Where were you?

Sunday, September 11, 2011
One World Trade Center construction (April 2010)
If you're looking for a reprieve from the endless 9/11 remembrances this isn't the place for you. Today I'm posting a piece I wrote in a college writing class about what happened in my life on September 11, 2001. This isn't gripping stuff. I was just a homeschooled jungle freak a thousand miles removed from the events. Like most people shocked and horrified by 9/11, I was a nobody who suffered no personal loss.

But it's funny how we hold onto our memories of that day. In fact, the reason writing about September 11 was even assigned was because it was our only common experience as classmates and Millennials.   Reading through the piece below, I'm surprised by how much my writing has improved detail I remembered about the day at one point (this was written in September 2005) that I can't recall now.  As we all said in the days immediately following the event: we remember and we will never forget. Where were you for September 11? 

The News Everyone Knew

September 11, 2001 was the first time our town’s local community radio station had breaking news to report since last election. As usual, I missed it. In my sixteen-year-old mind, the fact that my parents had been homeschooling me since fourth grade was the root of all my ignorance.

While my peers sat in home rooms during the second week of school, I spent the grey early morning of September 11 in the cramped family-owned grocery store of Johnson’s Foods, completing the week’s shopping with my mother. My textbooks for my junior year of high school had yet to arrive and until they did, my life was little more than an extended summer vacation. I had decided I was going to win the national Pillsbury Bake-Off that fall and as I picked a package of Pillsbury pie crusts from the orange-paneled dairy case, I pondered how I’d spend the day concocting a prizewinning recipe.

My dreams of winning millions dissipated somewhat as my mother and I hauled our mounded shopping cart into the checkout aisle. The owner of the store muttered something about his wife’s flight home from California where she’d been visiting a new grandbaby being delayed “until they get this all figured out.” The cashier nodded knowingly as she began to pack our sea of produce, canned goods, and dairy into the cloth bags we always brought on these excursions. My mom and I exchanged glances, eyebrows arched.

The radio remained silent as we drove the five minutes home. But as Mom backed the car into the driveway, my father appeared at the doorway, his slippered feet padding across the deck to the still dewy grass. “There was an explosion at the World Trade Center,” he said simply, although his voice held a nervous agitation I’d last heard when he’d had an allergic reaction to a bee sting.

Entering our kitchen was like entering a cavern. My father’s newspaper and breakfast were spread across the kitchen table. In the name of conserving energy, Dad liked to turn off the overhead kitchen light as soon as he got home from his morning run, even though the avocado carpeting and powdery blue vinyl walls my mother so badly wanted replaced, as well as the cloudy weather, stifled any natural light in the room. In the background, the radio lilted, local announcers Nick and Kent murmuring about New York City, the World Trade Center, and airplanes. “It’s just a little car bomb,” my mind canted over and over of the explosion, trying to make the news seem minuscule, almost routine. I pulled the groceries out of their bags, setting the refrigerated items on the floor by the fridge, tucking everything else safely in cupboards.

My household has never contained a television. A local radio station, pulling its headline news from Internet reports, can convey only so much about a situation, especially to the passive teenage listener. But by the time the groceries were finished with, one thing was clear to me. This was no car bomb. This was something horrible.

Upstairs, my younger brother remained fast asleep and outside the sun tried its best to come out, casting hazy shadows across our living room carpet. My parents huddled around the computer, while I sat to the side, rubbing the tummy of our puppy. When the dial-up finally connected, the computer screen showed an image reminiscent of a horror film. The stark greyness of a tower of the World Trade Center stood against a grey cloud sky while a silver plane, dwarfed by the size of the tower, flew straight toward the building. It reminded me of the plane King Kong nabs out of the air when he’s perched atop the Empire State Building. But there was no King Kong to grab this plane out of the air in mid-flight this time. Instead, two jet planes had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, a third flying into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a final one crashing in the fields of Pennsylvania.

