My grandmother died on September 7th, 2001. She had been living in a suburb of Pittsburgh ever since her third husband, a retired steel worker, had died decades earlier.
Being next of kin it fell on my brother and me to get down there and take care of things. My mother, who happened to be in NY that weekend drove the very large family van with us in it. The funny thing is that this was my father's mother who had died. But my mother, never one to pass up a road trip with her sons. Besides, she had a big van and we were going to need it. It's a long drive from New York City to McKeesport, PA.
To say that my grandmother was not well would be an understatement. Always somewhat emotionally immature as well as an alcoholic, she had left behind a small apartment piled wall to wall and knee high in Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes mailings and chintzy "consolation prizes". So when we arrived at her place on the morning of September 9th. We had a lot of work ahead of us.
It took us two days to get all the garbage out. On the morning of the 11th, we turned on the news as we got ready to leave the hotel and head to the apartment. There was a small campus fire at UP Pittsburgh. A dorm kitchen apparently. We watched the coverage of that, grabbed our free hotel coffee and headed over. One there, we packed up all the "consolation prizes" to take to the Goodwill in the next town. Deciding we needed to stop by the hotel on the way to the Goodwill to use the bathroom, we headed into the lobby, van loaded with stuff.
In the lobby, guests and staff were all gathered, watching the television. All I saw on screen was smoke. I thought to myself "Wow, that campus fire is out of control". I turned to a guy standing next to me and asked him what was going on. He told me that planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I stared at him in disbelief, my face probably for an instant communicating "fuck you, what's really going on?" But I saw he meant it.
We had to keep moving though. There was just too much that had to be done at grandma's to pause. So, after our bathroom break, we got back into the van to head to the Goodwill. The "Kill All Towelheads" signs were already up on pick up trucks that we drove, listening to the Today Show on the radio. As we commented to eachother on how we were already blowing it, the first tower fell. How my mother managed to stay on the road at that point, I'll never know.
It's a very odd experience listening to someone narrate a terrible event as it is happening. Matt Lauer's voice will forever have that echo for me. In a way, I'm grateful that I wasn't among the millions watching. Weird as it was, I think it was easier to process emotionally for me than seeing it would have been.
We unpacked at the Goodwill which was for all intents and purposes abandoned, and went back to town. We had to stop at the town funeral home to arrange grandma's cremation. On the way, we listened to the second tower falling.
When my brother and I returned to the van from the funeral home, our mother who had stayed in it to listen to the radio told us that another plane had just crashed in Shanksville, about 70 miles from us.
It seemed like the end of the world in that moment. The Twin Towers were one thing, the Pentagon part of the same thing...but a field in rural Pennsylvania? "What the fuck?" just doesn't even cover it.
We took a few moments to pull our heads back together and get back to grandma's apartment. We were finally going to be able to deal with her actual possessions. And start to figure out what to do with everything.
Much of it, oddly, was still in boxes though she'd lived in that apartment for 20 years. (I guess she needed the room for all the used PCH mailings). Taking the box nearest where I sat, I opened it carefully. It felt like it would be mostly paperwork and that seemed like the best place to start anyway.
When I opened the box right there at the top, was a plastic framed 3D photograph taken of the World Trade Center to commemorate the opening of the Twin Towers. My grandmother had kept it from her visit that summer of 1970.
I gasped. All the time it took to get through the detritus she had left behind...the events of the day and the first actual possession of my grandmother's I uncover was this.
Life is weird.