My father once recounted how he and his father listened to the radio for the latest progress of the war in the Pacific to guess where his uncle might be fighting. The subsequent years impressed upon him the enormity of what he had lived through to such an extent that while raising my sister and me during a time of peace and prosperity, he would sometimes express sorrow that we didn’t live through history.
Then I was in New York City on 9/11.
Like so many I turned on the TV after the first plane hit and watched the second fly into the South Tower. The anchorwoman didn’t see it — maybe the fuel tank of the first plane exploded?, she wondered — and I gaped at the screen until her co-anchor confirmed I hadn’t imagined it. I remember walking on the streets during those morning hours while we were still under attack and hearing every kind of crazy rumor about what else had been hit. I got caught in a crowd running down 44th St. when there was a bomb scare at Grand Central. Everyone frantically called everyone else; there were no social networks then, and the mobile networks failed under the load. Days later I passed through armed barricades into the Financial District, walked through the snowy ash, and saw with my own eyes the smoldering ruins we still thought contained survivors. I cheered the rescue workers on the West Side Highway. I joined a vigil outside a neighborhood church. I was turned away from an overstocked blood donation center with no recipients. I watched a mountain of flowers grow in front of my neighborhood firehouse. Beneath the long column of smoke that hung over the city, the acrid smell in my nostrils, I eventually returned to work. And for weeks everywhere I went were the missing person fliers — clustered on lamp posts, spread across park gates, even layered atop the small bulletin board in the lunch place opposite my office.
My memories will pass with me, but hundreds of years from now people will still look at photographs of these things I saw with my own eyes.
So much of genealogy is understanding lives in context. Faced with the task of connecting the few dots we have about distant ancestors — records, stories, pictures, mementos — we turn to the history they lived through to guess the overall shape of the lives connecting those dots. Where were they when—? How were they affected by—? Large-scale disasters are especially useful, because you can be most sure that they impacted your ancestors in some way. An entire website, GenDisasters.com, helps you sort by date and place.
Here’s how this works: From records and stories we learn that a great-grandfather of mine escaped violent pogroms as a teenager, after a few serious missteps became successful during the roaring ’10s and ’20s, and died just before the crash reduced his widow to begging. In this way we both elevate and reduce the lives we reconstruct: I’ve made my great-grandfather into a brave survivor and blind victim of history all at the same time. This narrative is meaningful to me. But would he tell his life story this way?
Surely he didn’t think of himself as just another immigrant fleeing Russia. He always came home singing happy songs he made up, my father claims. Maybe he never saw, as I do, that his life was book-ended by adversity and marked by obstacles. Probably the events he would say most defined his life left no trace.
There are people whose whole lives are altered by the tragedies they live through. That uncle who fought at Guadalcanal returned prone to fits of rage. My closest NY friend at the time of 9/11 suffered PTSD. Then there are the vast majority of us who live through terrible events, but emerge unaltered, though affected. My father, who sat by the radio. His daughter, who lived in the city. How can you know which way your ancestor was touched by events so diffuse and yet all-enveloping?
And how can we know for ourselves, when only the distance of time can clarify the larger forces shaping our lives?
In generations to come one of my descendants might notice that there was a person in his tree who lived in New York City in the early 2000s. He’ll do what I do and bend the arc of this ancestor’s life to trace the trajectory of history, speculating how this recent college graduate was shaped by experiencing the tragedy firsthand as she embarked on adulthood. Thus my connection to 9/11 might endure longer than any life experience that I believe defined me or I want to bequeath, just as the real account of my great-grandfather is permanently lost behind the archetypal immigrant’s journey. Though 9/11 is in my life story, I don’t organize my version of my narrative around it. But eventually the telling will be in the hands of a person looking for his own meaning amongst the fragments.