How do you remember?
One answer is, personally, and not in a straight line.
Alice M. Greenwald posed the question on Monday, in front of an immense wall at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Unlike the slurry walls, stark and foreboding in their unadorned concrete condition (they were built around the foundation perimeter during the 1967 construction to prevent water seepage), this wall in Memorial Hall features an arresting work of art, composed of 2,983 hand-painted watercolors, all 101⁄2-inch- by-101⁄2-inch squares of blue. Each is its own unique shade, one for every person who died during the 9/11 attacks, as well as the six lost in the 1993 bombing at the site. The piece, titled Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, is by Brooklyn-based artist Spencer Finch, who often works with themes of light and memory.
His grid surrounds a phrase by Virgil, its words forged by blacksmith Tom Joyce from steel excavated from the rubble of the fallen towers: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” True to a promise made years ago by then-New York Governor George Pataki to victims’ families that the unidentified remains would be interred at the site, the wall fronts the area housing those remains. The visual resonates as both powerful and soothing.
Greenwald, the director of the museum, dis- cussed the elements of the wall during an abbreviated Monday-morning tour. The group of fashion journalists she addressed had been invited to a breakfast hosted by Diane von Furstenberg with “special guests” Michael R. Bloomberg, chairman of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and Emily Rafferty, a board member. The invitation pointed to an update on the museum’s upcoming exhibitions and initiatives, which Rafferty would touch on. But really, there was no specific agenda beyond shared perspectives on the Memorial Museum, punctuated by a nonspecific agenda by von Furstenberg.
Although the museum hosts an average upward of 8,000 visitors a day, city residents are not visiting in numbers its administrators would like to see. After a visit of her own, von Furstenberg decided to do her part. She thus directed her high-influence, high-results DVF-ness toward raising awareness among fashion scribes who often write about social and cultural topics beyond fashion.
She, Bloomberg and Rafferty traded compliments. Bloomberg noted DVF’s philanthropic endeavors for the city; she called his role as the driving force responsible for raising $450 million from the private sector a well-kept secret. Rafferty added that the former mayor approached the project with great kindness, and pushed when necessary. (Rafferty, who lost a close friend in the attacks, at first declined a position on the board, but ultimately accepted and retained it through her entire tenure as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from which she retired last year.)
They all spoke of the intrinsic significance of the museum. Without downplaying its emotional resonance, Bloomberg focused on its educational role in a world “where Oliver Stone is a historian and every problem can be solved in 140 characters.” In a schmaltz-free expression of patriotism, he noted that the museum should be a beacon for open discussion. “You can argue, I think accurately,” he said, that the attacks were “an attack on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and how we treat each other and all of those kinds of things…
“It’s a complex thing, how you tell a story. Then, going forward, if you really believe in freedom… you have to let artists — it will be interesting to see what they do — express themselves, and people who have very different views about how we interact, pray, live their lives and whatever. Are you going to let them have their say, or are you going to say, ‘Well it’s a holy place, sacred — you can’t express those views’?”
Rafferty cited a dual purpose. The Memorial & Museum is “a place to reflect on tragedy,” she said. “But also, museums are places where you learn, that resonate with possibility and opportunity.”
DVF came from a regulagal (read: no formal museum affiliation) perspective. She recalled her own reaction the morning of the attacks. Upon seeing the planes from her West 12th Street home, she “became the Jewish mother that I am. I assembled all my kids, put them in my car and ran away. I wasn’t very heroic.”
Nor have the intervening years found her particularly contemplative about the event, though she did visit the reflecting pool to search for the name of her friend, Berry Berenson Perkins, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11. “Maybe when something happens to you or near, you kind of protect yourself,” she said. Then, “for some reason,” she made an appointment and walked through the museum with Joe Daniels, the museum’s president and chief executive officer. She found herself fascinated, emotional and plenty impressed by the results of her good friend Bloomberg’s work. Her pitch to the journalists she assembled for scrambled eggs and enlightenment: “Spread the word, to make people come here to remember. And it’s not just sadness. It’s also the resiliency, and that is what this country is about. That’s why I love this country.”
Which brings me back, circuitously, to that question of how we remember in nonlinear ways. We didn’t take a full tour; the museum is enormous, and people in the group had to get to work. Contemplating Finch’s blue grid was powerful enough, as I wasn’t prepared for where my mind went. The vision of the wall, its soothing blue power, stayed with me, and various thoughts darted into mind throughout the day.
Later, I would think about various snapshots of 9/11, of first seeing the horror of flames and smoke, still unexplained, during a cab ride down Fifth Avenue. Of the madness unfolding during what was supposed to be a normal show day. Of an elevator encounter with a woman who worked at 550, distraught with worry for her firefighter husband; I never found out who she was or of his fate. Of watching the North Tower fall, at Michael Kors, where I’d gone for a morning preview. Of working late in a mostly empty building to get the paper out.
But in that moment, looking at that wall, those blue squares, my mind went somewhere else. I thought about Jordan. The last time I strolled around Lower Manhattan — no fashion show, no work event, no meet-up at the Whitney — was on the evening of Nov. 4, with my nephew Jordan, the sweetest kid you could imagine. He’d come into the city, from Wake Forest, for an internship interview at Goldman Sachs. We met at an intended-to- wow hotel where Goldman puts kids up. Since his flight had been delayed, we canceled our dinner reservation in favor of pragmatic prep — Jordan was a planner. He unpacked; I ironed. He asked my opinion on which of three ties I thought best.
He asked, too, if I’d mind a trial run to Jersey City, the site of his interview the next morning. Why leave logistics to chance? We took the PATH train. The Color of the Sky — dark and beautiful. We talked about the sky, stopping to admire the skyline. Jordan couldn’t wait to work in New York. He and his sister Nora intended to get an apartment together when she graduated college. (She’ll be a freshman in September; as noted, he was a planner.)
I was about to write here that this sky conversation was unusual, that we’re not ponder-the-sky people, but then I remembered that Jordan wrote one of his college essays about the night sky. I took a picture as we took in the skyline together, texting my daughter, “Greetings from New Jersey. Love, Jordan and Mom.” It’s one of the regrets of my life I didn’t ask him to step into the frame.
We spoke after his interviews, on Thursday morning, as he was about to leave for the airport. He was excited and happy; he thought he’d done his best. He never made it to school. He was in a car accident on the way back from the airport on Thursday night. He was declared dead on Friday afternoon, and taken off life support the following day, once his organs were removed for transplant.
I’m not writing this to make people sad. Nor did I need the blue wall to think of my nephew. I think of him all the time; I’m looking at his picture on my desk. But this wall, part of an imposing memorial to a catastrophic event that, as Greenwald point out, was shared in real time by two billion people, touched me on level deeply personal, and seemingly disconnected from the tragedy of 9/11. Jordan’s death was singular; it wasn’t part of a global cataclysm. But each one of the deaths — and lives — represented by a blue square in Finch’s installation was singular, 2,983 someones loved and mourned for the individuals they were, yet connected to a larger world story. We all are.
I thought of the Reos. Armand and Judy Reo, friends of my parents, lost a son and a son-in-law on 9/11. I didn’t know either; their children were considerably younger than I, and we went to different schools. After Jordan died, Judy sent my sister Liz a letter written from the perspective of someone who understands. She didn’t promise full recovery. She did write that she has found comfort in faith and family. Diane might call that resiliency.