Talk About Memory

I’ve posted before about the events of 9/11/2001, my experience(s) of it, and how my undergraduate studies emphasized another 11 September, in 1973 in Chile.

It seems every year when this day rolls around I’m in a situation with new people and we all share the “where were you stories.” It’s a ritual, a bonding experience, and a conversational opening into topics like politics, college life, or the expression of shared memory. In some ways, reciting my experience of the events of that sunny Tuesday morning in September is as calming as any liturgy or mantra. (( On a side note, the fact that 9/11 is again a Tuesday, and sunny, is more commemorative for me than last year’s 10th anniversary. )) Sharing memories, the individual facets of a collective experience, isn’t new, nor do I expect that we’ll stop doing it in time.

A friend of mine who is a very talented historical research focused on genealogy posted today about her 9/11/01 memories, and I want to share a part of that post:

“The December after the attacks I sat at a Holiday Dinner with my mother’s family.  With us was the last few members of my grandmother’s generation.  My Great-aunt Bertie told us about Pearl Harbor.  She could remember exaclty where she was, what was playing on the radio, and what happened that day in December 1941.  She told us that this was our Pearl Harbor.  This event would define us as people and as a nation.”

11 November 1918. 7 December 1941. November 1989. 11 September 2001. Dates that generations and populations remember and commemorate in their own ways.

What you save

I declared my undergraduate major in History on the first day of classes of my sophomore year of college, September 2001.

A handful of days later, what might have been an ordinary Tuesday became a historic event. I knew it was going to be what children in the next generation would ask me about, saying “Do you remember” and “Where were you?”

A few months ago, in preparation for a move from Charlottesville, where I was working as a historian, to Northern Virginia, where I am now again a history student, I went through the box of papers I’d saved from college. In the box was a letter-sized plastic envelope with documentation about the immediate aftermath of that September.

Until I came across it, I’d forgotten completely about collecting these things. It made sense then, as now, to try and gather an archive of my experience, of the experience of my college friends and community. The envelope has a copy of the student newspaper and the daily broadside from campus, the cover of a New Yorker magazine, emails and a poem I wrote, and some other items. I remembered selecting things to save, making sure to get copies of things, even though I knew that the college library was probably doing the same thing. It didn’t matter if they were. I was saving these not for the next year, or even 10 years out, but 30 or 40.

I looked over everything carefully, then put it all back in the plastic envelope and promised myself I’d get archival storage once I finished moving.

11 September

This day had a huge impact on my undergraduate life.

2001 was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, in New York State, only about 2 hours by train from New York City. My parents and sister were in northern Virginia. When I finally understood the scale of what had happened, I knew it was going to be one of those events my children would ask me about, decades in the future.

This date, 11 September, was also the basis of my undergraduate thesis. 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean tradition of democracy was dealt a blow from which it took seventeen years (or more) to recover.  I wrote about the coverage of the coup by US newspapers; partly because my Spanish is limited to what most Americans pick up, and partly because the events of the two intervening years had made me curious about how openly critical newspapers had been of our own government in the past.

(In January 2003 my mother and I attended a celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attended by people from all religions and backgrounds. Following the service we walked down Massachusetts Avenue, intending to gather in a prayerful vigil for peace in Lafayette Square – but due to “security concerns” the police stood on horseback, preventing this crowd celebrating nonviolent protest from getting too close to the White House. Later that year, friends at William and Mary who were also studying in the UK were told that they would lose all credits and might be expelled if they joined in anti-war protests in Britain).

I spent the fall of my senior year of college reading book after book on the coup in 1973, the imprisonment of thousands in the National Stadium, the torture and killings – and all this in a nation which had been very proud of its democratic process. It was disturbing reading, and I only got through it because of the breaks imposed by college life, and by self-imposed breaks with a box of 96 Crayola crayons and a coloring book. Still, I’m glad  that I know about that tragedy in the history of a nation not my own.

September 11 is a day, for me, to remember the power of democracy, the importance of human rights, and that the power of fear and anger and hatred can be overcome.