Approximately age 3, maybe 4, right before or after dinner, dancing to “Yellow Submarine” on top of my new dresser (longer than it was tall) with my sister, lights turned off. It was awesome. She remembers it too.
My early childhood was rather sheltered, and I was under the impression that my parents didn’t want me listening to most of the popular music of the day. I don’t remember them saying so, necessarily, but something must have given me that idea. Or maybe it was just the vibe I got. We only listened to oldies in the car (which I enjoyed.) I never even considered listening to New Kids on the Block, even though some of my kindergarten classmates were fans, and I only knew Weird Al and Billy Ray Cyrus songs because our teacher played them for us. If I remember right, a boy in my class often wore a Guns n Roses shirt with a skull design, which seemed really hardcore to me. I mean, a SKULL?! A band with the word “guns” in the name?! What next, a motorcycle?
I was easily scandalized at that age, but not offended. These things didn’t make me want to stay away. I did worry that my friends would all end up in a gang by 3rd grade, loitering on a corner in leather jackets, smoking cigarettes and taking pills, but any 6 year old who took McGruff the Crime Dog seriously was worried about that. Blame Nancy Reagan, I guess. However, most things that were forbidden or shocked me also INTRIGUED me. I wanted to learn all the cuss words, know rap songs, and have street cred. I wanted my classmates’ parents to invite me for playdates so I could see the “sleazy” side of life.
I wasn’t judgmental; I genuinely enjoyed seeing how other families operated and how other kids lived. Even in preschool, I wanted to make friends with the “different” kids. I took new students under my wing and tried to make my non-English-speaking classmates feel included. If they were happy, it was fun to be around them. If they weren’t, maybe I could help them feel better. I knew not to make other kids feel bad over things they couldn’t help, like wearing raggedy clothes or smelling like cigarettes. Sure, I believed in tolerance and inclusion because they were good values and because I had empathy, but also – different people were just INTERESTING to me. It seemed terribly dull to only know people just like you.
My parents were also open-minded – when it came to people outside of our family. My mom had grown up a few miles away, on the wrong side of the tracks; my dad’s childhood was in Brooklyn. They told us how bad racism was and not to judge books by their covers. My mom was sure to point out sexist advertising and media. But our household was often strict in those days. We went to Sunday school and worship service every week at the United Methodist church nearby, always wearing dresses. We weren’t allowed to say “oh my god” or “butt.” Toilet humor wasn’t welcome. Our bedrooms were expected to be neat (I usually failed at that) and we helped with most of the household chores from an early age. My mom didn’t want me wearing jeans with holes in the knees, my dad didn’t want our hats on backwards, and I remember feeling nervous that my mom wouldn’t let me leave the house wearing only one strap of my backpack, like the older kids on the bus did. (She did let me.) For some reason, we didn’t have a microwave until 2000. (Well, I suppose the reason was that my parents were very frugal.) They never drank or smoke, and they looked down upon such substances. (For good reason, it turns out – 3 of my 4 grandparents were alcoholics, and my mom lost her own mother to lung cancer in 3rd grade.) We rarely even had sugary cereals, although they were pretty generous with candy bars and Kool-Aid.
But it wasn’t an unhappy household; we laughed all the time, my parents took us on adventures, there were endless books to read, we did lots of crafts, and my sister and I ran around the yard for hours. Our nightly homemade family dinners usually involved joking around and interesting conversation. We knew we were sheltered, and were curious about the rest of the world, but we had fun and loved our family.
My dad worked at a local TV station, but our household did not have cable TV. In fact, for years my mom limited us to one hour of PBS a day – my sister and I both got to choose one 30-minute show and watch them together. We could also watch the news and Jeopardy! alongside my mom, so I was always aware of current events. It was important to keep up with the news at our house; my mother had been a TV reporter after college, and my dad had worked in journalism since he was a teenager. My grandad in New York wrote for an industry publication and had formerly written for top newspapers and worked on NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. Right after I turned 3, the Berlin Wall came down. My mom sat me in front of the TV and told me to remember it, and explained it to me in age-appropriate terms. I can still recall watching it and understanding that this was an important, emotional moment.
In my preschool years, I enjoyed Disney afternoon cartoons, “Rescue 911,” “Family Matters,”The Cosby Show,” and the show I called “Michelle” that was actually titled “Full House.” However, at some point in preschool or early grade school, my mom decided my sister and I played less creatively after watching TV, and that Michelle Tanner was too sassy, so she cut us off for years. She was probably wise to do so, even though we complained at the time. Plus, “Ghostwriter” on PBS was totally rad.
My best friend from kindergarten through 2nd grade was Ashley R., a girl who lived a few streets over and whose dog was famous. Alvin was an Australian terrier who would howl along whenever he heard “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Happy Birthday.” This made him popular at show-and-tell, and he was even on the local morning TV program. Ashley’s house was always impressively messy, and she had two much-older siblings. Her brother was already out of the house by the time Ashley began kindergarten, and her sister was in junior high. Meanwhile, as the older child in my family, I had very few links to what was “cool.”
For some reason, I thought Ashley was a bit wild. Looking back, she was one of the least wild kids I knew; even in kindergarten I was pretty sure I knew who would end up being a teen mom or dropping out, and I was generally right. I was aware that a lot of my classmates came from rough neighborhoods and bad family situations, whereas Ashley and I lived in the nicest subdivision that our school drew from – a quiet, middle-class development built in the early 1960s, featuring lots of ranch houses and brick exteriors. Even in our neighborhood, we were among the “good kids” – our friend Ashley G. scandalized me by saying in a bored, valley-girl tone. “You’re as pale as a ghost, Kati! Don’t you tan? I tan all the time. I wear my bikini and lay outside.” Add in that her parents looked like Hells Angels and her dad carried a gun at all times, and Ashley G. was definitely edgy in my mind. And bound to get skin cancer by age 10.
Then there were my classmates like Kaylee, whose deteriorating apartment community included a giant retention pond. My mom always warned us not to go near retention ponds, and here was this complex with one front-and-center – with a brazen fountain in the middle! At Kaylee’s house for her 6th birthday, a girl my age told me about trying beer. That HER DAD GAVE HER. I was scandalized, picturing a father convincing his daughter to slam back cans of Budweiser (instead of the more likely scenario of the dad letting her have one sip so she’d stop asking what it tasted like.) The girl also had a broken arm, so I worried about her home life. (I paid close attention during lessons about stranger danger and child abuse.) Later, I was talking with Kaylee’s mom and grandmother when I asked her mom, “How old are you?”
“I’m 23,” she said.
I was an advanced mathematician for kindergarten. “So… you had Kaylee when you were 17?!” She nodded.
“But that’s too young to have a baby!” Her grandmother cracked up. I wasn’t sure if I should have said that; I wasn’t trying to make her mom feel bad, but maybe it did. I was merely amazed by the idea of a teenager having a baby. I knew my parents were 30 when I was born, and had been married for 6 years before that. When my mom came to pick me up, the grandmother gleefully told her what I’d said. My mom’s face went red.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry!” The grandmother replied that she shouldn’t be sorry, because I was right.
