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ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, I was doing what I do as well as anyone I know: that is, not writing. This is an enduring part of my daily routine, something like the unbirth- day party in Through the Looking-Glass. Unlike some of my colleagues—mainly the ones I don’t really care for—I do not fly to my desk each morning with a full heart and a ready hand. I skirt the perimeters of my home office with a sense of dread, eyes averted from an empty computer screen. Instead of creation there is always procrastination: the call to my closest friend to chew over the morning paper and to gossip, which sometimes comes to the same thing; the power walk in Central Park and the interlude at Starbucks—my husband calls it Four-bucks—and the triple venti no-foam latte. Luckily the laundry room is five stories below my office, or I could surely eke out another half hour folding sheets and T-shirts. Several years ago my daughter downloaded a computer game called Snood onto my laptop and for months, before I had used up all the demonstration games, I played over and over in single-minded pursuit of nothing more than a position on a scoreboard that only I ever saw and on which I was known as Big Mama. Eventually I deleted the program. I had developed a terrible Tetris problem a decade earlier that had enabled me to put off writing until well past 10:00 a.m., and I could see which way things were headed.
I am a creature of habit; it is all that allows me to write in the first place, the routine designed to ward off the moment, and then the moment itself, when the first feeble sentence, often merely a prelude to better things, appears as my fingers play word jazz on the keyboard. What follows is usually a manic two or three hours fed by caffeine and the CD of the moment. Sondheim, Tori Amos, Rosemary Clooney, James Taylor, Alanis Morissette. I did not want to learn to type, but the nuns insisted, saying someday I might marry a man who would need his papers typed or be employed by a man who needed the same done to his business letters. My fingers are the only sure-handed things about me when I first sit down to write. After all those years in newsrooms I am a very fast typist indeed, as fast as any executive secretary.
But it was the variation from routine that enables me to remember that morning in particular, remember it before it became the morning of the most important day in the history of the United States during my lifetime. It was my eldest child’s eighteenth birthday, and that morning at breakfast his father and I had recalled with clarity and more than a little schmaltz the stiflingly hot morning when he had arrived, limp and gray after a forceps delivery. Twelve days before we had left him at college for the first time, and we were still smarting from the fissure in our family. Before we got into the car and drove away, we reminded him yet again that when he turned eighteen he was obliged by law to go to the post office and register with the Selective Service. Neither of us felt any fear when we told him to do that; it seemed almost quaint, that particular demand at that moment in time from the two of us, the former boy who had lived through the Vietnam draft lottery, the former girlfriend who had stood by breathless waiting for his number to come up, the young couple exhaling in relief after. If I had thought there was any chance my son would be forced to go to war, I would have bought him a ticket to Canada instead of driving him to Connecticut.
There were two other reasons that I remember that morning so clearly as well. The day before my daughter and I had attended the funeral of a family friend in Pennsylvania, and once I was done with my nonwriting rituals I intended to write about her, about the considerable inspiration that the lives of valiant older people provide us. I had gone straight from that funeral to a hospital, where my closest friend was having cancer surgery, surgery that appeared to have been spectacularly successful. So while I have a great deal of trouble remembering almost anything at this moment in my life—while I once did a column tied to my age called “Life in the 30s,” I now say that the fifties version would be entitled “Where the Hell Did I Leave My Keys?”—I do remember how I felt that particular morning as I settled into the old Windsor chair at which I finally, finished with preliminaries, sat down to write. I felt painfully mortal, quite vulnerable, and enormously grateful.
Over the course of the next few days the entire city in which I work, the entire country in which I live, would come to feel much the same way.
For me there was a peculiar reason for gratitude as the horrible events of that day unspooled in a long endless loop of cataclysmic news footage. When my husband called to tell me to turn on the television, we both thought there had been a freak accident. But as I watched the arc of that second plane as it smashed into the Trade Center towers just a few miles south of our narrow Victorian row house, I knew that something uniquely terrible was taking place. I also had reason to believe that everyone I cared for most was safe: My husband across the Hudson at his office. The children at their schools. My friend in the hospital across town. It was difficult for us to talk to one another, of course, with the New York City telephone lines out, the tunnels and bridges shut down, and cyberspace hopelessly jammed. One of the mementos I have kept from that morning are three identical e-mails from our son at college, who could not get through on the day of his birthday or for three days afterward. Each one is dated September 11, 2001, and says in capital letters I REALLY NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.
