Every time we go down to NYC I try to go to the site of the World Trade Center Towers. It is such a significant part of history, that all my children were alive to experience. The problem is, only two are old enough to remember it.
Middle Boy and Baby Boy were five and one, just under the age of memory, even for an event as large as September 11th. Every year we commemorate. We talk about it and why it matters.
On the first anniversary we lived in Washington D.C. and our gang made a free lemonade stand for commuters coming off the metro train that stopped by our house. Even though our sign said, "In Honor of our Fallen Heroes, this refreshing drink is FREE", many people wanted to give. It felt wrong to be getting something for nothing, on September 11th. It frustrated my children but demonstrated so clearly how much we were still hurting as a country.
On the move out to Washington D.C. we stopped by the field in Pennsylvania and left a few of their favorite beanie babies on the small chain length fence that served as a temporary memorial for the flight that crashed in that field. It was a child's way of saying thank you for the sacrifices that were made for our country.
During our stay in D.C. we watched the Pentagon slowly become a sturdy unit again, its gaping hole patched and its own memorials built.
But time moved on and the memorials and celebrations were not as big and loud. Still I never wanted my children to forget.
So now that we live closer to the biggest marker of that day I try to keep it fresh in their minds. I want them to grow up aware of the tragedy and aware of how a country unifies and rebuilds.
I worry that they tire of my speeches. I check out library books and tell them first hand stories about where all their loved ones were on that day. I want it to be real to them. But I always feel like I am falling short.
So this time, a few weeks ago, when we went down to the City again, we made the trek again. Some things are the same, but some things are changing. I was pleased that they remembered enough from our last trip to notice the changes. I tried to refrain from my default speech about sacrifice and courage. I tried to step back and let them see it for themselves.
We went to the little cafe across the street that was turned into a makeshift hospital. There are pictures on the wall today, of what that space looked like as a hospital. It is the most real thing I can find to show my eight year old, to help him understand.
This time around we walked up to a glass walkway that stretches over the West Side Highway. Hubby had been there for work and wanted to show the kids a new view.
As we were coming back from that look- out, we stumbled upon a man. I thought he was a beggar at first. I soon realized he was not homeless. He was on a mission.
Armed with his homemade binder of pictures from his treasured City, he spent his days wandering the area around Ground Zero, telling anyone who would listen about what it felt to live there on that day. He explained in great detail the confusion and chaos. He vividly explained how the Brooklyn Bridge was packed with people, from edge to edge, some only able to move forward by holding onto the shirt of the person in front of them because their eyes were so covered in dust and debris.
And as he spoke my little guys listened. Their eyes grew wide and their ears opened. They hung on his every word. As he explained that it was not just one building, but seven, that fell that day, they took it all in and nodded. As he described the sacrifice of many airline cabins full of people, not just the two, my children soaked it in.
And it became real. Through the stories of a man most would pass by and assume homeless, they finally got what I have been trying to teach them for years.
That it was real. It is real. It changed who we are as a country and who we are as a people. We are no longer the ineligible protected Americans in the glass bubble. Suddenly we were vulnerable. Just like the rest of the world. And it changes who we are.
I slipped a five dollar bill in the man's jar before he walked away and began his conversations with another set of tourist. But what he gave my children was worth so much more than five dollars. They will walk around with new eyes and new understanding.
It is something mere money cannot buy.
My only regret is that I did not hug him. And that I didn't have a hundred dollar bill to drop in his jar. Because he gave me a gift that I could never seem to find before.
He gave my children understanding and ownership of a part of their own history that they will never leave behind.