All of this to say, I actually WAS around some “wild” families, what with the tanning and guns and teen pregnancy, but just about anything seemed wild at that point. Ashley R. had her own phone in her room. Wild! Her dad drank beer. Wow! Her mom might have occasionally taken the Lord’s name in vain. How exhilarating! When I came over, we often watched “Saved by the Bell,” “COPS,” or -oooh- cable TV. AND – Ashley knew all the latest songs. At some point during kindergarten or 1st grade, probably in 1993, she offered to make me a mix tape and I readily accepted.
After dinner, my little sister and I went into my room and put on the cassette. We were so excited. We instinctively knew we should listen to it secretly first, to decide if we could play it around our parents.
Oh man! The very first song was “Bad Boys,” the song from COPS! I loved that song! It sounded so dangerous and cool! And it was on a show about CRIMINALS! We both knew we’d entered a new phase of life, one where we were cool, because we owned a tape with “Bad Boys” on it. What next?! Leather jackets?!
But before the song could end, my dad opened the door. “Girls! Are you listening to rap music?!” The prototypical early-90s suburban parent’s nightmare – his innocent children being corrupted by that hardcore gangsta rap music. Before I could answer, he had crossed the room, snatched the tape out of the machine, and walked back out. We never saw the tape again.
I STILL like the song to this day. I also like rap, but obviously this is pure reggae. Next time I see my dad, I might just blast it. He doesn’t remember this incident, naturally. My mom has said that’s how his parents were, swooping in without asking questions or considering the kid’s feelings, so it was a mere reflex on his part. But for us, “Bad Boys” was our passport to being cool and edgy, and it was revoked almost as soon as it was issued.
Alas, I haven’t written much lately. However, I’ve been employed now for 9 months, which keeps me busier than last summer. I like the job, too, which always helps. And I’ve been hibernating lately – staying home, “doing” less, saying no, giving myself room to think and do as I please, honoring my sensitivities, learning new ways to do things, and deconstructing things that hold me back from where, or how, I want to be. Heavy stuff, right? But good stuff.
There’s a lot of ink in my blood and I’m compelled to honor that right now. Lately I’ve been thinking of a series where I write about what a song reminds me of – mostly personal stories I connect with it, rather than lyrical interpretation. We’re fortunate in this day and age to have a vast, accessible soundtrack accompanying our lives. Along with scent, music is one of the most powerful sparks for vividly recalling a feeling, a time, a person, a specific moment. Everyone has some song that always makes them think of something in particular. I have many.
Some of this series will be only tangentially related to the song’s content. Also, the content won’t necessarily be part of my cocoon work, at least beyond me honoring my desire to write more. BUT MAYBE SOME OF IT WILL! The series may go on indefinitely; I just filled a whole 8.5″ x 11″ page, 3 columns, of songs to include, and could’ve kept going for a long time. My sister and I collaborate on a Spotify playlist of songs that we enjoyed together at some point; we’re about to hit 300. I’m calling the series “In My Life”, and if you’ve ever heard that Beatles song (and who hasn’t?) I don’t need to explain further. The first verse is particularly relevant.
A radio-DJ friend of mine did something called “45 for 45” where he wrote about 45 songs from 45s when he was 45. He once suggested I do “33 for 33” because he hadn’t. However, that’s 3 years from now (okay, 2 years and some change) and although I appreciate vinyl, the format doesn’t hold particular significance for me. I grew up on cassette tapes, compact discs, and radio. I’d listen to my parents’ records, but didn’t own any of my own. The whole concept of “singles” and “B-sides” was fading fast during my childhood and teen years. Those years spread out across two millenniums for me; by the time I finished high school in 2004, downloading mp3s (legally or otherwise) had become commonplace as well, and cassettes were nowhere to be seen. Every teenager’s car and bedroom were still strewn with tons of CDs – mostly store-bought, but increasingly, burned albums and mixes too. iPods were cutting-edge.
In college, I bought some songs on iTunes, but mostly collected files from everyone in the dorm via a shady little program called MyTunes that let you see and download music files from everyone using your ethernet or wi-fi network. It opened up endless doors of musical discovery for me, right at the age when it’s so important. My long-haired, deadly-serious-about-music, philosophy-major boyfriend highly disapproved. At our first-anniversary dinner, I mentioned a particular song in passing. After a while, I noticed he’d become sullen. I asked why. “Because when you mentioned that song, I thought, ‘I bet she stole it online.'” He scowled the rest of the evening; I was incredulous.
Absurdity aside, he had a point. I’d never think of shoplifting a physical item. But I was too attached to the thousands of songs I could listen to anytime I wanted. Plus, I paid money to see a lot of artists live, and the music industry sent out all sorts of contradictory messages about whether it was right, wrong, or amoral.
I haven’t done it in years – although one could probably give more credit to music-streaming programs rather than ethical convictions. That and the computer viruses that inevitably sneaked in with the songs. These days, I listen to most of my music on Spotify or the trusty old radio, although I always have a few CDs in my car for long drives. (Recent ones include childhood’s Jagged Little Pill and Tragic Kingdom; college’s You Could Have It So Much Better, Night Ripper, and Songs About Jane; and “my entire life”‘s Prince’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1.)
But liking a song isn’t reason enough to include it in this series. I DO like most of them – in fact, some are all-time favorites – while others annoy me or mean nothing to me if stripped of context. Many of my favorite lyrics, songs, and artists will not be included here. Perhaps, as Chris Cornell wrote, much of my favorite music is my favorite precisely because “it doesn’t remind me of anything.” Memories, both good and bad, have always felt weighty to me. Some of these will be unhappy stories. I don’t know how deep I want to delve on here. I know I’ll keep some R-rated stories to myself for now (although most are hilarious), and I’ll only decide upon certain painful memories when I can draft something and ponder it individually.
One of my main conflicts when writing about myself is balancing exactly how much to share. This is particularly relevant when the internet gets involved (and it usually does.) I admire memoirists who lay it all out for the world. I don’t think I could, at least not at this stage in my life. I don’t know if or how that impacts the stories I do tell, except to say I strive to be as honest with my words as I can be. Not necessarily “honest” meaning “spilling every secret and leaving nothing private”, but “honest” as in, “each word is carefully weighed to see if it reflects reality (as best I can see it), and if it doesn’t, it should be clear it’s an exaggeration for comedic effect.”
That said, I expect most of these recollections to be light-hearted and/or amusing, perhaps with a poignant edge. That seems to be my main voice, and I like it. Oh yeah, and full of digression. It’s in keeping with a comment made by my 8th grade math teacher, albeit in a different context. After showing my class how I solved an algebra problem, which apparently involved more steps than necessary, she shook her head and said, “Kati, I bet you’ll be popular with the boys, because you always take the long way home.”
Can’t say she was wrong about that either, but, well, I digress…
On a comment thread I participated in recently, a woman asked how she could support her good friend who has cancer. Here’s my slightly-edited reply with more of my personal experiences added:
Long comment ahead. Perhaps a bit rambling, but I hope it helps. I was 11 and my sister 9 when our mother was diagnosed with brain cancer at 42. It was a very dark period of my life, although thankfully, she came through it (not unscathed, but in relatively good shape) and is still here kicking ass at age 61. I hate thinking too much about 1998, but I know one of the “gifts” I got from it is a much deeper understanding of what people feel and need, and how I can provide.