The morning after, a new world burned and bloomed, too, beneath an incongruously cerulean sky. A group of my daughter’s friends gathered in our kitchen and made hundreds of sandwiches and brownies to take to the Red Cross offices nearby. They bought enormous bags of dog food to bring to the local firehouse for their dalmatians and the rescue dogs looking for survivors downtown. The familiar strangers in our neighborhood lingered on the street to speak to one another, to pass along the newest stories about the horror to the south and the people who knew people who’d been inside the twin towers. Two days later the wind changed and the neighborhood smelled sharply of smoke. “I know that smell,” an old man who lived in the apartment house on the corner said in accented English, and someone told me he was a Holocaust survivor.
Most nights, housebreaking the puppy we had picked up the day after our son left for school, I would run into a fireman who was heading home after working the wreckage, his eyes burning bright in a grimy face, his hands nicked and bandaged. He would pet our dog, rub her ears and muzzle, finally crouch to hold her squirmy little body close, and by the time he rose for the rest of the walk home there would be bright tear tracks in the dirt on his face. I tried not to cry until he was gone.
But despite the scent of death and the fighter planes flying low overhead and the interior rat-a-tat of panic and fear, there was also that hidden gratitude, the feeling on the part of most New Yorkers that they might have been downtown, that they could have gone to a meeting or a breakfast, that they somehow were still alive. For me that gratitude was also professional. The morning of September 12, 2001, I was at my desk first thing, no preliminaries, no computer games, seizing the chance to write about an event more destructive, more transformative, and more important than any I had ever written about during three decades as a journalist. And at that moment I thanked God, not only for the safety of my family and friends, but for the gift of being permitted to do what I do for a living.
It’s a strange job, covering and commenting on the news. Life washes over us as it does all our fellows, and yet we see it in a completely different way than they do. Disaster, tragedy, malfeasance, change: Everything is always arranging itself into stories, making itself tidy and suitable for 900-word retellings. Nothing is too messy to be summed up in a headline or a sound bite. We are the people who go to wars with laptops instead of guns, who look at the scene of the crime without turning away, who stand in the flickering heat of a house fire and take down the details as someone jumps from a third-story window. We ask questions ordinary people would be ashamed to ask. We watch. That is our job.
The greater the event, the larger the disconnect between what we feel as human beings and how we look at things dispassionately as reporters. I remember well arriving back in the city in 1977 after telling our families that we had become engaged and emerging from the Holland Tunnel, not into the twinkle glare of the downtown streets but into darkness limned with the foreboding shadows of buildings black-on-black, New York City absent all electrical power. For just an instant I thought how amazingly different the place looked, how bright the stars, how dark the streets. But almost immediately everything coalesced into a single thought: how big the story!
I do not know any reporter who truly managed to feel that way about the events of September 11, although all of us knew it was indeed the biggest story we would ever cover. It was also the one in which the human part of us stayed in the forefront, right there beside the notebook. The pain was too great, the loss too enormous, the shock too overwhelming. Most of my colleagues stayed whole during the days that followed, feeling the event and covering it at the same time. This is relatively rare but, in this case, absolutely necessary, not only, I think, for the mental health of the reporters but for the verisimilitude of the stories they produced. I have never been quite as proud of being in the business as I was during those dreadful days, when newspapers, magazines, and television all produced exemplary work. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, The New York Times would win more Pulitzers than it ever had, and Newsweek would be honored with the National Magazine Award for best magazine in its circulation class. This was no accident. The story of what happened to the people in those buildings and to the United States was so enormous that it called upon the best within all of us to respond. Some people did that by combing the wreckage, cooking for the rescue crews, setting up funds for widows and orphans. In my business we did it by writing the truth, beautifully.
