Looking back at August-September 2001 brings to mind the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The two weeks prior to what we now just refer to as 9/11 contained some of the best times of my life, and then, of course, the worst of times on that one day and those immediately following.
August 30, 2001 was my fiftieth birthday. A big number that I didn’t feel ready for (it sounded so much older than forty-nine!), but I had the most wonderful multi-day celebration with my dearest family and friends around me because. . .
September 1, 2001 was my son Ben’s bar mitzvah. All of my family had converged on Sacramento for this event, many flying in from the East Coast. Several had arrived early to be here for my birthday as well.
On my birthday all of us adults went to an amazing restaurant in the Napa Valley called The French Laundry, leaving all the young cousins at home supervised by Molly’s nanny. It is exceedingly difficult to get a table at The French Laundry. In fact it is often named in lists of the top ten most difficult restaurant reservations to book in the world. It only takes reservations two months to the date beforehand, and it is so popular that all the tables are gone in minutes. So on June 30, I was on the phone at exactly 10 a.m. when the phone line opened. I went through a few busy signals and redials before I finally got connected, but luckily there was still a table available for August 30. This turned out to be one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life!
The next day was the bar mitzvah rehearsal in the morning and Shabbat services in the evening. In between there were trips to the airport to pick up even more relatives and friends, and just hanging out in our backyard swimming pool.
Saturday was the bar mitzvah. Ben chanted flawlessly and gave a rabbinical-quality speech analyzing his Torah portion. Everyone was mesmerized. We had a spectacular party afterwards, which I considered to be my fiftieth birthday party — Ben said that was all right with him, as long as he got all the presents!
On Sunday and Monday people gradually dispersed, flying to other parts of the country. Tuesday, which was the day after Labor Day, was the first day of school in our district, and for Molly, her first day of kindergarten. How momentous! The next week was full of lots of happy developments, since school is always so much fun at the beginning of the year, and I was vicariously enjoying middle school and high school with the older kids, as well as kindergarten. On Saturday we went to a fundraiser for John Garamendi, now a member of Congress, who was running for Insurance Commissioner at the time. Peter Yarrow was there, and I had a chance to talk with him and tell him how profoundly he had affected me with his song “The Great Mandala” in Chicago in 1968. He told me about a new project he was working on, and I was going to get involved, but then that all got lost as a result of what happened next.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, my husband and I were awakened by the telephone shortly before 7 a.m. Pacific time. It was my husband’s twin brother calling from England. “Turn on the television” was all he said. We turned on the television to find footage of the planes hitting the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was on all the networks, and it seemed like they were showing it over and over again. We were stunned, of course. And frightened. Was this going to be the end of the world? Was it part of some bigger plan that would include attacks in other parts of the country as well? Should we keep our children home from school? Not that they would necessarily be any safer at home, but at least we would all be together if we were going to die.
Ultimately we decided to send them all to school. Even if there were going to be other attacks, we figured they wouldn’t be in Sacramento, California. Possibly San Francisco, but more likely LA, if anywhere on the West Coast.
We told Sabrina and Ben what had happened. They knew something unusual was going on when they woke up and found us watching television, something that we never did. We knew their teachers would be talking about it at school, and we wanted to explain to them what we knew (which wasn’t much) before they went. With Molly, I don’t think we told her anything. How could a 5-year-old possibly comprehend what even the rest of us were having trouble with? She was in afternoon kindergarten, so I drove her to school at lunchtime, and sat with her and the other kids and the teacher while they ate lunch. The teacher told me she was not planning to discuss it with the class at all.
Beyond that, it is just a blur. Checking to make sure my New York relatives were okay. Being thankful that Ben’s bar mitzvah hadn’t been scheduled for two weeks later, when flying would have been almost impossible. Learning more details about the flights, the attackers, the victims. All so incomprehensible.
And then gradually, after a while, starting to feel normal again.
Talk about harshing your mellow! Your story reminds us that life is a swirl of unconnected yet intertwined events and moments. We are on this roller coaster till the end, with only those we love to help us through.
I love your title, too, which I’m afraid will now be my earworm for the day. Turnabout is fair play, I guess.
That old Skeeter Davis song has burrowed into my brain as well. I try to give you a new earworm every week.
It transports me straight back to 7th grade, slow-dancing at a party in Nan Halperin’s basement. I really admire your story titles. I bet it takes time and thought to come up with them.
You, indeed, had a wonderful week at the end of August/beginning of Sept, from 50th birthday celebration to son’s fantastic bar mitzvah celebration. Scoring a reservation at the French Laundry sounds out of this world, as well as all the other festivities surrounding those days, until the surreal ugliness and hatred came crashing in on 9/11. I love your Featured Photo. How wonderful that Molly, no longer 5 years old, can appreciate what took place that day.
Molly was the one who insisted on visiting the 9/11 Memorial when we were in New York that year. She was 18, and wanted to learn more about an event that she couldn’t even remember. She had a fancy new Nikon camera that she had just gotten for her birthday, and wanted to record everything. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the photographer.
Many of us have vivid recollections of that day, the vertical frontal wall that time becomes before cataclysm. You captured yours with great emotion and clarity. Thanks!
Suzy, you’ve so beautifully captured the excitement of those days before the attack, what a wonderful time in your life. It’s heartening that you’ve been able to hold on to them with such affection, otherwise the terrorists win!
Suzy, you really beautifully put in perspective the contrasting events and concomitant emotions of that time with your family. Bravo!
And here’s a weird sort of coincidence: I, too, learned of the attacks by virtue of a very brief message from my brother: “Turn on the TV!” Only difference was that my message was an email. And, though a New Yorker at the time, I was in Melbourne, Australia at my firm’s international conference then and received it about 9:30 at night, having just returned from a gala dinner.
A wonderful story about a terrible event! It’s so nice that you had those great things happen in your life before, as you say, the world seemed to end. Being on the East Coast, I was already at work–alone in my therapy office–when a client told me about it. Having no TV or internet in my office, I had to wait a bit to see the pictures for myself. The hardest thing for us was that our eighth grader happened to be on his three-day annual Middle School Trip. This actually turned out to be a good thing, as the teachers kept the kids informed, but did not turn on any TV.
It’s informative to read this story at this late date, Suzy, with all the complexity of the wonderful time that happened right before 9/11. I think just about all of us, at least on the West Coast were informed about what was going on by someone telephoning us and telling us to turn on the TV.
Mare, thanks for accepting my invitation to read a story from 4 years ago, when we thought the hijacked planes were the worst thing that could possibly happen to our country. I couldn’t have written it this year.
Suzy, it’s so hard to believe that 9/11 was 20 years ago, what we did and decisions we had to make that day are still so vivid.
And I’m glad your special birthday and Ben’s Bar Mitzvah were days before, or your memories of them wouldn’t have been so sweet.