So… because of my experience, I immediately thought of your friend’s children. No matter how old they are, they need help – even if they’re old enough to drive, they could use someone taking them out for dinner (for a change of pace) or getting them school supplies or gas money (they’re probably scared to spend much money on themselves.) But younger kids REALLY need it. The little ones could use babysitting or just a “visit” with you. Take them out to ice cream or to the zoo. People did that for us and it was very appreciated. We were old enough that we didn’t need constant supervision, but with my mom in the hospital for months and my dad working full-time, family friends who lived down the street from the elementary school had us come over every day after school. We did homework, ate dinner, and hung out there until our dad picked us up after work, which was usually 7-9 pm. Sometimes the teenagers in the family would bring us to their band or color guard practice, which we thought was cool. I still consider them a second family. My friend’s mom picked my sister and I up for school every morning so our routine went more smoothly. That summer, a few parents rotated picking us up for 4-H drama practice.
I was a 6th grader and a pre-teen at the time, just starting puberty. That MIGHT be the worst time of all for this sort of thing to happen. (Can’t compare it, since I didn’t experience it again until she had a relapse when I was in college.) I didn’t wear a bra yet and was scared that if I didn’t get one before my mom’s big surgery (after which she had to recover for months and re-learn how to do almost everything), I’d become the laughingstock of the school. I was too nervous and shy to ask my mom, but thankfully she anticipated all this and took me to buy some a few days before her surgery. She had already told me what to expect with periods, and I knew where her pads were. (I didn’t get it for another year, as it turned out.) But some girls might not have that preparation and it might get lost in the commotion, so if it’s appropriate and done sensitively, it might be good to pass along age-appropriate supplies and information.
In college, I babysat for a blended family – the woman who hired me took care of her nieces along with her own daughter, since the nieces’ mother (her sister) had just died of cancer. The oldest one was 13, so I gave her more freedom than the younger ones. I came into her room one day and she was crying because she had painful cramps and couldn’t find her pads and, well, she was 13 and had lost her mother. She was embarrassed, so I handled it gently without any stigma. I told the younger girls we were going over to my parents’ home so I could get some stuff I’d forgotten, and I had them play outside with the dogs while I gave the older girl some medicine (approved by her aunt) and some of my own supplies and told her a few ways to reduce cramp pain. I also encouraged them to be expressive and to interact with art (paintings, movies, music) and nature, which I believe helped them quite a bit over the time I knew them. (I lost touch with the family later, but I recently reconnected with them, and the kids are all bad-asses. The older girl now has green hair and works at a cozy coffeehouse in my neighborhood and is involved with art and radical politics. I’m so proud of her!)
Back to my own experience, one thing I did NOT get was trips to the library or to go shopping. Those places were just a little too far away, and across busy roads, for my parents to allow me to walk to alone. This was before the internet was much of a thing – we didn’t have it at home, so my main source of information was the library. I’d been a book addict since birth. It was seriously upsetting that my mom couldn’t take me to the library and my dad either couldn’t or just wouldn’t (a bit of both.) I cried about it many times. By that last semester at the elementary school, I’d read practically every book in the school library. One problem was that even if I could check out books, my dad said we might not be able to return them on time. (I think around that time, I learned about the renewal hotline, but for some reason that was deemed “not enough” either.) My mom received some books as presents from friends, and I read them voraciously. My father freaked out about money (more than necessary – he was already a very anxious person and often tried to solve problems by attacking something unrelated) and cut our already-small allowances. We kept on growing, but he said we were being frivolous and selfish when we asked to go shopping. Cue classmates laughing at me for wearing flood pants. My sister and I are now both slightly addicted to shopping, and we both own enough clothes for probably 5 women each, and we both trace a large part of that to our dad shaming us for wanting/needing to go shopping. So if I’m ever in a position to do so, I will take kids in similar situations out to buy clothes.
I can’t speak for all kids, but I was happiest when my mother’s situation was acknowledged and wasn’t draped in dramatic, tragic tones, but was approached in a more matter-of-fact way, while still being gentle and caring. And also when people (kids and adults) just let me be a kid and talk about my own life (school, friends, Girl Scouts, hobbies, pets) and didn’t push me to talk about anything in particular. I’ll never forget laughing on the playground during recess, then my so-called friend M. scolding me. “Why are you laughing, Kati? Your mom has cancer! She could die!” Mercifully, few other people imposed their ideas on how I should act. Then there was the day my sister and her best friend came up to me before lunch. They were upset because a boy in their class had said, “At least my mom’s not pregnant [the other girl’s mom was]… or BALD!”
I told them I’d take care of it. After lunch, I found that guy playing soccer with most of our class. I walked into the middle of the game, said sarcastically, “Hey Mark, I heard you were talking about my mom,” and punched him in the stomach. He doubled over, maybe even fell. I walked away calmly, head held high, and rejoined my friends at the swings. If my teachers saw, they never said a thing. In fact, no one ever spoke a word about it to me, despite most of our class witnessing it.
I got very good at keeping things close at that age, because everywhere I went, some adult was asking me in dire tones how my mom was doing. I wanted to hide every Sunday at church, even though there were so many people there who truly helped us. (Giving us meals, cleaning our house, driving my mom around, talking to my dad, etc.) We were under an intense microscope. My sister and I missed school one day to wait on news about our mom’s surgery, and our whole gifted and talented cohort (~80 kids spread out over 3 grades) made us cards that our classmate neighbor dropped off after school. It was genuinely touching. Most were very sweet, and the best were the funny ones (intentionally or otherwise), like my friend who wrote down all of the day’s hot gossip along with her sarcastic takes on all of it. I still have those cards. And my mom had a friend who had moved to a small town an hour away, but she mailed my mom a card EVERY DAY for months. They were often the highlight of the day, because she had a great sense of humor. My mom kept all of those as well. I doubt there was a day without cards in the mail from January to July that year, and it was really appreciated.
A few other random things: Schwann’s meal trucks came in handy for us. Now there are so many convenient ways to get food to people, so keep those in mind. Making sure the pets are getting their vet appointments in and getting walked, if needed. Seeing if the yard, car, or house needs any work. Being a warm, reliable, helpful presence the family can rely on. Anticipating needs and not just waiting to be asked (although also, not being pushy or doing the exact thing someone else did – if everyone brings over meals, the freezer gets full.) If appropriate, handling some of the care of the sick person; although I was happy to help my mom and learned a lot about my capacity to give… the less caretaking younger kids have to do, the better for the family dynamics. Maybe even being the person who posts updates on a site like Caring Bridge or Facebook so the family doesn’t always have to be the ones communicating with and reassuring others. Our teachers and our friends’ parents arranged rides for us so we didn’t miss back-to-school meetings or other evening events. My sister’s teacher had us spend the night at her house. Her daughter was our age and they had a reallllly nice house (her husband had a high-paying job), so we had a blast. Also, my sister and I have always been very close, so we supported each other quite a bit. Hopefully there’s some of that in the family.
I’m sure there are a lot of resources out there, and so many people who want to help. With some organization and focus, you will help your friend and her family so much.
