September 11th is the cause of all sorts of odd connotations for my family. Not only did grandfather die on September 11th 1985, but so did my aunt Debbie’s father on September 11th, 2000. The two men were close friends dating back to their days as engineers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio during World War II. My aunt Debbie had barely met my uncle Nochem in her life before work transferred her to Baltimore. She needed friends in the city, and her parents got in touch with my grandparents – and thus was a match made. The significance of 9/11 in our family goes down to the minute as well: my grandfather died at 2:48 AM, two years later (though on October 7th) at 2:48 PM, my brother Jordan and my Zaydie’s Hebrew namesake (Yitzhak Moshe) was born.
It’s stock and trade to recite where you were when you first heard about 9/11, rather like the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor were for earlier generations. In each case, there’s something quite kitschy about such memories - as though remembering the mundanity of that morning marks the insignificance and invulnerability of our lives before the awful day. We were no more vulnerable after 9/11 than we were before. The difference is that after 9/11 we finally knew how vulnerable we were. But then again, my moralizing about the sanctimony that this day inspires has a selfish tint too.
The truth of where I was on 9/11 could not be more ignoble. I could sleep late on Tuesdays, and since my phone kept ringing that morning for my Japanese roommate, and not realizing why Nabuo’s parents kept calling, I took the phone off the hook. I only woke up when Nabuo came back to the room. Not realizing the significance of what happened – my first thought was “Alright! No classes!” It was only when I saw TV footage in my friends’ room that I realized it was a terrorist attack. In the room with us was a girl I’d never seen before – cute, funny, pneumatic, and very flirtatious. The chemistry was instant, and we went together to the top floor of Letts Hall, found some large chairs to stand on, and from that vantage point could see the smoke of the pentagon. By 1:30 that afternoon, we were making out in the 5th floor Lounge of Anderson Hall as other people were watching CNN on TV. It was awesome.
The selfishness of my behavior on that most auspicious day is perhaps definitive of the selfishness that has always defined my life – neglecting studies, abandoning projects, spurning advice, wasting money like water, avoiding hard work, and too often, avoiding employment. I can only imagine what Zaydie Witow would make of me today - let alone what my other, far more indimidating Zaydie would have made. But it’s quite often said by Bubbie Witow that the death of her husband from colon cancer was a cataclysm from which our family never recovered. I can’t say she was wrong: Zaydie left me without a potentially more patient guide for my dozens of learning difficulties, he left Bubbie without a guide for how to connect to grandchildren she found less sympathetic than precociously intellectual me, he left Dad without a patient guide for how to negotiate fatherhood’s challenges, he left my uncle Nochem without his sage business advice just as he was striking out on his own as a businessman, he left Mom to negotiate our family’s volatile dynamics alone as the sole peacemaker, and he left his other five grandchildren without memories of their grandfather. Zaydie Witow lived to be nearly seventy, but in the twenty-seven years since his death, it is clear that all of our lives are worse for the fact that he was not part of them.
Morris Witow, by all accounts I’ve ever heard, was something resembling a saint. No one who ever met him had an unkind word to say. He was kind to everyone, he was always helpful, he was brilliantly intelligent, he was handy with every possible tool, and he was unhesitantly generous as a community leader. The saintliness of my Zaydie was passed on to many members of my family, it can just as easily be seen in my mother, and scarcely less in my Uncle Nochem, or in my brother Jordan, or in Nochem’s two daughters. It was in no way passed on to me.
I am a volatile cocktail comprised in equal parts of my father and maternal grandmother. From both I inherited a relentless intellectual curiosity and passion for living life to its fullest potential. But from my father I also inherited an insatiable contrarian streak, a pathological need for attention, a dark view of human nature, a poisonous temper, and an utterly divided self that never reconciled the bifurcated loyalties of our upbringings. From Bubbie Witow I also inherited a perpetual disorganization, an inability to forgive slights, an inability to relate to people different from us, and a tendency to point fingers at others before pointing at ourselves. All three of us have led lives defined at least as much by our wounds as by our hopes. But all three of us were amazingly lucky to have found family saints who accepted and loved us as much for our weaknesses as for our strengths, perhaps more. The fact that all three of us found acceptance within a family with which we could never have provided ourselves gave our lives a lease to enjoy them which we'd have never found without our family.