A couple of years ago my husband and I visited friends in Montclair New Jersey. On a Saturday they took us to see the September 11 Memorial at Eagle Rock Reservation. There’s a cliff in the park on the side of a mountain and from there you can see the Manhattan skyline. It was there that one of our friends witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.
As we walked around the memorial and looked at the names of people who died engraved in the granite wall, our friends’ six-year-old son took his father’s hand and gazed up at him with a concerned look on his face. “Why is this here, Dad?” he asked,”did something happen?” Only then did it occur to me that the attacks took place before he was born. I remembered my parents telling me about events from World War II and how I could never quite get my young mind around them. I could get a good grade on a history test but how could I comprehend the emotions my parents felt witnessing those historical events? Words were not enough for me.
View of Lower Manhattan From Eagle Rock Reservation 1999
Memorial at Eagle Rock
There are many monuments commemorating the events of September 11, 2001. But why do we create monuments? A monument memorializes an important person or event. A monument is supposed to have meaning. A well executed monument gives us an emotional connection to the person or event it is intended to commemorate. We also make monuments from sites or locations that have meaning because of a natural or historical significance. That is why feelings swept over me that were so powerful they made my knees buckle when I walked across Dealy Plaza in Dallas. The Memorial at Eagle Rock was likely the start of a little boy’s emotional connection to the events his mother witnessed from that spot before he was born, because it spoke to him like words never could.
But monuments are not the only way we hold important people and events in our memories. Ordinary things can take on significance too. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is hosting an exhibit titled Excavating Ground Zero: Fragments from 9/11 that consists of 15 items salvaged from the site: a melted computer keyboard, eyeglasses, visitors passes; mundane objects that have achieved significance because of their connection to a tragic historical event. They give a human face to the events of that day because they are things that we all use and never think about. The objects in the exhibit could have belonged to any one of us. I had a friend who was chronically late, and as he made his way into Manhattan on the morning of September 11, he and thousands of other people were turned back at the George Washington Bridge. He had been on his way to a meeting in one of the twin towers. It might have been his glasses in the exhibit.
Another friend was working on the roof of a Washington, D.C. apartment building when he heard a loud noise. He turned to look and saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon.
These items belonged to a reporter who died covering the attack
2966 civilians including fire fighters, police, the passengers on Flight 93 plus 55 military personnel died on that day. It is estimated that at least 200 people died jumping from the twin towers. People unfortunate enough to have personally witnessed the horrible events of that day carry sounds and images with them the likes of which I pray I will never see or hear. That is my prayer for everyone. I know it will not be answered but I make it nonetheless.
People will continue to commemorate the events of that day for a long time to come. Commemoration can be a way of holding onto the past, of freezing a moment in time and trying to give some kind of meaning to events that seem senseless; it can be a way of trying to gain some illusion of control. We humans tend to want to fill in the blanks whether they are in optical illusions or in cruelly random events in our lives.
But keeping memories of the past alive is key to people understanding their history and themselves. This is so important. The hope is that by remembering, such things will not be repeated. This is a huge yet noble goal. There can be another result, however, that is so subtle you will never read it in the headlines: perhaps memorializing those events will help us to become better people. Maybe. If you can’t change the world, you can tend your own garden. That counts too.
Here are some links to art inspired by the events of September 11, 2011. There is much more out there and more waiting to be created.
Charting Ground Zero: Ten Years After (Scientific Exhibit)
Rescue Me (Television Show)