September 11: Gratefully Remembering New York Times “Portraits of Grief”
Yesterday was serene and sunny here in North Carolina, an easy early-fall day. Schools opened three weeks ago, and summertime feels distant, even though it’s barely a week since the heat and vacation-mood faded away. New York City feels distant too, in place and time. I thought about 9/11 now and then throughout the day, not because of news coverage or conversations, but more when I was writing the date on checks at the grocery store and post office, or glancing at an e-mail message. I like remembering that day. It still feels heavy, sad, resonant. For me, remembering and acknowledging September 11th feels comforting. I don’t need immersion or analysis now, but I like remembering.
What I kept thinking about was not so much the planes, the images of smoke billowing and flames and of people rushing to rescue or trudging silently away. I think about what came afterward, and kept coming, for many months, long after the transition from emergency to tragedy began.
I think about “Portraits of Grief”, the lovely, on-going series of small obituaries in the New York Times. Times writers contacted the family and friends of the people who didn’t come home, to interview them and learn a little bit about that person, what they liked to do, where they came from, why they were missed.
The reporters requested a photograph and then wrote up small pieces: an anecdote or two, a tribute, a mini-history. Those pages of vignettes were medicine for me, profound and sweet and poignant. I loved those little chapters, small windows into each person’s life lifting each person up up so I could see them just a tiny bit before letting them go, one by one. I got just a glimpse of who we’d lost: how they got through the day, what they liked to do and where and how. It was profound on-going comfort, made from words gathered up and chosen with compassion, thoughtfulness, humor, generosity. Over the phone, I imagine, it was two strangers sharing a story, connecting, doing a job, and putting out the results for anyone who needed it to read.
Throughout the fall, I went and bought the paper from a coin-operated box. I usually took it to my favorite coffee shop, a quiet place tucked back in the woods where I like to work, read, do the crossword puzzle and pay bills. I would sit with a cup of their marvelous coffee and read each profile, one by one. Sometimes they made me grin, or think, or sigh. Often I would cry, just a little bit, not over any one story, but over all of it. I loved reading them, counted on it, and rarely missed a day. I devoured news coverage of 9/11 in the paper, and less often on television; but that was completely separate. Mostly, I bought the New York Times and read “Portraits of Grief”. It helped a lot.
I am so thankful for this idea, which must have bloomed out of unimaginable shock, sorrow, confusion and desperation. My gratitude still wells up, for every reporter and editor, for copy people and printshop people and place-paper-stack-in-metal-box people. I am thankful for the family and friends who shared their dear ones with reflections, stories and pictures. I am in their debt, still, all of them. What a simple, brilliant, beautiful, respectful, compelling idea. What an extraordinary group effort to make it happen, and keep happening, day after day, week after week, month after month. For me, it never became sloppy, or routine, or old. I never stopped needing to read it, and they never stopped gathering, writing and publishing the stories.
I looked online yesterday, and there it was. I knew it would be, and I am so glad. There’s a book, which I will want to get, but not yet. There is also a newer project following up with some of the families and friends, including video. I looked at a couple and they were wonderful, too. I will be going back there to read and view these stories. I’m glad it was all on newsprint in black and white at the time, and I’m glad it now lives online, with movies and sound and color. Now I’m ready for that, too.
To read Portraits of Grief, click HERE.
To read and see Portraits of Grief Redrawn, with video and updates, click HERE.
To read the story of “Portraits of Grief”, published on December 31, 2001 as the Times moved from daily publication to weekly publication of the section, click HERE.
To read a post by Pam Spaulding and see a beautiful photograph of the Twin Towers she took during a visit to New York City in July of 2001, click HERE.