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.“