(Last fall, the Girl Scouts here opened a new headquarters building inside the bounds of Camp Dellwood. I spent many summer weeks there. It’s a fairly large plot of land off Girls School Road near 21st St., and until recently, there was little outside to indicate it was a camp. That’s a quiet area, but close to all sorts of busy spots (Speedway, Chapel Hill) and long-ago-developed neighborhoods. When the camp was established some 90 years ago, though, it was quite rural. The council sent out an email asking for memories of Dellwood, and here is what I submitted. I had this as a draft on here, but forgot to post it until now.)
I have so many memories of being a summer camper, attending troop sleepovers and trainings, and serving as a mini-aide for several summers as a young teenager. My strongest memories from my mini-aide days include the Thursday night ritual of TP-ing the field near the swimming pool, convincing frightened girls that the dark wasn’t that scary (it’s just the absence of light – everything that was there in the day is still there), and encountering a girl my age who was almost definitely an escapee from the Girls’ School but was trying to pass herself off as a fellow mini-aide. I also recall how us mini-aides always wanted to listen to other mini-aides’ CDs, like N’Sync, the Offspring, and blink-182. To this day, I occasionally run into a girl I took care of or worked with at camp. I also got stuck in a port-a-potty right before a flag ceremony, and had to yell and bang on the door so someone could rescue me. This happened right as everyone was quieting down for the ceremony, so when I was freed, everyone was watching, and burst into applause.
When my troop went there, we sometimes stayed in a building and sometimes stayed in the tents, but we always had fun. One year it was the dump-cake that just belonged in the dump. Another year, my mom remembers staying up all night – originally to keep an eye on us Brownies, but then to get deep into conversation with her new co-leader. They became good friends that night and lead my sister’s and my troop together until every last girl graduated from high school (and many of us earned their Gold Awards.)
As far as being a young summer camper, I remember how cool the mini-aides seemed, doing awesome crafts and learning funny songs, daddy-long-legs, playing with a giant beach ball with a globe printed on it, and always asking when we would finally go to the pool. My mom was a leader at another campsite, but I would proudly point her out to the girls in my unit. I did the same when I saw my younger sister. I also have this fond memory…
I wrote this a few years ago for my blog: http://whatkatididthere.tumblr.com/post/47482360125/thelittleprincess
THE LITTLE PRINCESS
In the spring of 1993, I bridged from Daisy Girl Scouts to Brownies. My mom, the troop leader, found a little bridge to put in the center of the stage (actually just the front of a church sanctuary), and we held up daisy flowers we’d made. I read the Brownie story (“Twist me, turn me, show me the elf. I looked in the water, and I saw…”) out loud for everyone, then we took turns crossing over the bridge to become Brownie Girl Scouts. Very exciting stuff.
My mom and I were getting really into Girl Scouts, which wasn’t something we would have predicted a year before. A few weeks into kindergarten, my teacher passed out a letter to show our parents, mentioning that Scout troops were forming in the area. It sounded cool, but I don’t remember thinking much of it until I handed it to my mom and we discussed it. She’d never been a Scout, but my dad had earned Eagle status, and we’d all enjoyed the cookies the big girls sold at church. My mom called the number on the flyer and learned that leaders were needed, so suddenly Troop 404 formed. About eight of us joined – a few from my school, a few from surrounding schools without troops. An elegant woman named Celeste, my friend Jasmine’s mom, was the co-leader, and other parents volunteered their time to make our Daisy year a great one. We celebrated the Chinese New Year (“Ni hao! Gong hay fat choi!”) and toured a Hardee’s restaurant (the automatic drink machine was everyone’s favorite.)
So when summer came along, we decided to spend a week doing day camp at Camp Dellwood. The camp served all of central Indiana and just so happened to be two miles up the road from my house, hidden in thick trees between softball fields and subdivisions encroaching on cornfields. My mom would be a leader for a unit of older girls, while I would be with a group of first graders and my sister would spend her days with the “Tags”, the preschool – or male – children whose parents worked at the camp.
My memories of the Rotherwood unit are generally hazy. I remember eating a sandwich from a Tupperware container, then accidentally throw away the container. I remember ponchos and canteen sets and canvas tents and the thrill of the swimming pool. But most of all, I remember Allison.
Allison was a perfect child. Curly blonde hair. Sweet to everyone, it seemed. Adults doted on her. I was impressed by her, I wanted to be her, I was jealous of her, and I suspected she wasn’t as perfect as everyone thought. Tensions boiled over one afternoon in a meadow, when one of us (her?) pushed the other (me? That’s how I remember it.)
Time moves differently when you’re six, as nearly everyone has noticed. Day camp was only about the length of a school day and lasted Monday-Friday. Thursday night everyone slept at the camp (except the sissies whose parents picked them up.) So while my time with Allison had quite an arc to it, it happened over the course of just a few days.
On Thursday evenings every camper gathered at the amphitheater to sing songs. Each unit presented a skit, and our unit was to act out the tale of Snow White. Every first grader wanted to be Snow White, of course. I was no exception. I had a real flair for the dramatic, and I longed to be one of those dreamy Disney princesses. Ariel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc. (Belle was my favorite, but I placed her in a different category, perhaps unconsciously noting her self-determination and autonomy.) Flowing hair, poofy gowns, admired by all, sweet and pure and kind.
Of course, Allison got the part.
And me? My theatrics had not gone unnoticed by the unit leaders. I was cast as the other female lead… the wicked witch. Hmm. Well, at least I’d get to act in front of everyone. But Allison was going to be the star. I could never win.
The thing was, I wasn’t normally too competitive with other girls. Boys, yes. I wanted them to realize that girls could be just as good as them or better. Girls, I mostly wanted to befriend and encourage. The patriarchy was going to stop in my generation!
But Allison represented something I didn’t think I could be or achieve. She reminded me of a story my mom told about a perfect little girl named Connie in her preschool class. Connie was just like Allison, and one day, when no one was looking, my mom pinched her. I understood perfectly.
So when the play started, I was ready to be that wicked witch. No, I wouldn’t pinch her. But I would let her know how I felt.
When my scene began, I walked towards Allison just as I pictured it in the movie. I hunched over and leaned in when I got to her, pausing for dramatic effect. Her blue eyes suddenly looked timid in my presence. I thrust the apple towards her. “Bite it,” I snarled. And to my surprise, people laughed and clapped. Allison took the apple, bit it, and fell over dramatically. It was quite satisfying to see. She was very cute and played her part well. I’m sure she got lots of congratulations and attention afterwards.
But it no longer mattered to me. I was the star of the show, as far as I could tell. People came up to me immediately, asking me to say “Bite it” again and again. I hadn’t realized my performance had been funny or well-executed until then. I hadn’t even realized that the witch could be a star, or that anyone would enjoy her performance. Up until then, most people in my world had only had time for princesses.
Suddenly it was clear that the villains and vamps were far more fun to play. The world was full of princesses and damsels in distress, and sure, it was fun to pretend to be them. But it was far, far more satisfying to make people laugh or to be evil or saucy. There were many roles a girl could play. (I’m pretty sure Girl Scouts was founded, in large part, to teach us that lesson.)
And with my new-found confidence, it was easy to smile and wave goodbye to Allison on Friday afternoon. She’d was no longer a threat; she’d helped illuminate something very important. And I’d convinced her to bite it.
