What does it mean to be American? How 9/11 changed one Queens family.

Ramin Talaie/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
From the same Queens living room perch where he watched TV coverage of defining moments like the JFK assassination, the Apollo moon landing, and the 9/11 attacks, James Lisa (left) reminisces with his boomer daughter Inez Regan (center) and millennial granddaughter Katelyn O’Prey (right) about the lessons of war and being prepared to fight for good.
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As James Lisa’s family goes, so goes the nation when it comes to how Americans have collectively processed 9/11 in the past 20 years. 

For Mr. Lisa, a 102-year-old decorated World War II veteran, the attacks were a warning, and a reminder to heed the truths hard won by the Greatest Generation. For his daughter, Inez Regan, a nurse, 9/11 is still a painful, present shock to her baby-boomer understanding of American progress and exceptionalism. And his granddaughter, Katelyn O’Prey, sees in that crystal morning the launch of a millennial adulthood shaped by terror, a shift toward a worldview less trusting, but perhaps more open.

Why We Wrote This

The 9/11 attacks wounded the American sense of identity, security, and even reality. The meaning of that day to three generations of a lively Queens family is a window on the evolving understanding of what it is to be an American.

There are certain moments in history that ripple through a population, readjusting on a grand scale individual concepts of reality. Events like 9/11, say researchers, can shape one’s understanding of the world – of what it is to be an American. Across generations, an evolution takes place, even within a family: Mr. Lisa’s wariness, forged in war, evolves into a different type of questioning for Ms. O’Prey.  

“9/11 was a catalyst for every generation – we have to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and understand what happened,” says Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling expert Dina Smeltz.

Twenty years later, Inez Regan still sees the dust. 

“Awful, awful, awful,” she says. 

It coated the faces of the firefighters, the laces of the boots she helped untie, the eyelids she tried to rinse clean.

Why We Wrote This

The 9/11 attacks wounded the American sense of identity, security, and even reality. The meaning of that day to three generations of a lively Queens family is a window on the evolving understanding of what it is to be an American.

“We were inhaling that,” she says.

She wonders about the long-term effects of that dust, the lingering asbestos and memories. What’s happened in her own life, these past two decades, that she can attribute to those shards of cement and country? 

And at this point, does it matter?

She glances at her father, now 102, sitting next to her on the sofa in his small Fresh Meadows, Queens, duplex, her childhood bedroom upstairs. Her daughter, Katelyn, age 39, is walking across the room to retrieve her 3-year-old, Cole, who would like a bagel. 

Life goes on. It really does.

Still, Inez thinks sometimes about how each member of her family absorbed Sept. 11, 2001, how that day tied them together but also exposed generational fault lines. 

It wasn’t that anything particularly remarkable happened to them – at least no more so than to other New Yorkers, other Americans. They weren’t central characters in the devastation or the heroism; none went to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq; none were compelled to study Islam or international relations and begin a career in anti-terrorism or diplomacy. 

Still, like one of those rapid-evolution experiments, where scientists watch as microorganisms exposed to stimuli change before their eyes, Inez’s family has changed. And while it’s impossible to say how much is explicitly connected to Sept. 11, they all agree that day has shifted – in different ways, at different times – how they understand and interact with their country, institutions, the world. 

For Inez’s father, James Lisa, a decorated World War II veteran, the attacks were a warning, and a reminder to heed the truths hard won by the Greatest Generation. 

Ramin Talaie/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
James Lisa, a decorated veteran of World War II, says being prepared to fight for good is a lesson every generation has to learn for themselves: “You talk about the lessons you’ve learned and you see the eyes glaze over. To me [World War II] was a big thing. For [my kids] – it was what I did.”

For Inez, who is 70 and spent her career as a nurse, 9/11 is still a painful, present shock to her baby-boomer understanding of American progress and exceptionalism.

Katelyn O’Prey, Inez’s daughter, sees in that crystal morning the launch of a millennial adulthood shaped by terror, a shift toward a worldview that is less trusting, but also, perhaps, more open.

Their lives, over the past 20 years, have been both remarkable and mundane: Sunday family dinners and special occasions at Anthony’s Italian restaurant, posing for pictures that will go on the family photo gallery on the stairwell, weddings and divorces and deaths and births, moments of bravery and the everyday of laundry and groceries and commutes and car seats. 

Through it all, Inez’s family has reflected something both singular and universal. It shows a changing, evolving America, still shaped by 9/11.

Processing what it is to be “us”

There are certain moments in history, in a country, that ripple through a population, readjusting on a grand scale individual concepts of reality. Researchers sometimes call these events collective traumas, times when the framework of society seems to shatter, and what has been suddenly erupts into what is. In the United States, 9/11 was one such moment – a trauma both personal and communal. Psychologists and anthropologists study how groups form meaning and memories around these events, how they piece together disparate shards of understanding. Eventually, they say, societies build new scaffolding, a new normal, a freshly edited narrative of past, present, and future. This is how we find stability, they say, how we understand what it is to be us.

But we do not go through this process uniformly. Researchers who study collective trauma, such as Dana Rose Garfin, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, say people in different life stages have different ways of metabolizing events. Children process trauma differently than adults. Teens are affected in unique ways. Stress can be cumulative, and concurrent negative life events, traumatic incident after incident, can amplify one’s response. 

