A couple of years after 9/11, I was assigned by my Daily Record editor to write a piece for our annual Living Guide on Morris County’s 9/11 Memorial which had been built out in West Hanover Avenue, in the county complex.
It was fitting spot for the memorial. West Hanover was one of the many elevated spots in East and Central Jersey where people gathered on 9/11 to stare at the burning and empty Manhattan skyline.
It was an odd assignment, I thought, because the Living Guide was this collection of information about towns and school and events, and was a generally cheery compilation of stuff.
The 9/11 Memorial was not cheery at all, but was important enough to include.
The plan was to visit and speak with anyone who had stopped by to reflect on and remember that day.
I had a month to complete the assignment, and try as I might, in over a dozen visits and drive-bys, I found no one to speak with; instead I wrote essentially a tone poem about the meaning of the site.
Instead of finding people, I found their presence. Mementoes dropped and left with a small prayer. Coins, stones, memorial cards, photos, hand-written notes wrapped in plastic baggies, items that meant more to the person who left it, than to the visitor who saw the items.
The stone wall, surrounding the memorial which includes steel from the World Trade Centers, was covered by hundreds of small mementoes.
It was a clear day, that last day I visited the memorial before writing the story, the kind of day that anyone before 9/11 could have gazed eastward and seen the tops of the towers.
I wrote instead that “no one had to gaze anymore toward the horizon to see the towers because they were here.”
As powerful as the presence of the steel is, it is the small mementos that carry the greater weight.
It was, and remains, about the power of grief and silence.
I’m always struck by the silence. I’ve been there on many anniversaries and there is always a quiet dance of visitors. Eyes lock, heads nod, but each person seems to join in an unspoken respect that while there is shared emotion, it is a very personal ritual. I often leave a sprig of rosemary, tucked carefully into a corner where the steel beams meet. An ancient symbol of remembrance, because I will never forget driving up that hill and seeing smoke and emptiness in my rearview mirror.
You’re right. The thing that impresses me is that despite the memorial being in a very busy area at the county complex, it is silent; its presence sucks the noise out of the air.