The last night of Bush’s presidency, I was in DC with my campaign friends. We filled care packages for the troops earlier in the day. Michelle, the girls, and Jill were there. I took a photo of a boy talking to Michelle and got his grandmother’s email address to send it. We went out to some upscale bar that night to meet up with other campaign alums. There were about 10 of us. Most wanted to be positive and focus on Obama. A few of us, me included, wanted to mark the ending of the Bush years. Once I got into the campaign, he’d seemed almost irrelevant. I’d been focused on the future. But that night I thought back on years past.
Starting in 9th grade, going past college graduation. Everything the US & world had been through. That day in 10th grade when a disaster movie came to life on the same island where my granddad slept, and proved way horrifying than any film I’d seen. My personal evolution from going along with the war because I hoped the loudest voices around me were right, to becoming critical right as I was leaving Ben Davis. Then my realization, by the first month of college, that I was clearly a liberal, although that had been a dirty word the last few years. Turning 18 and voting 2 weeks later, then dejectedly announcing the winner on my late-night college radio DJ set. Attending a huge anti-war rally in DC. Noticing Obama around 2006 and buying a shirt with him on it in the summer of 2007.
During most of my time at DePauw, I felt disenfranchised, disgusted, and hopeless about the presidency. It’s hard for me to put it into words, but if you knew me then, you have an idea. Perhaps you felt the same way. Lies, mismanagement, and propaganda were everywhere. I worried for my chosen field under No Child Left Behind. Most disheartening were the stories I knew of from Iraq, both in the news and in my personal circles. A guy from my HS died early in the war. A family friend came back and killed himself – we never knew why.
It may be a cliché now, but there was a reason “hope and change” resonated so deeply.
My last three semesters at DPU laid me very low. My mom’s cancer came back, I had a devastating student-teaching experience and decided not to pursue licensure, and my relationship with the education department took a deep nose dive. In the span of 6 weeks there were 4 deaths – our dog Lucy (hit by a car), the aforementioned family friend, a guy my boyfriend and I were friendly with at school (accidentally mixing alcohol and prescription drugs, if I remember right), and my grandmother (heart attack.) Right after, the boyfriend and I hit the rocks and broke up. I got mono. My best friends stabbed me in the back and I was hospitalized from mono complications. I had to miss a vacation and a school trip. I had money worries. And I’d been struggling with depression before any of this.
At the start of my final semester, I had to drop some classes and activities and move back into the dorms. It was lonely and sad. I’d drag myself to class, try to do my work, then sleep a lot. I was grateful Kelly was there. My interest in politics hadn’t changed, and I spent a lot of time watching political news and commentary from my bed. Around early March, I got an email from College Dems inviting any Obama supporters in the club to a Putnam County for Obama meeting. I’d been skipping most of my usual activities, but somehow this caught my eye. It felt worth checking out, I decided, and besides, I could eat dinner during the meeting.
As soon as the meeting began, I felt incredibly at home. I WANTED to canvass. The other students there were friendly and I wished I hadn’t focused on my old clique for the last 3.5 years. Despite fatigue and voice loss, I rode to Dayton to canvass the Huber Heights area before the Ohio primary. I knocked on dozens of doors in Greencastle. I made calls from my dorm room to Vermont, Pennsylvania, Montana, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. Back in Indy during spring break, I did paperwork for the campaign and apologized for being too tired to canvass that day. I saw Barack speak at Plainfield HS and made him laugh afterwards, when I yelled “Barack the vote!” while reaching over the crowd to shake his hand. I was losing fear and becoming happier. My empty spaces were getting refilled.
Since I’d ruled out teaching, the only thing I saw ahead was going back to Bath & Body Works, the place I’d worked at for years whenever I was in Indy. I was spending a lot of time on mybarackobama.com, the campaign’s social network and blogging platform, and I actually read all of the emails the campaign sent me. I learned of the summer fellowship and figured I might as well apply. When they encouraged us to choose a swing state, I just looked on the map for any swing state with a decent climate that I could drive to within two days. “Oh, Colorado. We went through there in 1997 and liked it. Okay, I’ll tell them Colorado. Whatever.” And so a few weeks later, I hit I-70 in my Taurus with way too much stuff thrown in the backseat.
And that’s how I got to that DC bar in January 2009. I thought of the shoe-throwing reporter and the Patriot Act. Of the bikers who shoved me at a war protest. Of my embarrassment when reading what other countries thought of us. The anger was easy to remember, but it didn’t feel so bad anymore when I thought of the impossible feat we’d pulled off. The Barack Obama era would begin tomorrow. I could breathe again.
Afterwards, we ended up in Chinatown doing sake bombs. 7 of us were staying at my campaign BFF’s family house. (It had once been owned by George McGovern.) We struggled to get a cab back. Then a large SUV pulled up and the next thing I knew, we were all riding in some random dude’s vehicle. He was not an licensed cabbie. I never learned if he did this all the time, or was just cashing in on the inauguration crowd. The only guy with us, Dan, talked to him from the passenger seat, while the rest of us zoned out in back. Dan was from Brooklyn and brought it up whenever he could work it into conversation, and the driver lit up when he mentioned it. “That’s where Biggie Smalls is from!”
“Oh yeah, yeah,” said Dan self-importantly.
The driver nodded, like they were business associates throwing around jargon. “You know, I was with Biggie the night he got killed. The Vibe party.”
“Ah, no way man, that’s cool. I wish I’d been there,” replied Dan, as if he wasn’t in grade school in 1997, just like I was. The driver kept authoritatively telling his preposterous account of that night, while Dan covered up his skepticism with increasingly enthusiastic reactions.
Sitting next to my campaign BFF Courtenay, looking out into the cold night full of revelers, I smiled to myself. Here we were. The reins were almost in hands I could trust. We’d made it through. We’d made it happen.
At a recent writing workshop, a local author presented ways to improve dialogue, and we were challenged to create a piece of dialogue. This is what came to me. I might develop this piece more. We’ll see!
It was Friday, and Brittany wasn’t paying a bit of attention in English class. Not due to thoughts of the weekend, but rather, thoughts of Jake. She’d passed his locker on her way in from the bus, and had caught a glimpse of him in a dark green sweater over a white collared shirt. His hair had looked even better than usual – gelled to perfection. She couldn’t wait until cooking class, the last class of the day. Thank goodness she’d worn her new jeans today. Brittany wasn’t so sure about her shirt, though. Were V-neck sweaters still popular? She looked around and didn’t see a single girl wearing one. I’ll ask Melissa, she decided.
The shuffle of papers brought her back to earth. The bell was about to ring, and Brittany hadn’t even copied down the weekend assignment. She fumbled for a pen as the bell blared over the intercom. Everyone else was standing up, and she had to duck around to read the whiteboard. By the time she’d finished writing down the assignment, everyone else had cleared out of the room. Crap. She needed to visit her locker before lunch, so she’d have time to walk past the choir room afterwards. Jake always hung out there until the very end of the passing period, talking to girls like Lauren Masters, Nikki Maxwell, and Jasmine Blakely. Brittany hoped that when she walked by each day, Jake forgot about them, despite their perfect blonde hair and clear skin. But judging from the clock, if she didn’t head straight to the cafeteria, she’d be sitting at the tardy table. Nothing could be more humiliating.
