A Fireman’s Daughter

I’m the product of a love-at-first-sight situation, where a feisty Southern woman finally gave into the forward Northern advances of a man from New Jersey. I came home to a house that was built more than 100 years ago with a dirt basement and unfinished back porch. I grew up on grandiose city dreams that only grew bigger with each passing year, and with every loving, supportive friend and family member who reminded me if I could believe it, I could be it. I’m the type of girl who enjoys slow-starting Sundays, beverages in non-traditional cups and the feel of freshly pressed sheets and blankets after escaping the subtle Autumn breeze.

There are many things that go into creating the me that I am but there’s a fact that’s especially close to my heart, especially today: I’m a fireman’s daughter.

Unless you’re part of the Fire Department’s family, it’s hard to fully comprehend the tremendous love and brotherhood in between those brick walls. I spent countless Thanksgivings and Christmases at the fire station, surrounded by other wives and children, eating and laughing, half-way annoyed that we couldn’t be in the comfort of our home and half-way thankful for a casual gathering that’s accepting of jeans and sweaters instead of holiday ruffles and trinkets. I declared one of the rookies — the young guys just starting out — as my boyfriend in kindergarten and one time as I looked through pictures of myself taken in front of the firetruck, I asked my dad: “Did the truck get smaller as I got older??” I learned how to tie my shoes sitting at the kitchen table and when the sleeping area was clear, they’d let me go in and jump from bed to bed to bed, creating my personal version of “5 Little Monkeys.”

I loved visiting my dad at work and was so amazed that someone could get paid to cook great meals with their friends, watch endless hours of TV, take naps and workout all day. Sometimes, there would be periods without any calls at all but when they did ring, my father got to be the hero, he got to go rescue people in trouble, and in my eyes, no one could be braver than him or his buddies. The fireman were always such happy men, full of laughter and clever jokes, always tickling and calling me pretty (even with my two front teeth missing), and helping me with homework. Though I knew how dangerous their work really was, how every single day, they put their life on the line to save a stranger, the firehouse wasn’t scary. Contrary, the firehouse always felt so very alive.

I was in history class when the first plane hit the North tower. A teacher came and interrupted our class to speak with our substitute teacher – our actual professor was supposed to be on her way to Washington D.C. early that day. We would learn several hours later that she never boarded that flight, thank God. He eyes widened and we all remained quiet, concerned by the concern in their faces. Our subsitute made a brief announcement, saying that there had been an awful accident in New York and he turned on the news. Right as the television flickered on, the second plane hit the South tower and both teachers gasped and covered their mouths in horror. The classroom started to whisper and my good friend looked at me and asked, “What’s going on? How could planes not see those big buildings?”

That’s right about when all realized that this was intentional. We had been attacked and though we were 800 miles away in a small town in North Carolina, we were all very afraid. That fear all strengthened as the day progressed and classes changed, though all lesson plans were forgotten and the real education of the day was screening CNN. I didn’t know it then, but my generation’s “Where were you when JFK was assassinated” would be those moments, those confusing hours before noon when we were all released early.

My mom was crying when she picked me up and she hugged me tighter than usual. I was a young teenager and unsure of what to make of any of this. I didn’t comprehend why someone would want to harm so many innocent people just going about their Tuesday, just going to work as they normally would. Ten years later, I still don’t understand. I doubt anyone really will. We drove in silence on the highways, which were slower than normal — our hushed little town had hushed itself even more. Everyone was in shock and by then D.C. had been attacked too, so we didn’t know what else to expect. We had a large army base on the other end of the state – would they go after that, too? And who is they, anyway?

Holding hands, my mom entered the firehouse the same way we always did – from the side. But the single fireman weren’t sitting outside on the bench, looking for attractive women to walk by. There was no fireman lifting weights by the corner, no one washing the truck’s tires or cooking in the kitchen. Unlike it had ever been before, the station was eerily quiet. I had been uneasy ever since I witnessed the second plane hit, but it wasn’t until we walked into the living room and for the first time, I saw my dad crying, that I became afraid.

We rushed to his side and he wrapped us both up in his arms. He wasn’t sobbing or desperate, he wasn’t even flushed — he was just purely sad. My mom would later tell me that she had to convince him not to go to Ground Zero to help volunteer, but to stay in his community and help those who may have lost a relative. I didn’t know what to do in that moment, watching these tough men vulnerable and exposed watching brothers they’ve never met, perish while trying to save any survivors. Their families were draped on them too and the room was silent except for constant sad updates on the TV and sniffles echoing from every corner. I don’t know how long we were all there, motionless and stunned, trying to figure out what to do next. Or what we could do at all. We eventually peeled ourselves away late at night and my mom shared her bed that night, both crying. I’m not sure I knew what I was crying for then but it felt like the appropriate thing to do.