For me personally the opportunity to do this was something of an accident of timing. I had been in the newspaper business for many years, as a reporter, an editor, and finally a columnist, and while I had loved it almost insanely, I had always hoped someday to write novels. I’d managed to work on my fiction while I was a columnist, but eventually the challenge of keeping on top of the news and on top of three young children and ricocheting wildly between the two while trying to live in the invented world of fiction became too much for me. In 1995 I left The New York Times and, I thought, the world of journalism for good. One of the most enduring memories of my life will be walking my last night down Forty-third Street, past the New York Times building, the globe lamps with the old English logo glowing black against the white light. I felt as though a door had slammed at my back, and while I’d blown it shut myself, it was still not a good feeling.
For the first year I was a recovering journalist, not a recovered one. Occasionally news would break out and I would feel a frisson, like a phantom limb: I know about that! I have some thoughts! And once one of the children, in that inimitable way children have, went to the heart of it when we were watching the report of a doctor murdered at an abortion clinic. “Who’s going to write about this stuff now that you’re gone?” he said, chewing thoughtfully on a Fruit Roll-Up.
But the children also agreed that what they called “that look” had disappeared. I had not even known that there was a particular look, but when they reprised the semiconscious mother of seasons past it turned out to be the look a woman might have while listening to an account of a bad call at a basketball game or a hilarious episode of flatulence in the fifth-grade classroom while simultaneously thinking of welfare reform or gun control. According to their reports, I now appeared to be attending at least some of the time. Certainly it had become easier to attend to the business of writing fiction, and I found myself inhabiting the world of my third novel in a way that had been more difficult to do with the two before it, falling in and not climbing out every other day for a visit to a homeless shelter or a wild six hours banging out a screed on capital punishment. It was a good life, and whenever I was asked whether I missed being a journalist, I always answered, “No.”
But five years into it the editor in chief at Newsweek had offered me a prime piece of real estate, the back page of the magazine and its venerable “Last Word” column. My essays would run only every other week, which left plenty of time to wallow in the invented world of a new novel. The first column was like riding the proverbial bicycle; you may be shaky, but you never forget. I was nearly two years into the routine when the worst happened that September morning and terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and, because of the intervention of a group of heroic passengers, an empty field in Pennsylvania. And at that moment I was so glad to have a column that I could have written one every day. I looked time and time again at my son’s message: I NEED TO HEAR YOUR VOICE.
It was not that I necessarily had something distinctive to say about the savagery of the terrorists, the scope of the devastation, or the psychological scars left on the nation, although that was what I tried to produce in the long run-up to the first anniversary of the attack. I wanted to serve the readers; I also wanted to serve myself, to understand for my own sake as well as theirs. That I have always done through the algebra of prose—this word, to this one, and so on, and so on, until by inches an idea is born, and sometimes even an epiphany. That is one of the things journalists do when they go about their work, one of the collateral benefits of our hit-and-run lives. We learn to understand the world, what is important and what is important to us, and therefore who we truly are. The great plagiarism scandals in the profession have always originated with people who are empty vessels and are therefore comfortable filling the emptiness with invention, which is a fancy way of saying lies. Real reporters are always searching for some version of the truth so that, in the long run, they can assemble the truth about the world out of all the stories they have covered and the things they have learned. That is why, in contrast to the common belief that they are the world’s great cynics, the best journalists are the world’s great idealists. They have experienced firsthand the great soothing balance of human existence. For every disgrace there is a triumph, for every wrong there is a moment of justice, for every funeral a wedding, for every obituary a birth announcement.
There was no better time to be about this work than on September 11, 2001, and not because it was what we like to call a great story. It transcended that, as it transcended so much else we had ever imagined or known. But to try to cast light into the gray darkness that fell as those buildings burned and fell to bits was a uniquely important undertaking that I would not have wanted to watch from the sidelines. And it cemented what I had always known about the business, that it had the ability to make you better than you thought you could be because of the ordinary courage you saw at every turn.
Two nights after the terrorist attacks I was driving home from New Jersey, where I had given a speech, and as I came around the ramp that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel I saw across the river a great plume of gray smoke with orange fire at its center, a hellish foundry where two of the city’s greatest landmarks had stood just days before. The man driving the car and I both let out a kind of strangled sound, a gasp and a cry together, and both of us wept. “God help us,” he said. And as he did I took a notebook from my bag and wrote down what he said and how it looked and how I felt.