Walking into the cafeteria, she saw Melissa up ahead, waving her over, her eyes wide. “Britt! Get over here! You won’t believe this shit!”
Brittany slid into the plastic chair. Before she could open her mouth, Melissa continued. “Okay, get this, girl,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I was in gym, and we were all playing dodgeball, and Chad got hit in the face with Nikki’s dodgeball. He got knocked over and we were all laughing. Chad got up and called Nikki a bitch. Even the teacher heard him. Nikki got really mad and said, ‘At least I’m not a skank like that Brittany girl you like.'” Melissa paused for emphasis, giving Brittany a meaningful look.
“Huh?!” Brittany said. “He likes me?”
Melissa shrugged. “I don’t know. He got red and started to say something but Mr. Thompson blew the whistle and made us all run laps, then it was time to go to the locker room. There was no way in hell I was talking to Nikki.”
Weird. Brittany’s head spun with this news. Jake and Chad were best friends. She didn’t even know Chad thought about her outside of ceramics class, where he sat in the back and made fun of everyone, including her. Last week, he’d gone through her purse when she was at the teacher’s desk asking a question, and he’d yelled, “Britt doesn’t have any tampons in her purse! I bet she hasn’t even started her period!” She’d told him to shut up and stop touching her stuff, her face burning and her palms sweating. It was hard to believe Jake hung out with Chad. He seemed so much more dignified and mature. Apparently Chad liked her and this is how he acted – imagine how he must be with people he doesn’t like.
But if Chad liked her, and Nikki knew, then Jake must know too. Nikki loved to say nasty things about people. Brittany had never talked to her, though, so she was still surprised that Nikki would even bother talking about her. It was almost a compliment just to be mentioned at all.
“Has Nikki ever said anything else about me?”
Melissa shrugged again. “I don’t think so. She’s usually talking shit about Lauren because she goes out with that dickhead Brandon. Let’s get in line.”
As they walked to the food line, Brittany thought more. “Does Jake ever talk about me on the bus? Or talk about who Chad likes?” But Melissa was waving at Kyle Entenmann and flipping her hair.
“Holy shit, Kyle looks GOOD today,” she muttered to Britt.
He looked like he always did. “Uh, did you see Jake today? He looks really hot.”
Melissa looked at her blankly. It was always hard to make her pay attention when she hadn’t brought up a topic. They shuffled down the line, forgoing corn on the cob for sloppy Joes. Brittany grabbed extra napkins, then remembered her shirt. “Does this shirt look okay?”
Melissa glanced at it for half a second. “Yeah, it’s fine.” She turned back to see if Kyle was still in line.
Brittany rolled her eyes. “Are you sure?”
Kyle had disappeared. “YES, girl. Hot damn. You look fine.”
She still wasn’t sure Melissa had even really looked, but Brittany felt stupid asking her again. Her mind drifted back to Jake. If Chad really liked her, would that make her seem cooler in Jake’s eyes? Or would he be loyal to Chad and stay away? Or did he still even know who she was?
For years, I’ve been wanting to write down all of that day. I’ve written a few pieces, including this archived piece I wrote for my college paper 6 years later. (A friend on the staff called me a few hours before deadline and asked me if I could throw together an opinion piece about “anything.”) This time, I’m going to record everything I can remember, even if it’s a little dull, just for my own history. This isn’t meant to be a polished, edited piece. Since I am twice as old now, a few details are hazy, but I’ll do my best.
My day began like every Indiana high school sophomore’s did: taking the state’s standardized test. I was politically opposed to ISTEP, and it was just a drag, so I was slightly bored and exasperated, but these tests were old hat for me. And any sophomore who passed never had to take one again (except for college-admissions exams like the SAT), so I was a bit pleased. I knew I would score around the 99th percentile and finally be done with the whole thing. I sat in a math classroom with a teacher (whose classes I never took) acting as a proctor, among the other kids whose last names began with G.
I had only been a student at the massive Ben Davis High School for a month – at the time, our school district was one of the last hold-outs from a system where freshmen stayed at their junior highs for one more year. Most of the juniors and seniors were enjoying the morning off, since they were done with testing, and were sleeping in, enjoying sit-down restaurant breakfasts with their friends, or practicing in the band room. During one of the first short breaks between test sections, I pulled out a sheet of paper to begin a note to a friend. I found it years later, reading something like this:
9-11-01, 9:05 am. Hi Kathryn, how are you? Nothing much has happened today.
During a break, an announcement asked the teachers to check their email. Our proctor was confused by whatever he read, so he pulled up Yahoo! News and found a one-sentence article, which was unusual. “A plane hit a building in New York City,” he read. I probably cared more than most of the apathetic kids in the room, since my dad was from there and we visited my grandparents there every year, but I remembered a small plane accidentally flew into the Empire State Building in the ’40s and figured it was something like that – I’d just catch the facts later. When the tests ended around 11 am and we heard the upperclassmen arriving, we gathered our things and headed out into the hall as the principal announced what everyone else already knew: “There has been a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan,” he said. I cringed. Terrorism. I had been following international relations for a few years, including the embassy bombings and the USS Cole. This sounded bad. Furthermore, my granddad had an apartment in Manhattan. A few worried tears fell as I walked towards choir, but I reminded myself that his apartment was in Midtown and he was probably fine. I was beginning to learn and realize more things about my grandparents at that age – like the city apartment wasn’t just there as a convenient place for him to stay if he worked late. That he stayed there a lot to be away from my grandmother in their apartment in Dobbs Ferry, a small Westchester County bedroom community just up the Hudson from the city. That he wasn’t always alone in that apartment.
Turning into the choir hallway, I saw my 8th grade sister and my mom. Crap. What was this?
My mom was concerned about several things and wanted to take me out of school for the rest of the day. I felt embarrassed as she said we didn’t know where the next attack would happen. I probably even said something sarcastic about how the high school was next on the list. But getting out of school was fine, and I was starting to see that this was a big day and no work would get done in class. And also – where was my grandfather?
My mom looked grim. “We don’t know. Your grandmother doesn’t know. He should be in Manhattan, that’s all we know.” My granddad, 74, wrote for a small paper called the Medical Herald. (From the ’50s to the ’70s or ’80s, he’d worked for big names in media, including the NY Herald-Tribune and NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.) I think also we had intermittent trouble getting calls through to my grandmother, and neither had cell phones. I wasn’t close to my grandparents. They often acted pretentious, stodgy, and obnoxious. My primary concern then was maneuvering around my dad while he faced this turmoil. Issues with his parents got him pretty stressed, as did busy news days.
I left school and we stopped at CVS, then headed to Arby’s to get lunch. Norb, the manager, was lowering its giant American flag to half-staff. Everyone seemed tense. I think we just went through the drive-through. My mom had been volunteering at our church when all of this broke, I think, because we went to the church to eat and finish stuffing some envelopes before driving to be with my dad. I sat in the copier room to eat, right in front of a small TV. The anchors were talking about terrorism and planes. I knew all that. They showed footage of the towers with smoke pouring out, as I expected they might look. Then they jumped ahead to one collapsing, then the next.
