Fifteen Years Ago

Flannery was in 8th grade.

Lucy was in fifth grade.

Norah wore fairy wings and was not quite three.

My sister called me to turn on the television and I said, “Which channel?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m fine though. I am calling to tell you I’m fine. But turn it on.”

And I remember her saying somebody had blown up the World Trade Center.

The kids hadn’t left for school yet.

I saw one plane fly into a tower over and over.

The car pool was coming. I needed to tell Flannery. Lucy was eating her breakfast when Keely called so she knew. I had explained it to her. I think. I don’t remember. She remembers Keely’s call. The night before I had taken Lucy to a Loretta Lynn concert in Orange County. I remember thinking I was glad we’d done something silly and normal and kind of weird – Loretta Lynn in Orange County.

Was Loretta now up and watching the towers fall?

I remember going downstairs to tell Flannery and not being able to find the words.

He said, “What Mom? I gotta go. I gotta go to school.” He leapt around all elastic elbows and knees at fourteen.

The carpool was coming.

I told him I loved him and that there had been a terrorist attack and that he would hear about it at school.

“Okay, okay, it’s okay, Mom.”

He went to school, Lucy went to school – I think the carpool picked them both up that morning. Off they went. Kiffen went to school.

Then I drove Norah to Eagle Rock Montessori.

Stick to the routine? Was I thinking that?

A few parents were already there at the preschool. We sat with the teachers, Ute and Inge. It felt like sadness and cement and breathless grief, but the kids ran around playing. I sat with Ute and Inge, relieved to be sitting with them.

They were matter-of-fact, especially Ute.

I can’t remember what they said.

It was a gloomy September day – I don’t remember the sun shining at all.

Overcast in California.

I went home. Did I write? I was trying to ghost-write a difficult memoir for Chastity Bono’s girlfriend who was a Kardashian although the only famous Kardashian back then was OJ’s lawyer. I think she was his cousin. (Chastity was still Chastity at the time, not Chaz.)

I also had a few pages of a mountain family in Maggie Valley. Every time I worked on that story, it was like I was breathing wild flowers compared to the futile darkness of pseudo-celebrity ghost-writing.

That same fall I began teaching writing fiction at UCLA Extension. I didn’t know how I would teach them anything – what did I have to say in the wake of such tragedy and what did writing matter?

I wondered how anything I wrote in the future would not have 9/11 in it. How could it not?

But I was wrong. I did write other things, and I also wrote a 9/11 play called “Chattanooga Flamenco.” Flannery and Lucy were characters/actors in it. We only had a few readings but they went well and there was talk of a production with Theatre Neo and Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Then Flannery went to high school, Lucy to middle school, Norah to elementary school. I focused on the mountain family novel that became Gentle’s Holler and the Maggie Valley books.

I called my father after 9/11 and he yelled, “Just because Osama Bin Laden rides a camel doesn’t mean I have to.” I didn’t know what he meant exactly, but it became the first line of “Chattanooga Flamenco.”

We used to eat dinner together every night as a family. We would hold hands and sing “Amen.” It went like this: “Amen, in the garden, Amen, in the steeple, Amen in the fields, Amen, Amen, Amen – sing it over. Amen, for Flannery and Lucy, Amen, for little Norah, Amen, for all the people….Amen, Amen, Amen.”

It varied and we added different words. Sometimes, if it didn’t sound right, Norah made us start all over. Our neighbor, a carpenter, told Kiffen on the day he and his wife were moving away how much he liked hearing us sing as a family.

Once, we started to sing the Amen blessing visiting my parents as we’d done many times in the past, and my dad said, “Not tonight, folks. We’re doing the Catholic blessing tonight! Bless us oh Lord. Got it? We’re not singing Amen. What are we? A bunch of Baptists?”

Flannery came home from school on 9/11 and said his teachers were hugging and crying.

Lucy said her teacher let the students who wanted to stay in at recess and watch the television news and all the 9/11 coverage. Lucy said she went out to play. She didn’t want to watch it.

I picked Norah up and brought her home from school.

Did the sun come out? I can’t remember.

Did we dinner together as a family? I don’t know.

It felt like the world had changed forever.

I do remember over the next few weeks Kiffen holding me at night and telling me to write my stories and listen to Lucinda Williams and take walks and breathe. I remember a lot of kindness and tenderness from my husband.

I kept thinking of all the people who had made their planes that day – how it always seemed like a such a tragedy to miss your plan or connection, but the ones who’d been on time and prepared died and the ones who missed their connections lived. The world was turned upside down. I remember Harry Shearer (on his radio show) saying something like, “How does it feel to be part of history? Everybody always says they want to feel like a part of history. How does it feel now – to be part of history?”

I would like to think we sat down that night for dinner together as a family.

Maybe I made soup or Kiffen made stir-fry.

Maybe we sang “Amen.”

Maybe we just held hands.

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5 thoughts on “Fifteen Years Ago

  1. Here in England I recall watching it all unfold as I was getting ready to pick my daughter up from school. I was a postman, and had just caught up on my sleep with a couple of hours in the afternoon.
    On the mantelpiece was a postcard from a woman who I’d been best friends with from school. She’d sent it from New York, telling me she was going up one of the towers. After a few frantic calls I discovered her mother had heard from her-she was safe in L.A. She was going to travel to San Francisco until the planes had been grounded.
    It was the first shaking of my complacency in our long relationship and friendship. Today we are married, with children. I’ve seen the photographs she took from the top of one of those towers a couple of days before it collapsed.


  2. Amen for Kerry, Amen for her family, Amen for this memory, amen, amen. I always mean to tell you how your writing touches the sad places in me, and somehow mends some of the hurt, but my good intentions have given me the best paved road to Hell you can imagine! I’ve only read your FB posts and your blog, but look forward to reading some of your books, too. Thank you. Judith Dancy >


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