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.