I jumped up. “What?! What?! They fell down?!” Disbelief and horror washed over me as I thought of the thousands of people whose deaths I’d surely just seen replayed.
Looking around, I realized everyone else already knew this. Now all the reactions made sense. Someone, probably my mom, explained that they had fallen an hour or two before. I felt almost sick from shock. Those were huge buildings, unparalleled in my mind. The Sears Tower was taller, but there were TWO of these. They were the defining element of the familiar NY skyline. They were so dominant that I took them for granted. A few years after the 1993 bombing, I’d read a book about the attack. It had fascinated me. But the death toll was low, and the structural damage was minimal. It had never occurred to me that any skyscraper could collapse. I couldn’t wrap my head around them ceasing to exist.
I also felt regretful, almost guilty. Despite reading so much about skyscrapers, I couldn’t remember any of the times I’d been up close to the World Trade Center. Maybe one time a year or two earlier, as we passed on our way in or out of a tunnel. Like I said, I’d just taken them for granted. We didn’t always spend a lot of time in the city during our visits. Some years we stayed in the suburbs the whole time, at least my sister and I did. When people at school asked me about New York, with excitement in their eyes, I had to admit I hadn’t done most of the things they asked about. Statue of Liberty? No. Ellis Island? No. Broadway shows? No. Our family didn’t do too many touristy things there. In 1994, though, we had spent a day in Midtown that made me feel like a fabulous big city girl – like Stacy McGill from the Babysitter’s Club. We rode up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, where I looked down at the tiny yellow cabs. I wasn’t scared of heights back then. I held my purse nervously as we walked through Times Square. (Guiliani had only just taken office and the city hadn’t shaken its dangerous reputation.) We walked through Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, and after a friendly local gave us directions around the stores, I told my mom I didn’t understand why New Yorkers had a rude reputation.
In following years, as we got older, our trips into the city became more frequent. Two summers before, my sister, Kelly, had broken her arm falling off a balcony with a loose railing. Weeks later, in New York, my mom took her for a routine X-ray, where the doctor advised she needed surgery. My mom and sister flew home to Indiana for surgery, while my dad and I stayed behind for the rest of the week. One wonderful sunny day, we went on a father-daughter Manhattan adventure. We took a tour of the NBC building and he added his own anecdotes from working summer jobs there and visiting his father. I loved seeing the SNL studios and a demo of “the TV of the future”, a set with an HD display playing a promo clip about the upcoming new millennium. “It’s so crisp and clear, it’s almost like real life,” we were told. “In a few years every station will broadcast in HD and these TVs will be common.” We walked to the UN headquarters, which he may have chosen because I was enthralled with geography and world cultures. After the tour there, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The city seemed so big and magical. I assumed that over the years, I’d get to see everything there I ever wanted to.
And now, so fast, the towers were gone. Dust, smoke, and ash on a bright late summer day. The sun incongruously shining through a spot it wasn’t supposed to. I don’t remember anything from then until we reached my dad’s workplace, except that lines were forming at gas stations, which I felt was crass, and the radio was filling in more details. The Pentagon. Another airplane mysteriously crashing in a field. Planes being grounded. Travelers stranded. Skyscrapers and malls closing for the day. Most disturbingly, jumpers and the goodbye calls from hijacked airliners or sky-high offices. We must have stopped at home to get the camera, which I felt was important. I wanted a record of the day.
My dad’s newsroom felt different that day. I’d been there countless times and had even spent days at work with my dad. (He encouraged my sister and I to speak to professionals in any field we showed interest in, and had us shadow his friends in fields like medicine, magazine writing, and public relations. In fact, one day the following summer, he dropped me off for the day at a Manhattan office to sit with a colleague’s daughter, who worked for CBS Newspath. I learned that her job was boring and she had a shoebox of an apartment – a valuable lesson.) The newsroom was often a busy pressure-cooker, but today everyone seemed scared and on edge. My dad was restraining himself from a meltdown, it seemed. No news on my granddad.
Kelly and I left to go outside and take some photos – the same ones in the prior post. We walked up and down Meridian St., noticing all the cars with headlights on to show some sort of awareness and support. I probably spoke about my disgust with the school for not interrupting sacred ISTEP time to tell us the full story. Our test seemed so incredibly unimportant. I was angry I hadn’t watched it happen in real time, like everyone else did. (My sister watched it from her junior high band room. They were on a late-start schedule that day, and she’d gone in before classes for jazz band and to talk to her friends. She saw the rest in her humanities classroom.) For reasons I couldn’t place, I felt I’d missed out on a crucial part of the shared experience. Deep down, I felt like if I’d known, maybe I could have stopped it from getting worse, even though I knew that was so silly that I didn’t even consciously voice it to myself for years.
As I’m typing this, I’m realizing I really don’t know what it was like for my parents that morning until we met up. I still don’t know how it felt for my dad to see his hometown attacked. It felt awkward for me to talk about it with my parents too much afterwards. I felt that way about a lot of sad things in the news or in my life back then. I didn’t want to make too big of a deal about things, nor did I want to risk looking maudlin like the people crying about Princess Diana on the news or forwarding hysterical email poems about school shootings. I was also afraid of my parents having their own emotional reactions, for reasons both founded and unfounded. In the years since, we’ve all gotten better at being open and expressing ourselves productively.
Although the attack hadn’t yet been claimed by anyone, I was pretty sure I knew who was behind it, and newscasters were starting to say the same. For the last few years, I’d watched reports about a creepy guy named Osama bin Laden, and I’d worried we weren’t doing enough about him.
Back in the newsroom, we watched the endless TV coverage until my mom decided we should go home. Driving down Pennsylvania St. past the Indianapolis Star offices, we saw a newspaper employee selling special editions. We pulled over and bought a few. The lines were still going on outside gas stations, and the prices had been jacked up considerably. In the second half of 1999, my sister and I had laughed about Y2K hysteria, and this gas panic seemed to come from the same place. It was more troubling, though. It was founded in a tangible reality. Kelly and I had a rare moment of laughter when the radio announcer said, “The president is consulting his cabinet.” We misheard “cabinet” as “Kevins” and pictured a room full of guys named Kevin, and that somehow being a normal thing for a president to have.
We stopped at our church again for a hastily-scheduled prayer service. I saw some of my classmates there, and I was relieved to see they seemed shaken. I was worried everyone at school would think I was weird for having left that day, or that no one would care about what happened.
I believe it was when we arrived home that we had a message waiting on our answering machine. My granddad was safe in Dobbs Ferry. He’d been startled awake from the commotion, apparently, and went outside to find a safe way out of the city. The commuter trains stopped running for a while, from what I remember, but when they began again in the late afternoon, he was on the first one. He noted that it felt like Pearl Harbor, except we weren’t sure who was behind it. That voicemail was one of the only times he sounded truly human. I never got to learn more about what he experienced that day.
My parents watched TV as my sister and I talked in our rooms. At one point, I went in and saw haunting footage of people walking around dazed, covered in dust. If I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed it was black and white film. I don’t believe I ever saw that clip again.
