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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Grandma's advice is missing in times of tragedy

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

September used to be my favorite month of the year.

Growing up in Connecticut, I loved the trees, the way autumn crept across their branches, staining the leaves in hues of ochre and brick. I loved raking my parents' lawn and jumping into the sickly sweet-smelling piles. I loved the warmth of the day, and the crispness of the night.

And then, in 2001, my feelings about September changed.

I was at my parent's home in Stamford, Conn., a commuter town for New York City that was less than an hour away. I was waiting to leave on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spending my time picking concord grapes and turning them into jelly.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was sleeping in. My mother called from work to wake me up after the first tower at the World Trade Center was hit. I turned on the local news, broadcast out of Manhattan from satellites on top of the World Trade Center, and I watched dumbfounded as the second tower was hit. My brain couldn't process the horror that kept unfolding. One tower fell, then the other. I scrambled to find a television station that wasn't static after we lost our connection to the slow-motion terror that was happening.

I was numb and in shock, unable to look away from the tragedy, feeling twisted by grief and helplessness. A friend and I walked to the where our town faces the New York City skyline and we stared in silence at the smoke trail weaving across the sky. We turned and drove toward the hospital to donate blood, but they turned us away — they already had too many offers, and there weren't enough survivors.

The days that followed were silent and still, in the sky and in the community. Any noise from above sent a chill down our spines because we knew it was the military hovering, hurrying — but we didn't know where they were going or what disaster was happening next.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 25, I boarded a plane and flew to England for an 18-month mission. When I left, my country was in agony, but united. When I returned, it was as though that unity never occurred. Everyone around me had processed that event and dealt with it in some way — with anger or acceptance. Even a war had begun. But for me, my memories of those sunny, blue, terrible September days are frozen in my mind. And every year, the same terrible feelings return.

For years since then, the autumn season has filled me with anxiety and discomfort. I feel unsettled and restless and I never before understood why or connected the two.

Each year, I review the news transcripts of what happened that day. As I watched that horrible footage again this year, I thought for the first time about my grandmother. I have said in this column before that I never knew my grandmother, and so I never missed her — but that was because I didn't know what I was missing.

But as I stared at my screen late last Tuesday night, I missed her immensely. I thought about the events she experienced during her life. Not only her own personal horrors of death and loss, but tragedy on a national scale, too. During her lifetime, the Titanic sank; the Hindenburg exploded; two world wars — including Pearl Harbor — began and ended and great American leaders were assassinated.

What I miss is her perspective. I yearn to talk to her about the lessons she learned as catastrophe struck around her. I wonder how she applied her wit and humor to those trying times. I wish she could assure me that love and unity triumph over hatred and violence. I wish I could just see her smile and nod, and I would know intuitively that eventually, wars or wounds or whatever, everything would be OK.

Maybe someday my grandchildren will want to hear the same thing from me.

So to them, I would say this: Things will get better. My 9/11 experience was trivial and minimal compared to so many others who lost their lives and loved ones. I still endeavor to comprehend how to learn from and respond to such tragedies because they continue. And I've never made grape jelly again.

But this year I made pickles.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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