Memories and the 9/11 Memorial

Finding meaning in a place of history and bronze
July 28, 2015

When I visited the September 11 Memorial for the first time, I walked slowly around the empty foundations where the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center once stood. I read the names engraved in bronze. The etched walls surround hollow caverns that hold deep pools of water, and I could not look down into the water or across to the mirrored set of visitors on the other side of the pool without facing those inscriptions. The names, and the lives that they mark, surround and define the space of the memorial.

I did not know any of the names before they were inscribed in the bronze. They are from all over the world, their differences carving out the breadth of the attack. But as I walked on, a set of names too similar caught my attention: Joseph Angelini Sr. and Joseph John Angelini Jr., father and son, both firefighters. As I read their names, I felt as though certain parts of myself were being amplified: the daughter and sister who could not imagine so much loss contained within one family, the citizen who was both proud of and afraid for the people entrusted with her protection, the third-grader who had seen the towers falling on television and did not understand their smoke signals. At the same time, I felt myself hollowed out, my own foundations bare, because the terms and experiences with which I grieved were limited. My own memory was not enough.

Memorials are, as the word suggests, determined by memory. They have the remarkable task of infusing a physical place with the pain and pride released in the wake of a tragedy or victory. And as tangible representations of indefinable feeling, they seem nearly paradoxical in their power. How do manmade physical structures evoke such raw feeling, whether we are ten or twenty or a hundred years past their creation? And how can one structure encompass collective emotion, when the very word implies a dependence on the highly personal, highly individual nature of memory?

I am among the oldest students on the Duke in New York program, and I was just eight years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the time of the attack. I know, when I look across the names and the water and the empty space between them, that my memory of that day is far too little. It needs the memories of the hundreds of other visitors who are with me, and of the countless others who have come before and who will come after, for me to consider the weight of the attacks. I have returned to the 9/11 Memorial three times so far, not to reflect on my own experience, but to commune with a collective experience and a collective pain that I cannot begin to comprehend.

The Vietnam War and the lifetime of Martin Luther King Jr. both happened before I was born, and when I visit the national memorials erected in their honor, I have no memories of my own with which to understand their significance. My experience at those sites is far different than that of someone who lived in the time of their construction, and who understands the conditions that demanded that construction. But the people who have those memories have all brought them to the same physical places. In doing so, they lend the memorials their seemingly contradictory power, both individual and collective.

I had not yet read the names of the Angelini family when I was in third grade. They are not a part of my memories from September 11, 2001. But I have touched the metal memorial where their names are engraved, and now I do not think about 9/11 without thinking about them. Walking among the field trips and photographers and families, I am compelled both to navigate the memories that I lived through and to reflect on those that I did not. I was not in Manhattan when the World Trade Center was attacked. I am there now. I am walking into something larger, something collective, composed of history and bronze and millions and millions of different recollections. I visit the memorial again, realizing that mine is not the memory that matters.

Manfredi is a senior studying biology and English. She is participating in the Duke in New York Arts & Media program this summer.