Ten years ago, each time I watched the looping footage of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, my heart sank afresh with them.
Not only because of the horror I felt over the many lives lost. I was also feeling melancholia about the actual towers. And yet, initially, it seemed peculiar to mourn the loss of steel.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I opened a scrapbook and located a snapshot of my parents on a winter day in 1969.
In the background is the trade center being built, about as tall as it stood right after the attack. Studying it, I realized that what I was feeling was nostalgia rather than melancholia. It wasn’t about towers but about the lives of families like mine which had grown up with, and in them.
For as long as I’ve been conscious of my father, he was working on, or at, the World Trade Center. A Port Authority architect, he was personally involved with the trade center as early as 1965, recruiting potential tenants, creating and configuring space for them, then working with other architects and engineers to plan Windows on the World. I knew it simply as his ”work.”
Our family had been anticipating the trade center since that day in 1969 when my father took us to a reception where a model of the towers was unveiled. Even my three younger brothers stopped running around long enough to cluster around in wonder at the model.
Two years later came a ”preview” of the finished towers, at a Sunday brunch. Typically, my father included us all, and we were put into jackets and ties, as if it were Easter. I had some idea that ”famous people” might be there and, in eager search of them, purposefully lost my parents and rode the elevator up and down alone and promenaded over the lobby’s purple carpet. None of the guards questioned me, and I thought myself secretly matured. I was 11. I was still immature enough, however, to shortly thereafter swipe more than a few of the official dedication programs and informational booklets, filled with drawings of the building of the World Trade Center. Ever the historic memorabilia keeper, I’ve since learned these are impossibly rare.
On Mother’s Day 1976, our family first dined at Windows on the World. It had opened weeks earlier, and the staff doted on us because they knew our father. Windows was our special restaurant, where we took visitors and celebrated moments like the 1998 wedding of my brother. The great moment to a Windows dinner, at least for me, was permission to survey the dessert table, resplendent with every color and texture and shape of sugar. Inevitably, however, my draw to the lemon tart with what were still the thinnest-cut lemon slices I’ve ever seen was too strong. So began my lifelong dessert love of all things lemon.
Unlike the observation deck (where you were set back from the edge), you could press your nose against the window and let your stare plummet to the street. I preferred cloudy days, when the restaurant was like a dreamland, the windows snugly insulating us up in the air. I got my first college summer job there, a short stint as a busboy.
As an avid history student, I was angry that my father wouldn’t take us to Philadelphia on July 4, 1976. Instead, he arranged to bring us up to one of the top floors to watch Op Sail, the parade of international ships through New York Harbor. There was fear that the ship’s cannons might blow out the windows, but we crammed into those tall, thin windowsills to watch. Although the ships were just little dots, I would have regretted missing it all. And again, the larger history of the moment had a personal turning point involved. Many of my pictures that day show my 11-month-old sister seated in a windowsill, gesturing to be brought down so she could repeatedly try this new trick she’d learned – walking.
My father easily lured me from Washington to New York on July 4, 1986, to attend the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration at the trade center. On the observation deck I found myself comforting my mother after an upsetting incident as we looked down on Battery Park. Only later did it hit me that that I had spoken to her as an equal.
Several years earlier, on a bright winter Sunday afternoon, I had my first experience in taking in that incredible, overwhelming view of Manhattan, Staten Island, New Jersey, Long Island, the East River, the Hudson River, the Brooklyn Bridge. My father took color photos of every view; they still seem to capture a sunny but bitter cold winter Sunday just before the sun sets.
Both of my grandmothers had joined us that Sunday. Usually both easily indulged us in conversation about memories of their earlier lives. One grandmother loved sharing with me colorful stories about New York life in the Teens and Twenties.This time, however, I noticed how intently she gazed at the shining, magnificent engineering atop the other tower. She didn’t seem to want to talk, just to look and think. Now, I think how astounding the experience must have been to see not only how much the New York of her youth had transformed, let alone seeing it from so high above.
Later, gazing at Ellis Island with my other grandmother, I questioned her in detail for the first time about her feelings about coming to the United States, about seeing her father again after several years. It had all been so, so long ago, when she was young. She shrugged and piped up as she turned away to look out again, at the sea beyond, ”It’s best in America.”
As late as 1993, I’d never even briefly considered my father’s mortality. That year, when I learned of the trade center bombing, I suddenly feared for his life. Years earlier, he’d told us how the trade center could never topple. We believed everything my father said. After the bombing, he reaffirmed that the trade center wouldn’t fall — between his descriptions of smoke inhalation. Even after I found a stack of photographs he took, and asked about the ghoulish images of trade center workers on stretchers, he chuckled. Oh, it was a mock disaster staged back in 1978.
My last time at the trade center was in 1997, four years before its destruction; the occasion marked the first time my brothers and sister and I had organized an event together as adults, a surprise dinner for our parents’ anniversary. For the first time we all picked up the tab for them.
I now live in Los Angeles, while one of my brothers lives in Melbourne. He and his family had been scheduled to fly out from Australia to visit my parents in New York on September 11, 2001. There may have been one more family outing to Windows, my young niece marking the fourth generation of our family to experience the trade center. Of course, their plane never left Melbourne.
In the days and weeks after the 9/11 attack my father remembered so many of his co-workers from his many years at the trade center, one after the other. So many died. What a horror. He kept his thoughts largely to himself, but he did remark on several occasions, ”There are certain places, on the high spots of Northern Boulevard, where one could always see the towers. I’ve trained myself to avoid looking at the horizon entirely.”
My family lost only a place of memories; many others lost the person who created memories for them. It is often said that some good can come from tragedy. In this case, it is hard to see that. Yet somehow, as I think back to what I realized in the time period after 9/11, my father came to stand as tall as the towers once did.