives. Where older people have memories of 9/11 I’ve got a mixed bag of what I’ve gleaned in 19 years.
Like how people were united—except when they weren’t. Like how people looked out for each other—except for the people they decided didn’t belong. Like how memory is quick to jump to absolutes because they’re easier. Like how some people lost loved ones when the towers exploded and some people lost loved ones in the days and weeks and months and years that followed.
Last Friday night, we were all remembering a little differently. Especially the people like me, with our secondhand knowledge acquired in all the days since memory kicked in somewhere after 9/11 became an event instead of a Tuesday. Maybe this is what makes me a little more angry, a little less sad every time this day comes around. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were on the side of the classroom with the people who remember instead of the ones who don’t, but that seems unlikely.
Mostly I try to remember there was good with the ugly and neither one is more important than the other. That you can grieve and grow at the same time. That you can’t forget the respect the living when you honor the dead. That you can hold multiple conflicting things to be true at once. And that if that’s difficult, that’s because it’s supposed to be.