By Mike McPhate
For four years Norene Schneider never really talked with her mom about her brother's death. She feared arousing despair over the loss of Tommy, a 38-year-old stock broker killed Sept. 11 in the upper reaches of the north tower.
But last summer, inspired by a memorial project that invites friends and relatives of 9/11 victims to record their thoughts, they finally sat together to discuss what happened. The project's creator, the oral history group StoryCorps, aims to collect reminiscences of all 2,979 lives lost in both the 1993 and 2001 attacks. The archive will eventually be stored in the Library of Congress and the World Trade Center Memorial.
People in pairs enter soundproof booths set up at Ground Zero and Grand Central Station and interview one another. More than 150 conversations have been recorded since the project began last summer. There’s a suggested donation of $10 and participants get a CD recording of their talk.
Norene and her mother laughed at the memory of Tommy when he was five years old haggling with a store clerk over the price of two-cent pretzels. Then Norene asked her normally stoic mother, if you could have five minutes with your son again, what would you say? Her reply, that she was proud of him, brought tears.
“She changed after that,” said Schneider. “She just let everything go. And it was ok. Since then she’s been smiling more; she’s been laughing more.”
StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, a 17-year veteran of public radio, said he hopes the archive will serve as a “beacon of hope” for those touched by the attacks. “It’s very important for families to know their loved ones won’t be forgotten,” he said.
Soon after learning about the project Alison and Jefferson Crowther decided they had to participate. Their son, Welles Remy Crowther, was a 24-year-old equities trader on the 104th floor of the south tower.
During their session, the Crowthers said their son was a “high adventurer” who loved bungee jumping. Jefferson told of taking five-year-old Welles to Disney World, where the boy demanded back-to-back rides on the rollercoaster Space Mountain. “This thing takes off in the dark and we’re whipping around and Welles, I could sense, was, like, vibrating he was so happy and thrilled.”
Jefferson, his gravelly voice quivering, sketched his son’s life: “He was born 5-17-77 at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday. He was Tuesday’s child. You know, Monday’s child is fair-faced. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. He was born on a Tuesday, he died on a Tuesday and his body was recovered on a Tuesday. He was truly Tuesday’s child.”
“The experience was very beautiful,” Alison said a year later. “It made us feel like we were doing a very important thing for our son. I had a great sense of peace knowing that we had done something to permanently memorialize him.”
Richard Gist, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, praised the “grandma wisdom” of projects like StoryCorps, which he said often provide solace where conventional therapies fail. “What’s happening is people are getting to choose how they tell their story," he said. “It allows people to put their loss in its place in their history. That’s a positive thing.”
The stories can be even more powerful for listeners, said James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. Pennebaker said he’s a fan of StoryCorps, whose clips air regularly on National Public Radio.
“One out of three doesn’t touch me,” he said. “But one out of three is pretty good. And one out of ten is transforming.”
EXERPTS FROM STORYCORP'S 9/11 PROJECT
Richard Pecorella remembers his fiancée, Karen Juday, who worked as a secretary at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st floor of the north tower.
“I knew as soon as I looked at her that she was the one. It was magical. I can’t describe it. I couldn’t tell her that but it was like I was a 15-year-old again.”
“I miss her eyes. Her eyes sparkled to me. One day they were blue next day they were green depending on how the light hit them. Karen, I’ll always be in love with you. And I will see you again. I will do enough good to make it up there.”
Marjorie Miller remembers her husband, Joel Miller, who worked at Marsh & McLennan as a disaster-recovery technology specialist. Joel Miller was 55.
“What do you miss most about him?”
“I guess I miss being loved. And I miss loving someone that way. It took me a lifetime to find it. And if I didn’t have that relationship I wouldn’t have believed they exist. And so, yeah, I carry him with me every day. You know, when I have those moments that I just sit there say, well, 56 years old and, you know, it’s not going to happen again. That’s okay. But I know somebody walked this earth who thought I was special. I hold on to that. It kind of keeps me going.”
Elaine Leinung remembers her son Paul James Battaglia. He was a 22-year-old risk consultant at Marsh & McLennan. He lived at home with his parents.
“He left whistling that morning. He was very happy. He was going to his meeting. He was going to work. In fact, I was going to ask him to wait for me to ride the train with him. I loved to sit next to him on the train. I loved to smell his aftershave.”
“We had such a happy night the night before: September 10, 2001. We were joking and laughing and I actually was so happy when I went to sleep that night. That’s the thing that got me afterwards. I had no premonition. You think that you should know that something horrible is going to happen to your child that day, and I was so happy that night thinking that I had such a nice family. I had such a good life and I was truly blessed. And then 12 hours later it was very different.”
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