PERHAPS IT WAS INEVITABLE that we’d wind up with a couple of second-generation writers around the house. All three children had grown up thinking being a writer was as easy as going upstairs and then coming down to get a Diet Coke, muttering “I should have gone to med school.” One afternoon I was talking to one of them about what he saw as the trajectory of his future career as a fiction writer—I believe the term “working construction” came up more than once—when he shrugged and said, “I guess I’ll start with a thinly veiled semiautobiographical novel.”
It’s no more than I deserve. I’ve been writing about my children since there were children to write about. And I’ll say about it the same thing I said to the guy who called in to a Chicago radio station and complained that I was opinionated: That’s what I’m paid for. During one period of my life my job was to write a column in which the kids provided most of my material, mainly because I had two under the age of two and I didn’t get out of the house enough to have anything else to write about. What saved me was the fact that a lot of that material was universal, at least among women of a certain age. So universal, in fact, that the paper once heard from a real nutbar who insisted that I was plagiarizing my column from the contents of her journals. She, too, had little boys who played with Legos and sometimes misfired when they stood in front of the toilet.
There are various criticisms of writing about your own kids: It’s too cute, or it’s not illuminating, or it’s downright exploita- tive. I ran all of them through what was left of my mind in those years, while I was watching Christmas pageants with toddler sheep and attending parties at which at least half the guests had a major emotional break somewhere between the cake and the presents. And if really pushed I would have had an unsatisfactory answer for why I did it: For the moment, it was my beat.
But in retrospect I think I was being a little too apologetic about the entire business. The world of children and child-rearing is social history writ small but indelible, whether it’s the minutiae of Barbie dolls and Power Ranger action figures or the phenomenon of books like Harry Potter or The Cat in the Hat. It’s a shared experience, not just for the children but for their parents, and a snapshot of where we were then.
And it inevitably leads you to write about other people’s kids as well, the ones who get in trouble, who die too young, who live hopeless lives in places your lucky semiautobiographical types will never live and maybe never visit. If the job of a good reporter is, as H. L. Mencken once said, “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” then you can easily do both at once by writing about how tough society can be on its youngest members. And to the extent that you can make two people who care more than anything in the world about one small child thereby generalize their concerns to other small children, that feels like a very good thing.
At a certain point I traded writing about my own kids for writing about the troubles of kids in general. Plumbing the lives of the ones you live with every day has a fairly short shelf life if you know what you’re doing as a parent. You have to be more care- ful as they become more conscious and more literate. But there comes a time when even taking care is not enough, and an absolute ban on the territory is clearly in order. No teenager I have ever known wants to read in a newspaper or magazine about that little sex talk you decided to have one night after he came home with a hickey. (“The only sexual behavior that doesn’t survive high school,” says my friend Gail, who is my mother role model and stays calm about everything.) Actually, no teenager really wants to have the little sex talk, so having it memorialized in print, for everyone else’s parents to see—“Oh, I see Maria and her mom had a very serious discussion the other day”—only adds insult to injury. And puberty.
On the other hand, putting it all down in sentence form makes it easier to go back and look with a gimlet eye at the early years in a way most of us are unwilling to do when the children are small, especially when bystanders keep insisting we must be engaged in an enterprise of unwavering joy even though a fair amount of that enterprise consists of disposing of waste products. There is only one column I have ever written under duress; it came after a woman in Texas had drowned all five of her young children while in the grip of postpartum depression. My editor insisted, and he was right. After many years of hearing nightmare tales of children who did not sleep through the night until they approached adolescence (when of course they began sleeping through the afternoon), I became aware that the universe had arranged for me to have a pretty easy run as a mother. But even an easy time can be hard, and so there’s probably no other issue that demands real honesty as much as motherhood does. (It may also be the only emotional role in which it is possible to be honest and balanced at the same time. Writers are wont to rip the lid off the institution of marriage once divorced, but they wind up telling only part of the story. Usually the bad part.) I tried to be honest, perhaps painfully so, in the wake of that shocking act of multiple infanticide, and you could tell how seldom that happened by the reader reaction to the resulting column about the demands of child-rearing. “Thank God” was the prevailing sentiment from women who felt as though they’d checked their selves at the labor room door. I was once one of them, but I got lucky in a big way. I got to write about it.
