15 years later, 9/11 is part of our American history and collective psyche. You probably remember where you were, and have your story. For what it’s worth, here’s mine.

Encaustic collage by NanciHersh

Symbol, encaustic, collage on birch panel, 25″ x 21″, ©Nancihersh

The morning of September 11, 2011 was a picture perfect beautiful day with clear blue skies. Outside the door of my son Griffin’s preschool on Route 35 in Middletown, NJ, with his younger brother Nate in my arms, we stood waiting for school to open. While waiting on the steps, another mom received a phone call about a plane going into the World Trade Towers where the spouse of her good friend worked. None of it made sense. What was a plane doing so close to the Towers? How could this happen? I am not sure that the word terrorism was part of our vernacular at the time.

Nate and I said our good byes to Griffin and continued on with our morning. I spoke to Scott on the phone where he was at work, to see if he had heard anything about the incident. By late morning, when I was at the pediatrician’s office for Nate’s 2 year well visit, we learned that there were two planes involved. One hitting the north tower, and then shortly after, a second hitting the south. I don’t remember when I learned the towers came down or when I first saw the horrific images on t.v.

I took Nate a short drive from our home to a park on a hill in Atlantic Highlands over looking Sandy Hook Bay. The view across the water was frightening, mesmerizing and shocking- where the Towers once clearly stood miles away was just streams of smoldering smoke. Above us, the skies will still a brilliant blue, and silent. All planes had been grounded.

3 days later we had friends over to celebrate Nate’s 2nd birthday. Following ice cream and cake we went out on the steps of our home with lit candles, holding a private vigil for the thousands of people who had died or who were still missing.

In the weeks to come we learned that our town of Middletown was the hardest hit with almost 50 lives lost that day. Victims from neighboring towns of Rumson, Red Bank, Fair Haven, Holmdel and Little Silver added to that number. Most commuted by train or ferry to their jobs in lower Manhattan, and for days, weeks- you could drive by the Middletown train station and see the cars of those lost left behind in the parking lot. A shrine developed with cards, candles,stuffed animals and other mementos on a wall along Riverside Park in Red Bank. A photo of the shrine became part of the encaustic collage piece later created titled “Symbol.”

In the weeks that followed, like so many I wanted to do something, but felt helpless. Attendeding a township meeting in Middletown where a large group convened to figure out how we all could help, I offered to work with children to paint a mural. One woman pointed out to me that “they don’t need a wall, most of the families don’t even have a body.” My idea was premature- and naive. Eventually, the town did create a garden in memory of those lost and each person has their own stone and private space along a lovely path.  I also had an opportunity to work with the Printmaking Council of NJ and fellow artist, Ahni Kruger to lead a printmaking workshop to create create a memorial to those lost on 9/11. Each participant was invited to create a monotype panel on Tyvek which were later sewn into a huge banner that hung from a commuter train stop near the center on the way to New York.

Symbol and the large banner were for the rest of us, a way to mourn and honor those who died that day. But still I wanted to help on a more personal level. I found that way through soup. As I write in the artist statement on my website,

I make art like I make soup; to share, connect, nourish and heal.

That opportunity presented itself when I happened to meet one of the woman who created a group called Middletown Helps Its Own. Gail Sheehy writes about the impact of this group in her book about 9/11, Middletown America. I introduced myself and shared with her that I wanted to help in any small way, and that I could make a meal for someone. In particular, I like to make soup. She immediately told me about one 9/11 widow in town with two teenaged children who was having a hard time and who she thought would appreciate meals, soup, whatever. I made a batch of something thick and warm, baked some chicken and drove over and knocked on her door. Our relationship developed over the next year. I believe, I hope, that I brought some comfort to her days, which were often tortuous, hoping for news, for something, and always, heartbreaking.

Our friendship developed, I attended the dedication of the Middletown 9/11 Gardens with her family, and the following autumn, she and I planted yellow tulips at her husband’s spot. Patti and I lost touch after we left New Jersey. I can’t help but think of her today, 15 years later and hope that she is well, happy and found some healing and peace in a world that was dramatically changed that day.


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