When Patrick died, my manager at work said to me “Welcome to the club no one wants to be in.” Her first husband had dropped dead one day after carrying the groceries into the house. “I knew he was gone before he hit the floor,” she told me the time we talked about it, late at night, stuck in a bar in the Denver airport after a missed flight. She had a two year old at the time.
One reason I grow impatient every year with the 9/11 coverage, is that it’s predicated on the idea that Americans had never suffered before, that we’d been living in some prelapsarian paradise that was violated out of the blue and now everything has changed. It’s just bullshit. Like a lot of people I know, like most of the people I know, I’ve always been in the club. My youngest brother died of cancer when I was eight, the same year my parents divorced, we moved off our farm into town, and I was thrown mid year in to a mean class of 4th graders. I was an easy target, half a year younger than the other kids, tiny and heartbroken, so making me cry was a cinch. So it’s not that I don’t feel bad for people who go on about how terrified they were on that day, about how their whole world changed, about how they’d always felt safe until that morning, and now they feel violated and unsafe and frightened — it’s that I don’t know who those people are.
Really? You felt safe? Existentially safe? You thought your life was supposed to work out the way you planned? Who the hell are you people?
When I was in college my mother ran a swimming and tennis club, and she hired a lot of people I’d gone to high school with. My mother likes young people a lot, and one thing you learn once you’re in the club, is that other members show up, sort of like feral cats. She had one guy working there who was just out of college, and his mother was dying of cancer. His father had already died, so he was looking at being an orphan. My mother decided Tom needed to learn to cook and so that fall, she invited three or four of those kids who weren’t going away to college to come over once a week for cooking lessons. Once a week she’d teach them all how to make something easy — a roast chicken, a stew or some pasta plus a salad and, because Tom had a sweet tooth, a dessert. They got together once a week and made something together, taught Tommy some life skills he was going to need (I think they had to teach him how to do laundry too), checked in on him, and most important, had some laughs during a dark time. It kept everyone’s head above water.
My mother and I have often had a fraught relationship, but I have to say, one important thing she taught us was to gather the members of the club, the broken toys, together and to feed them. We always cooked together. She taught me to cook and taught Patrick to cook and taught Tommy to cook. She took in orphans, and taught us to do the same. It was as much about being together, as much about having a common activity in the kitchen as it was about learning how to find a place where you could make the world feel a little bit safe again. When you’re all hanging around together, conversations happen, you wind up talking about things you might not have if you didn’t have something to occupy your hands. The first Christmas after Patrick died, I went to my friend Hope’s house. Hope lost her sisters and father in a plane crash when she was a teenager, she’s a card-carrying member of the club, but she’s also someone I’ve always cooked with. That year, we did an elaborate, multi-course Austrian Christmas dinner out of Saveur magazine for her mom, who is Swiss German. We cooked all weekend together, which mostly kept me from weeping, and we played with her kids, and her mother was happy to have a Christmas dinner from her childhood. And we got past that first Christmas.
So perhaps that’s my wish as 9/11 rolls around again, and the big powers use the event to gin up all sorts of unsettling feelings in the population. Go home. Cook a chicken with your family. Teach a kid to chop an onion or let them play with the mixer and make a cake. There are so many things we can’t control in the world, but with a little practice, we can control dinner. Maybe it’s the lapsed Catholic in me, but I do believe in the sacrament of dinner, of feeding one another, of standing around the kitchen chatting and making jokes and catching up on the day. So there’s my 9/11 wish. Go home. Cook dinner. Be together. Turn off the TV.