Now most of what goes on in my children’s lives becomes grist for their own mills, episodes in their own essays and stories. Times come, times go. Once I knew every episode of Ren & Stimpy; once I foraged desperately for the Christmas toy you could never manage to score, the one that was featured on the news with parents in sleeping bags waiting for Toys “R” Us to open, be it for Power Rangers or Furbys or Boglins. The parade has passed me by. I have never watched SpongeBob SquarePants and the Christmas list is heavy on Tower Records and J.Crew clothes. Someday I will return to writing about these children, but only when they are adults and can fight back properly in print if they so choose. The weddings, perhaps. The job searches. Maybe the grandchildren. And when that semiautobiographical novel appears—oh, I am so there. Good-bye Dr. Spock
NOVEMBER 2000 IF NOT FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHS I might have a hard time believing they ever existed. The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the black button eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin.
All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost adults, two taller than me, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets, and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.
Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach. Berry Brazelton. Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early childhood education, all grown obsolete. Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages, dust would rise like memories.
What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations and the older parents at cocktail parties—what they taught me was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can only be managed with a stern voice and a time-out. One boy is toilet trained at three, his brother at two. When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome.
As a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow. First science told us they were insensate blobs. But we thought they were looking, and watching, and learning, even when they spent so much time hitting themselves in the face. And eventually science said that we were right, that important cognitive function began in early babyhood. First science said they should be put on a feeding schedule. But sometimes they seemed hungry in two hours, sometimes three, sometimes all the time, so that we never even bothered to button up. And eventually science said that that was right, and that they would be best fed on demand. First science said environment was the great shaper of human nature. But it certainly seemed as though those babies had distinct personalities, some contemplative, some gregarious, some crabby. And eventually science said that was right, too, and that they were hardwired exactly as we had suspected.
Still, the temptation to defer to the experts was huge. The literate parent, who approaches everything—cooking, decorating, life—as though there was a paper due or an exam scheduled is in particular peril when the kids arrive. How silly it all seems now, obsessing about language acquisition and physical milestones, riding the waves of normal, gifted, hyperactive, all those labels that reduced individuality to a series of cubbyholes. But I could not help myself. I had watched my mother casually raise five children born over ten years, but by watching her I intuitively knew that I was engaged in the greatest—and potentially most catastrophic—task of my life. I knew that there were mothers who had worried with good reason, that there were children who would have great challenges to meet. We were lucky; ours were not among them. Nothing horrible or astonishing happened: There was hernia surgery, some stitches, a broken arm and a fuchsia cast to go with it.
Mostly ours were the ordinary everyday terrors and miracles of raising a child, and our children’s challenges the old familiar ones of learning to live as themselves in the world. The trick was to get past my fears, my ego, and my inadequacies to help them do that. During my first pregnancy I picked up a set of lovely old clothbound books at a flea market. Published in 1933, they were called Mother’s Encyclopedia, and one volume described what a mother needs to be: “psychologically good: sound, wholesome, healthy, unafraid, able to deal with the world and to live in this particular age, an integrated personality, an adjusted person.” In a word, yow.
It is good that we know so much more now, know that mothers need not be perfect to be successful. But some of what we learn is as pernicious as that daunting description, calculated to make us feel like failures every single day. I remember fifteen years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil (see: slug) for an eighteen-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can walk just fine. He can walk too well. Every part of raising children at some point comes down to this: Be careful what you wish for.
Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the “Remember When Mom Did” Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language—mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, “What did you get wrong?” (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch The Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?
But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages six, four, and one. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.
Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. How much influence did I really have over the personality of the former baby who cried only when we gave parties and who today, as a teenager, still dislikes socializing and crowds? When they were very small I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.
There was babbling I forgot to do, stimulation they never got, foods I meant to introduce and never got around to introducing. If a black-and-white mobile really increases depth perception and early exposure to classical music increases the likelihood of perfect pitch, I blew it. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact, and I was sometimes over-the-top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.