The other day, a high school classmate of mine posted a brief video clip of our entire class walking out of a parking lot to board a boat on the Hudson River for our freshman dinner dance. We drifted along our home state of New Jersey, but obviously the more inspiring view was on the New York City side.
Yesterday, the same classmate posted a handful of pictures from the trip that just happened to have the Twin Towers in the background. I’m in one of the photographs, looking much goofier than I remember being. Something about the sunset lighting and the scenery gives the impression that we were standing in front of a printed backdrop at a Big Apple–themed prom.
No, it was real. All of it was real. The goofiness. The turtlenecks with sports jackets. The big hair. The friend walking next to me in the video, who is no longer alive. And the towers. They were there. They really existed.
Something in me still burns that they — we — didn’t rebuild the towers as they were and, in fact, put the Freedom Tower off to the side to leave room for two gaping holes in the ground where they used to be. Another of my classmates commented that she still hasn’t been to the site. I haven’t either. I would have wanted to visit, I think, if something substantial were there. Imagine a bigger building, encompassing the whole space, that somehow incorporated hints of the Twin Towers in its architecture. Instead, a visitor looks at empty space where something used to be.
Yeah, well, I used to be funny looking. Some of my classmates used to have hair. One of them used to breathe and laugh. What matters is that we’ll attend our 25th reunion in a few months to see who everybody is, not who they were or, in a sense, who replaced them.
This past year, some of my old friends gave a scholarship at our high school in honor of the one who won’t be around for the upcoming party. The recipient kind of looks like him, but I wouldn’t want to go to see the young man standing next to an empty chair. We look to younger generations to see the hints of us in who they are.
My first thought upon seeing the low-quality video of our unintended ninth-grade parade was that our children will have a very different experience of life. This video was a gem, and I had to be reminded where it was taken. Those who are now that age will grow up with pictures and videos carried around, following them from phone to phone, for the rest of their lives. This sort of video would probably be next to pictures from before and after the event, in a long chronology. I wonder if that will change their sense of thereness and used-to-be-ness.
The 9/11 feeling is still there, for me, even if I can’t summon words about it until the day after an anniversary. Maybe that feeling of shock and loss persists because it only comes up from time to time, petering out to this annual remembrance. Will our children’s constant reminders of the past keep the past alive for them (perhaps well after it ought to have faded into dim memory), or will they move on more quickly as the experience of looking at the past becomes a regular habit of scrolling through a bunch of thumbnails?
I don’t know. I hope, though, that we all learn to see the past in terms of what is here, now, rather than the palpable absence of what used to be.