EyewitnessJuly 17, 2002
It's a long and winding road that leads me from Dallas in the '50s to Baylor in the '70s to New York in the '80s for the better part of two decades. This path had me in Dallas for the Kennedy assassination and in New York on September 11. Surely there are few who can claim to having been so close to perhaps the two most memorable disasters of America's last half-century.
In the first instance, I was a homemaking student in junior high school, cleaning up from the laborious creation of a white sauce, when the news came over the intercom that the president had been shot. For the next three days, I mourned along with the nation; my world never would be the same.
I look back on that event as the beginning of a time of tumult that included the civil rights movement and later the anti-war and women's movements, which hit while I was at Baylor working hard to fulfill my extracurricular agenda. And although I did stay the course, putting sorority president, Baylor Beauty and other plaudits on my resume, I emerged from college a very different person from the one I had expected to become. Of course, these life- and nation-changing events were played out on television. The great seismic shock of the '70s -- Watergate -- found me working at the PBS affiliate in Dallas, feeding segments to Jim Lehrer's coverage from the nation's capital.
On September 11, however, I needed no electronic medium to bring the horror home. From our apartment just north of the World Trade Center, I witnessed the attack firsthand. Ironically, what drew me to my living room window was not that first loud noise (loud noises are common in New York), but rather the pristine beauty of that clear blue morning. As I watched smoke billow from the north tower, I took a call from my mother in Dallas, who was tuned in to one of the morning TV shows. She informed me that a plane had hit the Trade Center.
As we mutually watched in shock, the second tower exploded into a pillar of fire. Always a student of the Bible, Mother said she had just read in Psalms an assertion of the protective might of a loving God. I asked her to read it to me right then, and she did, with only the slightest quaver in her voice. Later, I realized how much she must have feared for the safety of her daughter and granddaughter, Alison, who had departed an hour earlier for Stuyvesant High School, literally in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
Thus girded, I descended 21 flights of stairs to the quiet calm of the leasing office on the ground floor of our building, and from there I worked the phones -- to ensure the safety of Alison and to maintain contact with my parents in Dallas and my husband, a San Franciscan whom I'd married in 2000. Reluctantly, because of my passion for New York, I'd agreed to relocate when Alison graduated in June. In the wake of the terrorist attack, I was dismayed to find my grief about leaving suddenly alloyed with a feeling of relief.
By late morning, much of our phone service had been lost, but miraculously I heard from Alison. She and her classmates had watched in horror as men and women jumped from the towering inferno. Soon after, all of Stuyvesant was evacuated. Alison and her friends joined the thousands heading north on the West Side Highway in a scene she described as "biblical." When the north tower collapsed, the masses had to outrun the giant, rolling dust cloud. Alison ducked into the loft of neighbors whose home was just out of harm's way.
Later that day, just minutes before the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, Alison and I -- at her father's insistence -- left our apartment to stay with friends. Weeks later, after a taste of what it means to be a refugee, we returned home. We were astonished to learn that at the fire station across the street from us -- the one chronicled on the CBS documentary "9/11" -- not one of the men had been lost. We took them pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving and poinsettias at Christmas. I wrote in their condolence book -- signed by visitors from around the world -- "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy," praying for the fulfillment of that ancient promise.
Thus began the long process of healing. Both Alison and I held close to our friends. We consumed very little news. When I could bear to, I read the now-famous New York Times "Portraits in Grief" page. I also vowed to suck the last juice from the Big Apple. One crisp October night, an out-of-town guest joined me for a ride on the tram over the East River to Roosevelt Island, which provides a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline. I dined with friends, splurging at culinary meccas such as Danube and Le Bernardin. I fed my soul by attending services at St. John the Divine and at Marble Collegiate Church, where Norman Vincent Peale once held the pulpit. I donned glamorous gowns and attended fund-raisers at The Waldorf-Astoria. I made it to the opera and Broadway shows with regularity. And, once again, I walked the leafy, brownstone-lined streets where my first husband and I had lived with our young daughter.
The resilience and compassion that the world beheld as New York began to recover came as no surprise to me. My own life had become a kind of New York miracle. As I saw the miracle unfold on a grand scale, I remembered. I remembered the bus driver who had gone out of his way to drop me at Lincoln Center. I remembered the man in leather and heavy metal who approached my husband and baby only to say, "God bless you." I remembered the man sitting next to me on the subway who gave me the book he was reading after I mentioned how relevant it seemed to me at that very moment.
And so it was in the spirit of the miraculous that Alison and I prepared to say goodbye. June arrived voluptuously green, in full leaf, and with it came Alison's graduation ceremony at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. My parents flew in from Dallas, and we witnessed another extraordinary moment close-up, from box seats in the place best known as the home of the New York Philharmonic. National media had descended on Stuyvesant after September 11 because of its proximity to the disaster and because of its remarkable reputation as perhaps the most selective public high school in the nation, accepting less than 5 percent of 20,000 annual applicants. On graduation day, the media descended again. Alison appeared that morning in a segment on the "Today" show. A big part of the draw was the fact that our immediate past president was to keynote the event. President Clinton rose to the occasion, conjuring a vision of what the world of our future ought to look like. In short, he concluded, the world should look like the graduating class of Stuyvesant -- a school rich with diversity and seemingly with infinite possibility.
As compelling as Clinton's speech was the one delivered by the class salutatorian, who quoted from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. She compared her initial awe and intimidation on entering Stuyvesant to Twain's very similar feelings about the Great River as a beginning steamboat captain. Like Twain, she said, she eventually learned to navigate, but the initial awe and wonder faded in the process. She envisioned an ideal life as one in which we could retain the awe and wonder as we learn to navigate. That, I realized, had been my New York experience. In what E.B. White called a "riddle in steel and stone,"* it was possible to learn to navigate while never losing the magic.
To commemorate what essentially were two graduations (my daughter's from high school and mine from motherhood and New York), Alison and I planned a two-part celebration. It started at Cowgirl, a Village restaurant as Texan as the name implies. We then adjourned to a small nearby theater for music and readings by family, friends and Alison's favorite teachers -- all of whom we honored that evening.
To conclude my part of the festivities, I chose to sing for Alison a rousing hymn I had, as a young mother, turned into a lullaby for my baby girl. Softly and tenderly, I sang it again, joined by Alison and the few others who knew it. This time, I sang it as a prayer -- mostly for my daughter, but also for New York and indeed for all of us who face a world where uncertainty has become a way of life:
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
*From an essay by E.B. White titled "Here is New York," written after World War II and much quoted after September 11.
Edgar, BA '72, works in media and public relations, most recently for U.S. ambassadors and international nonprofit organizations. She joined her husband in San Francisco in July and maintains a home on Shelter Island, about 90 miles east of the Statue of Liberty. At Baylor, her resume included Who's Who, Mortar Board and the Dean's List.