I remember while I was growing up, my parents and other adults would tirelessly recount where they were and what they were doing the day John F. Kennedy was shot.
My mom was just a kid when it happened, but that didn’t lessen the impact of that day on her soul. She recalled how people were glued to their TV sets and radios, pausing in the streets and gathering in their living rooms to watch and listen. Adults wore pained expressions that puzzled their kids. Strangers embraced one another. Grown men shed tears. The Earth seemed to stop spinning on its axis, if only for a tiny moment.
I also remember listening to these tales and having very little emotional reaction to them. I didn’t really know who JFK was. I mean, I knew he was the president, but I had never known him in that role. To me, he was simply another middle-aged white guy filling the pages of my history textbook. It was sad that he had died so unfairly. That part I understood. But that complete strangers could be so affected by his untimely death baffled me.
Fast forward to September 11, 2001.
It was a Tuesday morning. Sunny but chilly. I was getting ready for an appointment with my academic advisor on campus. I was already going to be a super senior in college, and I needed to make sure I was on track for graduation before my internship. I was wearing a cream-colored GAP sweater (I still own it!) with a pair of Express jeans and camel-colored boots. I was in the midst of curling my long blonde hair when my roommate shouted upstairs that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
I stepped out of the bathroom and away from my curler to make sure I’d heard her correctly. “What?!”
I had heard her correctly. “Great. I have tickets to fly into NYC this weekend.” A friend from high school and I were going to visit my best friend who had recently accepted a job out East. We would never make that trip.
At that point, I was certain it was a fluke — a terrible mistake made at the hands of an incompetent or careless pilot.
I trekked the mile or so course to my advisor’s office on campus (that building has since been torn down), cursing myself for choosing fashion over comfort. When I entered the office, no one was there to greet me. I grew impatient. I had to be at work in 45 minutes, didn’t they know? Finally, someone came out of the back to check me in, chatting deliriously about the plane that had hit the building.
“I know about that. It happened over a half hour ago,” I mumbled, signing myself in and hoping my obvious irritation would usher this thing along.
“No, a second plane hit the other tower,” she said.
“Wh…what?” I asked.
I sat down, stunned, as she recited what I had obviously missed during my short journey from my rental house, but I hardly heard her. This was clearly not the careless mistake of an overtired airline employee.
I don’t remember what my advisor and I talked about. I don’t even remember if my advisor was a man or a woman. What I do remember is feeling numb. Uneasy. Confused.
I spent the rest of the day at work. Roommates and friends kept calling my cell phone (which I rarely used back then), wondering where I was, worried something had happened. We all thought the world was coming to an end and that it was only a matter of moments before something crashed into us. My phone had no reception in the basement of the building where I worked. It wasn’t until 5 o’clock when I met my mother and my brother at a nearby Chili’s for a dinner we had planned a week prior that I got in touch with anyone apart from my colleagues.
The place was packed. The hostess guided us to the bar area and threw our menus on a high top. And it was at that moment that I witnessed some of the most impressionable imagery of my life — the planes crashing into the buildings, the smoldering towers, the bodies falling from the sky to the ground below, the real-life nightmare playing out on a bar TV in a mid-priced chain restaurant and on a reel in my mind forever.
I sat in horror, my hands clasped over my mouth, hot tears defying my commands to stay where they belonged and scarring my otherwise unscathed soul.
This is the story I will passionately recount to my children — my John F. Kennedy memory. The story my husband and family and friends will recall from time to time as our children sit by, listening attentively, not quite comprehending how their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles could be so connected to and impacted by this far away event.
This is the story that will fill the pages of their history textbooks, each year fading further into the depths of yesterday until it is no more distinct than the other chapters littering the volume’s glossy interior.
This is the story that forever ended many lives and pained others for eternity. The story that united a nation’s citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic status or political affiliations. The story that bred more hatred and discrimination toward innocent people whom many perceived as the perpetrators — those who were and still are simply trying to better their own lives as Americans, too, their only crime being that they practice the same religion as or were born with the same skin color and physical characteristics as the true transgressors.
This is the story that shaped a generation, for better and for worse. The story that affected so many people. The story our children will listen to in living rooms and classrooms for years to come, never really comprehending its magnitude.
This is the story that, for those of us who lived through it, will forever mark a distinct before and after moment in our lives. This is the story that will always pain our souls.