The enormous flock of office papers slowly floating down to the street made a big impression on me. I couldn’t look at confetti without thinking about it – in fact, I still usually think about it. The idea that almost all of the victims died at work stayed with me too. It’s hard to explain how that idea impacts me, but I suppose one way is that I believe work is an important part of one’s life, and if it’s bad, you should look for something else, because life could be short. And that you might die next to your coworkers, and you should always honor them as fellow people. Life includes work and work includes YOU – you shouldn’t just turn in your personality and your happiness for 8 hours a day and become a robot. Perhaps this idea, subconscious or not, shaped how my generation now approaches their careers.
Before bed, I noted in my journal: What an incredible day.
I wouldn’t want to relive the weeks and months afterwards. Even at the time, I knew that. I didn’t know much about politics at that age, but I felt torn about a lot of the rhetoric I heard. I wanted to honor my country and those who died, but I didn’t relate to that ever-present “Proud to be an American” song or the idea that we were attacked just because of our freedoms. I bought a shirt at school to raise money for the Red Cross. I bought some magazines and books with survivors’ stories. The idea of war made me feel conflicted.
One of my most visceral memories happened the next Monday. The airport was in our township, so everyone was used to seeing and hearing planes. All aviation traffic stopped for about six days, though. I was playing basketball outside with my gym class when a plane flew overheard. Everyone stopped and stared up, not saying a word.
Exactly a month after the attacks, my dad flew to New York to see his parents. We were no longer able to go to the gate with him. He said when they flew over Manhattan, it was just an awful smoking hole.
Another month after that, on my mom’s birthday, my granddad dropped dead from a heart attack. My grandmother had been cooking dinner when he fell over in the dining room. I wasn’t particularly sad, but I was worried for how it would impact my family. We drove out to New York. Even hours before we reached the city, American flags tied to overpasses became frequent. Pennsylvania felt eerie. As we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I looked down at the skyline. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. “It’s missing its dominant element,” I said, using terminology I’d picked up in newspaper class. It didn’t look right at all. The towers truly weren’t there.
That week was depressing. My granddad had died, it was Thanksgiving, the weather was dreary, and the town felt somber. Many residents had never come home. Cars gathered dust at the train station. Missing people posters were starting to come down. The grocery store down the street had a massive display of newspaper clippings, photos, missing people posters saved for posterity, and obituaries. My parents and uncle went to Manhattan to clean out my granddad’s second apartment and straighten out various bank accounts, but they wouldn’t let my sister and I tag along, despite our requests. I think their reasoning was twofold. One, they didn’t want us close to Ground Zero, and two, the apartment was apparently creepy and full of unsavory things. While we’d long suspected my grandfather had a mistress, the apartment’s contents confirmed it many times over. My sister and I stayed with our grandmother, running errands for her and getting her to watch movies on TV with us. One boring day, Kelly and I put on all of our makeup wrong just to amuse ourselves – black mascara on our eyebrows, concealer on our lips. We wanted to see Ground Zero, but in retrospect, perhaps it’s best we didn’t breathe any air around there. We saw it a few times in the years to come anyway. I still wished I’d gone up in the towers, but I also realized that doing so might have given me haunting memories and nightmares.
The last time I was near there was 4 years ago. I stopped to see the newly-built memorial, which is a beautiful, moving tribute. I noticed the beautiful Survivor Tree. Its story touched me. It spoke to many things I’d experienced in my own life, the smooth branches and delicate blossoms sprouting from twisted, charred spots. Drawing narratives from facts is hard; drawing meaning from both is even harder. But that tree seems like a good starting point.
I’ve sat on these photos for 15 years. After leaving school late in the morning, I got my parents’ nice film camera and my sister and I documented the day as we saw it. At the time, I wanted to be a journalist, and I had a lifelong fascination with history and photojournalism. I felt this day needed to be captured from all perspectives. My sister Kelly had just turned 13 and I was 14, a month away from 15. Each of these photos is captioned for more information – just hover over them. Some are poor quality or don’t show much, but I included them anyway.
For context, I left school around 11 am that day. My mom came to pick me up, worried that all hell might break loose here in Indianapolis (I was embarrassed by that) and thinking we should go see our dad since his father was in Manhattan and no one had heard from him. He was a producer at a local news station. We were there for several hours, then went home, and my dad joined us at home later that evening. We came home to an answering machine message from my grandad, who had been in his Midtown apartment and awoke with all the commotion. He was on the first train out of the city once they began running again that afternoon, he said, and was back with my grandmother in the suburbs of the city. I’ll expand upon all this in the next entry.
Special thanks to my mother for scanning these.
I wasn’t expecting to post another tribute so soon, but a few days ago I learned my HS guidance counselor has passed away at age 63.
Natalie did so much for me when I was at Ben Davis HS and beyond. She advocated for me when I had schedule issues (which was basically every semester) and when I needed to miss school events to interview for a scholarship. She pushed me to apply to DePauw when I didn’t think I should apply to any expensive schools. I got in, received several scholarships, and got a great education. My sister Kelly followed me to DePauw too. She helped both of us get several jobs. When I was in college, she had us dog-sit and take care of her house, and trusted us to drive her daughters to their summer activities. That was a big deal; she told us she trusted very few people for jobs like that.
While staying at her house, I leafed through her high school yearbooks and learned that she had protested the Vietnam War. When I was walking her little dog Rudy on the greenbelt in Chapel Glen one evening, I saw a coyote scurrying by the creek, clearly interested in him. I grabbed Rudy and prepared to fight off a predator. I walked away quickly and the coyote didn’t follow, thankfully. As I told people later, “I’d rather fight a coyote with my bare hands than face Mrs. Mattingly after telling her that her dog got eaten!” If you ever saw her when she was displeased, you understand. 😀
We didn’t leave her house much if we weren’t going to work. She would call us every day on the house phone. If we didn’t answer, she would call our cell phones and ask why we weren’t at the house. We’d be at work, which she understood we would have to do, but other than that she wanted her dogs to have our company and care. She also had us sit down with her daughters once, before they went into junior high, and said to them, “Okay, Kati and Kelly were very successful in school. They were also always very nice and respectful to me, unlike some kids. I’m going to have them tell you how they got through school and you can ask them questions. They can tell you how to deal with stress, mean girls, tough teachers, homework, anything.” I don’t think Kelly and I even knew in advance that she’d be putting us on the spot! It was funny, but we were flattered that she thought we had wisdom to share, and happy to share some advice to her sweet girls.
Two years ago, she moved a block away from my house in Herron-Morton. When I was looking for furniture before a move, she offered me her patio table, which is now sitting on my back porch.
I always appreciated her matter-of-fact demeanor. She had a way of drawing out whatever was on my mind, even if I’d just gone to her office for a signature on a college application. She never had the overhead light on in her office. It was lit with warm table lamps. There was a cozy chair with a pillow; the pillow had a cow on its back, legs in the air, with “Really, I’m fine” written in shaky handwriting. Recovering from cancer herself, she was acutely aware of how it impacted a child’s life (my mother had cancer when I was in 6th grade) and even asked me questions about my experience, gauging how that information might translate for her daughters. She was smart, funny, fierce, and yet sweet. I wish her family wasn’t facing her loss. I was so fortunate to have had her as my advocate and mentor. She touched so many students’ lives – her impact will remain on earth far into the future.
(I originally posted this on Facebook.)