when pictures fail me…
It was time to vacate city life well before 9/11. For thirty years I had embraced it, rolled with its punches, and defended it through thick and thin to uncomprehending loved ones living in small town comfort with small town perspectives, an atmosphere that I had felt compelled to escape upon graduating high school. New York City was the power station that would supply energy to my youthful ambition. Here was the destination that offered the comfort and safety I craved–to be myself, to blossom, to pursue my destiny.
But as I entered midlife, I felt the call to slow down, simplify, and return to some semblance of my roots. And so, I, a single working woman and self-proclaimed diehard New Yorker, set up not only house and shop, but also a new life in a century-old “fixer-upper” on the banks of a Hudson River town that reminds me of the oldest sections of my own hometown. There are crumbling factory buildings, long abandoned, hugging the rushing creek that once fueled them with energy and life. The faded painted signs on their brick facades whisper “Electric Blankets” or “Ladies’ Hats” to a world that shops on the internet. A small railroad track parallels the creek, and kids as well as old-timers wander along them, maybe dreaming of a future or pondering a past. The telephone poles and towering trees and fences with honeysuckle choking the negative space between the chain link connect the mostly working class families in a jumbled patchwork quilt style, as the hill leads up from the creek to the pristine mountain.
There is a beacon on that mountain, and it must have beckoned to me. Here I felt free to create the yin to New York City’s yang–a workspace, a home, a nest. A haven that would draw upon all that was now deemed essential to my life’s quality. A nurturing place to flourish and grow older. A place to literally stop and smell the roses. A place to feel safe.
I was headed into Manhattan on that crystal-clear morning in September. On TV I had heard and seen the first plane hit, minutes before I left the house. Somehow, functioning on auto-pilot, I stayed my course of action, which was to go into the city to vote. I wanted to meet a friend who was a large and cherished part of my life, whom I hadn’t seen all summer. I had been busy with the stress of moving and acclimating to the mysteries of my basement’s operating systems and the pleasures of beginning my first garden. When he and I reconnected on the phone the Friday before the 11th, I suggested we hook up for dinner that Tuesday evening. He said that he couldn’t, he had to work.
I got on the commuter train, but two stops down the line came to my senses and turned around, racing home and into the living room to see the second tower fall. My friend was a firefighter. I found out later that I had rushed in to watch him perish. The shock wave that shot through me informed me of that fact as definitively as the call to his station house, and later, the confirming newspaper reports.
Events unfolded, my life changed–much more drastically than a move from town to city, when I was young enough to seek the safety to fly, or from city to town, when I was old enough to know the safest place to land. Safety was a state whose molecular composition had altered.
As it turned out, I lost not one dear friend, but two: both firefighters, both integral to my sense of personal serenity and security. It wasn’t simply that they were in occupations that came attached with the job description of making people feel protected; rather, it was something etched deep in their souls that harked back to my childhood. Pat and John, each in his own unique way, had reminded me of the men in my family whom I had depended on, loved, then lost. My father was killed in a freak accident while on the job as a utility company lineman when I was four. While my grandfathers were there for my mother, sister, and me, I evolved from a little girl into a young woman who at times flirted with feeling unsafe, just to see if I could find my own sense of security within myself. Or maybe it was because “unsafe” was more familiar to me than the alternative.
I now sit on a cinder block patio, in the cool shade, on my quiet street. Facing me is my gutted, unfinished kitchen, channeling my childhood home through the pungent smell of sawdust and the cool, damp fragrance of poured concrete. I hold the carpenter’s level with its encapsulated liquid, remembering how it mesmerized me when I was a child of three. Mostly I remember my father and grandfather working side by side, cementing their own bond as well as the edges of the cinder blocks. They would hand me the trowel to spread with my small fist, their large calloused hands guiding my tiny one to smooth the grey concrete on the foundation.
I often think of Pat, John, and the hundreds of others who, before they met their end, were doing what they did best–allowing others who were frightened, suffering, and trapped to feel some degree of safety. When I let my mind go where it does of its own accord at times, imagining how they themselves felt, I want to believe that they were so completely involved in a moment of perfect selflessness that there was no time or space for fear.
With each step of this new road I am on, I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew. I still have misgivings and apprehensions, but mostly I have hope. As I sit alone, I sense the presence of all the men I have lost, the men that made me feel safe, the men I knew and loved. Their legacy has been entrusted to my own safekeeping. I believe I can restore and build the rest of my life while cementing memories and mementos with mortal thoughts, hopes, and dreams. And who knows, with the tools bequeathed me, and while following an inner compass whose needle now always points to that safe place, maybe the destination is close at hand. Or maybe, as with most things in life, the journey is the most important part.
The firefighters I am honoring here are Captain Patrick Brown of Ladder 3, and FF John Santore of Ladder 5. As well as my father, Robert Lee Watts, and my grandfathers, R.Vernon Watts and Paul DeWalt.