The weeks after 9/11, every firehouse in Asheville was showered with dishes, baskets and gifts. Elementary schools from all over the county made Crayola thank you cards and my dad came home after each shift with a new story to tell about someone who stopped by just to show their respect. I wore an American pin on my lapel for months and my parents kept our country’s flag raised at half-mass for nearly a year. But times changed, people stopped remembering those fateful hours and the war kept going, taking more of our sons and daughter’s lives with it. We felt that patriotic spirit for a while but then we returned to the status-quo and found a new rut to get stuck in. We promise to never forget September 11 and maybe we haven’t, but we have forgotten what it means to be united.

I visited Ground Zero in 2008 for the first time. It was still just one gut-wrenching empty hole at that point and the sight of it didn’t affect it as much as St. Paul’s chapel a block away. It’s New York’s oldest public building in continuous use, serving as Geroge Washington’s place of worship and surviving both the Great Fire of 1776 and the 9/11 attacks. During the cleanup, volunteers would sleep here, and it still serves as a memorial site today. It houses “Missing ” posters, pieces of the trade center, and places where hundreds have written their prayers. As I walked through the chapel at 19 years old, attempting to remain calm and really try to take in what the city must have been like on that day, I stopped and was frozen in front of the firemen badges. There’s one spot of the memorial that has badges from cities and towns from all over the world, and they all lay together symbolizing that unity and that deep-rooted brotherhood that fireman all have.

I cried, took a picture and sent it to my dad that day with one thing written underneath: “For you dad. I’m so thankful you weren’t a fireman in NYC on 9/11. I’ll never forget what you’ve done to save others. You’re the bravest man I know and I feel so blessed to be your daughter. To be a fireman’s daughter.

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A Sweet Longing

The last week or so, I’ve been feeling a little homesick.

While this may break my mother’s heart (I apologize in advance, Mama), I don’t miss home all that often. I’ve come to find that home is where you make it and who you make it with, so really, right now, my home is inNew York, in the company of my friends, and in the lights of the city.

But nothing really replaces your mom. Or your dad. Or the smellNorth Carolinaeludes with the arrival of summer. Or the quiet that comes from an old country road where the only noise prohibited is the sweet melody of song birds in the morning. And no matter how many years I’m away from NC or how many friends I make or how many roots I try to plant  in the pavement, holidays are tough away from the place you always spent them.

They say the mark of a successful parent is when they raise their child to be a mature, functioning, self-sufficient, and happy adult who can handle life without them. I’d say my parents have achieved this feat and I would think that all great parents want their children to turn into capable adults who create an existence that brings them joy, prosperity, and love, of course – but part of growing up is moving on.

If you’re the product of a very happy home with a supportive, loving family, and a community that encouraged success and bigger things than what sweet littleCarolinacan offer – the process of moving on means letting go of where you were to establish where you are. And it isn’t easy. I love my background but I’m confident my future has just as much possibility, if not more. But making that possibility feel just right is a process in itself.

I do consider myself an adult and I am completely independent of my parents for all of my financial needs and wants. I don’t depend on them for anything more than a daily phone call and to be there should I want to spend an outrageous amount of money flying south for a weekend. But there are times, like when I miss them that I feel like I’m less of an adult.

Maybe it is a misconception on my part to think that longing to see your family makes you more of a child and less of a grown-up, but when you travel away from home, as children should – when do you stop missing where you come from? Or not really where, but who?

I think part of the appeal of a relationship or the desire to one day get married comes from the hunger for a home. Especially if you came from a healthy and happy home – why would you not want to design the same foundation? And maybe we think by finding that sense of security or making plans for the future, we’ll stop missing what we had to leave behind to get to where we wanted to be. Maybe we think that sadness that surprises us from time-to-time will stop coming around. Maybe we think by finding love, the love of our childhood home won’t be something we wish we could capture and carry around with us, should a day ever be nothing but doom-and-gloom.

I’m not there yet, so I can’t argue effectively, but I know that nothing compares to my mother’s embrace or the smell of her perfume that lingers on you after. Or my father’s infectious laugher that burns his face and fills in the lines of his wrinkled cheeks. You can’t capture the same smells of bacon and eggs in the morning paired with instant-coffee, or the sound of the washing machine constantly running while my dog scratches at my bedroom door.

And not being able to see your parents on Easter or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day – because it isn’t sensible to fork over $300 in such a short period of time, just sucks. Or knowing the baby cousins you left will only see you once or twice a year, meaning you won’t watch them grow, is sad. Or that you only get to hug your family for a week at a time, maybe twice or three times a year, hurts.

There really is no place like home, no matter how sweet your new one is.