I stopped petting my dog. The soft breeze outside that had been rousing the first musty smells and colored leaves of autumn seemed to snuff itself out. I could no longer hear the traffic from the highway that ran just feet away from our living room. My awareness reduced itself to a rushing in my ears and the nauseating thought that all the people on the planes and most of the people in the buildings were dead before I’d even known anything was wrong.

I didn’t know what to do, so I trundled upstairs to my room, my footsteps falling so softly on the stairs, I barely knew I was moving. I buried my face in a pile of clothes and thought the tightness in my chest might mean I needed to cry, but I did not. I flopped onto the bed I’d neatly made earlier in the morning, turned on the radio, and pulled out my journal, a black spiral-bound notebook I’d started only the week before. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” I wrote, knowing it was cliche, but also understanding that the morning’s event would shape much of my life as a young adult.

Through my headphones, the developing news from New York piped in my bedroom. In the kitchen, the radio set on top of the fridge sent the voice of reporter who always had something to say throughout the house to fill the silence of everyone else left speechless. My dad went to work, my mother puttered around in the garden, and my brother eventually woke up. I sat in the kitchen, peeling apples to keep my hands busy, while the news unfolded of towers collapsing, terrorists, and children not knowing where their parents were.

I have only been to New York City for one day of my life. I remember sailing on the Staten Island ferry and turning into the autumn breeze to catch a glimpse of Manhattan’s skyline rising from the island, its reflection held in the rippling water of the Atlantic. The bleating horns of taxi drivers, the scramble of pedestrians that made up the interior of the city disappeared in that tranquil view. In my ten-year-old heart, I thought the sleek silver skyline of New York was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I had always felt a deep connection with the city since that day and as I jumped from radio broadcast to Internet updates, it felt a bit like my heart was on fire. I gnawed on a piece of toast with honey, hoping it would calm my somersaulting stomach. My New York was in ashes, people were in pain, and I could do nothing.

My best friend called when school was out. She wanted to make sure I knew what was going on since my family lacked a television. Oh yes, I knew.

The sun came out in the early afternoon. I had soccer practice in the evening and I pulled on my USA Hockey t-shirt along with my shorts and cleats. I felt it was a sign we were all in this tragedy together, no matter how far away we were. As we stretched on the green grass of the baseball field outfield we practiced on, we exchanged what we knew about the morning’s events. But somehow there were still sprints to be run at practice, scrimmages to be played. I did my best pirouette in front of the goal, just to make everyone laugh. Twelve hours earlier, buildings had been crumbling, but soccer practice reeked of normality.

My mom had baked cookies, double-chocolate cherry, my favorite, and they sat on the cooling rack, still warm and perfect when I arrived home from practice. I ate a couple before supper, then a few after, wondering if this qualified as stress eating. Darkness was falling in the bluish way it always does in early September and my mom turned the light on in the kitchen so it glowed in a warm yellow tinge. My family would all be under the same roof that night. My community was safe. But there was a nagging thought that a thousand miles away, on the East Coast of my country, this calmness and security was not shared.

Big news was hard pressed to find a way into my life when I was sixteen. But on September 11, my family’s detachment with the media, which had formed such a successful barrier to reality, no longer existed. The lives of people far, far away from me were shattered and even I could feel their hurt.


  1. Thousands of miles away. Yet so very close. I postedmy view.

  2. It was a day equally personal for everyone. I enjoyed (as one can enjoy the topic of such things.) your perspective because it was so different from the typical city points of view...

  3. Ada this was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your story. Yesterday I was reading all the 9-11 blogs and watching the t.v. shows. It helps us all to feel connected again when we talk about it.

    Just wanted to point this out, as I loved how you said this. It is is poignant and true:

    "Through my headphones, the developing news from New York piped in my bedroom. In the kitchen, the radio set on top of the fridge sent the voice of reporter who always had something to say throughout the house to fill the silence of everyone else left speechless."

  4. Oops, sorry about the link right in the middle there! I didn't mean to do that.

  5. Wow that was beautiful Ada! I am impressed with all the detail you remember. I think you wrote a great story that you'll be able to share and spread awareness for many years to come.


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