The third runner-up in the prose section of our Holiday Blog Contest is Wendi Berry from Richmond, VA. Thank you, Wendi!
Christmas at Ground Zero, 2001
I was visiting New York for my annual Christmas visit and my sister had asked me to help with dinner. “Will you stir the risotto for a while?” she asked after I had helped her shop and watch the kids. She was off somewhere folding towels and putting away laundry and all I could think was “Yes, but I want to see Ground Zero.”
My brother-in-law must have seen my head and neck swivel looking out the window in the direction of where the attacks had happened as I stirred risotto with a thick wooden spoon and felt the steam rise to my face. “Go check it out,” he said putting down his drink and paper.
“Are you sure?” I asked guiltily to a person who no longer worked in the building right across the street from the World Trade Center since his office had been temporarily relocated to New Jersey. On that fateful day when the towers were hit my sister had called and screamed on his office phone “Get your ass out the door, NOW!” she yelled, moments before the towers came down. He had to run for his life to escape.
He and my sister lived 15 blocks from the large gaping hole that apparently took up two whole city blocks. Two whole city blocks in New York is a lot. I needed to see for myself, that this was not just a loop of horrific images on TV that I had been watching every night on the late-night news before going to sleep. I set the burner on low and my brother in law switched places with me.
“What are you doing?” I heard my sister say to him, after I’d already snuck down the hall and pulled on my boots and coat, not bothering to affix the hood to my coat until I was outside.
The air was brisk and I had not gone but two blocks when I began to see the makeshift museums. Places usually reserved for retail stores or galleries had photos lining the walls and images were strung from the ceiling that people had taken the day of the attacks. Another glassed in store had videos taken by people and the film was being shown in a continuous loop. People seemed to be giving interviews to someone with a mic who was recording their testimonies. I was curious and wanted to stop, but I told myself that it was more important to get to the site.
This year there’d been no snow yet during my annual visit to New York, but there was something else, a grayish white soot covering everything. I’d gone about ten blocks when I began to notice the ash. Stores that still had merchandise with “clearance” signs were covered in it. There were no customers inside these stores. Neatly stacked rows of striped sweaters were steeped inches deep in the thick dust. The fine gray film covered walls, guard rails, abandoned shoes, fastfood wrappers. I breathed in the smell that reminded me of a damp basement or a fire after my father had doused the cinders with water.
I stopped and stared at a Burger King wrapper clothed in dust. There was no escaping the gray flyaway matter that looked like morbid snow. As I got closer I saw the Xeroxed flyers of people’s photos stapled to makeshift bulletin boards. The gaping prints of loved ones faces were foggy and the images were smudged from rain. All these faces would not be joining their loved ones for Christmas and as it began to rain, their hopeful looking reproduced faces—I know this sounds hokie, but this is what I thought—their pictures cried tears. I couldn’t get over the ash. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it was—people, planes, an office building now coating the ground. It made me think of Auschwitz. That was the only name of a concentration camp I could remember from my history books and I remember reading about the ash in the sky and how it coated everything after people were burned. This was the same kind of ash, the ash of cremation. People, real people, not animals as we would like to paint them to be, had planned this and intentionally flown planes into the buildings in an act of brotherly hate and this was supposed to be the holidays where brotherly love was celebrated. How did brotherly love come into play in the Christmas of 2001 I ask myself now. Seven years ago, all I could do was gape at the evidence.
I was only supposed to be gone for a while, but on my way back I went ahead and stopped at one of the makeshift memorial museums in SoHo on Prince Street with the photos hanging from clothes lines from the ceiling. Back in the Durham, North Carolina, I had been doing a little bit of writing for the local paper about people’s reactions to September 11, and my curiosity had taken hold of me. At least that was my excuse anyway. A sign inside said that anyone could submit. If a person had a camera and took a picture of the events of September 11, their photos would find a place in the exhibit. The name of the exhibit was “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.”
The photo I couldn’t stop staring at on a wall was a woman who was so thin in her red shirt and her black shirt, she looked like all she ever did was work and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and maybe once in a while have a salad. This emaciated looking woman had blood running down the side of her face and down and her arms and legs and there were several people holding her trying to make sure she was okay but her dazed looked suggested that she was in shock. She was not looking at any of the people or hands in the blue latex gloves holding her, unaware that she was receiving help. That was the photo that gave me the most unease. The people jumping out of the buildings I thought looked like birds. I thought if I had been one of them, I would have jumped too, and then it hit me, What I am doing? I should be back at my sister’s. My mom and dad were there as well as my 5 and 7-year-old nieces, my 2-year-old nephew. Instead I was here in a temporary museum thinking about missing people and their families. What would their holiday meals be like? Who would cook the dinners? Would they be able to the taste the meal after surviving September 11? Or would they only smoke cigarettes and think about blue gloves and ash. Only 12 weeks ago this had happened.
For the past two Christmases, my sister had made an exotic mushroom risotto that had to be stirred, and stirred. The color didn’t quite match the dust on the walls and the streets but it was close. I told myself I should not have gone to the Democracy of Photographs exhibit, that Christmas was for family, and I should have been helping out. I pressed the small button next to her apartment number and was buzzed in. I took the elevator to the 6th floor, feeling that I had wronged my sister, had turned an hour into three hours, and I had shirked my responsibility as the older sister, who never married and didn’t have children, who played around too much.
“Can I see you in the kitchen?” my sister asked, first thing as I walked in. “And leave your shoes. Don’t get the rug dirty.” I stomped my feet on the matt and removed the boots. I would be leaving the gray dust at the door, although I was sure I now carried it with me. September 11 was too huge to leave outside. I walked down the hall toward the food smells—my brother in law had made meatballs for spaghetti and they smelled good, although a cold, wet draft seemed to follow me into the kitchen. There were no walls and no place to hide in my sister’s loft. Everyone would hear when my sister chided, Where have you been? I needed your help and you were not here.
But she said nothing of the sort. She held out a glass pan and said, “You’re making the green bean casserole.”
“I can do that,” I said, relieved, thinking maybe I had gotten away with something, like the Kate Chopin story, “The Storm.” I thought the moment had passed, and my guilt had gone after gawking at photos of victims. No one from New York, I assumed, needed a reminder of their new museum, so I didn’t talk about it. The polenta, I saw, was already on the table steaming beneath its glass covering. I was reading the directions on the back of the French’s French Fried Onions can when my mother, eager to show she was still viable in her mid 60s, reached for the pan and took it out of my hands. “You’re doing it wrong,” she said.
That’s when the emotions hit me. I rushed down the hall to my nieces’ room, and I shut the door. I cried not for the families of September of 11, but for myself because I didn’t how I was supposed to do this. How was I supposed be to a part of a family that seemed so serious about making this dinner that it wasn’t even fun. I am a curious person—I’m free, single, independent. When I come to New York, I want at least a few hours of satisfying that curiosity—if no one else has time to join in, it may be necessary for me to leave and go off by myself at the risk of not pleasing people. I began to wonder, what is family? What is responsibility? Is it a perfect meal when people are angry and in tears, namely me? And how bad of an aunt was I for never planning to have a large house and be married and inviting people over to dinner? I bet the people who lost relatives, fireman, policeman, and other rescue workers, to September 11 wouldn’t worry about such blather. More than ever I wanted to be grateful for just having a family and some place to go, but instead I felt misunderstood. My niece was the one who convinced me to come sit at the dinner table.
“You’re playing, right?” she stood inside the bedroom door, tilting her head.
“No, I’m upset. I’m tired of your mother and my mother thinking they can just boss me around. I don’t like it,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “Are you coming?”
“Give me a few minutes, and I’ll be there.”
By the time I was able to wash my face and stop blowing my nose, the casserole was cold. But I had forgotten about the ash temporarily and found myself smiling at my seven-year-old niece’s flushed and happy face, who asked, “When do we get dessert?”