Media exposure also matters. Watch an airplane fly into a skyscraper, again and again and again, and the distress compounds.

“There can be measurable impacts on the population for quite some time,” says Dr. Garfin, who has explored the ways young people reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And while she cautions against generalizing generations – a millennial born in 1980 might have more in common with a Gen Xer born in 1978 than with someone raised 15 years later – she does see distinctions in the way age cohorts processed the event. 

She and other scholars, for instance, have theorized that the attacks had a long-term impact on millennials’ political attitudes. According to longitudinal surveys, that generation is less trustful of institutions, less likely to say America is the best country in the world, and, according to data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, less likely to support U.S. military intervention internationally. They are also more comfortable with immigration, and more likely to believe that countries should cooperate to address the world’s biggest problems.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
9/11 was met with thoughts and prayers chalked on the ground at a Union Square vigil on Sept. 14, 2001.

But it’s hard to know for sure whether those attitudes are a direct result of 9/11, cautions Chicago Council polling experts Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura. One’s age at the time of polling, rather than generation, might be the stronger influence. When boomers were younger, they, too, were less likely to say that the U.S. should take an active role in world affairs – 59% compared with today’s 72%. For them, the Vietnam War was a collective crisis. Living through the Cold War, Ms. Smeltz says, also seems to be as much an indicator for geopolitical attitudes as anything else.

Which, in some ways, is exactly the point.

Across generations, there are events that shape one’s construction of the world, sense of safety, and understanding of what it is to be an American. But an evolution takes place, even within a family. The wariness of James Lisa, forged in war, evolves into a different type of questioning for Katelyn O’Prey. And there comes a point, whether 20 years later or 80, when current events fade into gauzy historical memories, faded newspaper clippings tucked into an album like the one people browsed through at James’ 100th birthday party. 

Then a new generation moves forward, claiming a new version of hope for what the world can be. 

“I guess I’m going to war”

Time moves in strange ways, James knows. That’s one of life’s truths. 

Forget about 20 years. Four times that many can go by, and it still takes you by surprise that you are no longer headed off to war, a young man on a battleship taking an unexpected turn through the Panama Canal. Instead you’re sitting here, in the house you bought with a GI loan, next to your daughter and granddaughter and your great-grandson, who is showing you a plastic dinosaur that roars.

Another truth is this: There will always be moments that expose vulnerability, the dangers in the world, the need to be prepared to fight for good. 

But it seems the younger folks need to keep learning that one for themselves. 

For James, Sept. 11, 2001, was shocking but not unimaginable. The past century has repeatedly proved that hardship and threats lurk just beyond our daily mirage of invincibility. 

It was the Depression that first taught him worry. His friends’ parents lost jobs; his own struggled. He might not have been starving, but he still knew to treasure food. He saw the hidden, easy permeability in that line between getting by and not, between safety and destitution. He had wanted to be a journalist, and he could type, but he knew he needed to take whatever job he could get. So he began working for a military supply depot in Brooklyn. And then came Pearl Harbor. 

Like many of his generation, James doesn’t easily talk about feelings. It seems a strange question to ask how he felt about the 1941 Japanese attack on the American Navy base, or about the 2,400 killed that day. As if his inner life has anything to do with the matter. 

“What did I think?” he asks. “I thought, ‘Guess I’m going to war.’”

He went into the Army because that’s where they told him to go, he says. He’d asked the major at the supply depot to recommend him for the Signal Corps. Instead he was assigned to the 31st Infantry Division. He went to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, then to West Virginia for mountain training, which he believed was preparing him to fight in Europe. Later, when his ship turned into the Panama Canal, James realized he was going to the Pacific. 

In the Army, they don’t tell you much.  

He recorded everywhere he traveled on a dollar bill: Panama Canal. Milne Bay, New Guinea. Pacific Ocean. Coral Sea. Morotai. He still has the dollar. It’s in an album, near a clipping from the Long Island Star-Journal, a paper that stopped publishing in 1968, showing James in a photo under a headline declaring that enemy shrapnel was no match for this Corona, Queens, fighter. 

It still isn’t. The metal has been lodged in James’ back since that day in New Guinea, when he went to repair communications lines and his crew came under fire. They dug foxholes and heard the mortars explode, and then he felt the hit. Wounded, he waited until dark, and crawled back with his men to the beach and their commanders.

Stephanie Hanes/The Christian Science Monitor
News of James Lisa’s Purple Heart award for being wounded in battle in New Guinea during World War II was featured in the Long Island Star-Journal.

James stayed in the Philippines after the end of the war, until a boat arrived to bring the troops back to San Francisco. Because he was a “high pointer” with marks for bravery or injury, he got to fly east from there. A photo of that is in his album, too – men squeezed on troop-carrier benches, staring at the ground or the rucksacks at their feet.

“First class,” he says. 

His father hugged him when he opened the door of his childhood home: “Hugged me, can you imagine?” he muses. His mother cried – he’d expected that. But his father? His father owned a bowling alley and pool hall in Corona, which at that time was filled with other Italians. The elder James Lisa didn’t look imposing, but he was hard-nosed enough to handle the toughs who might try – only once, mind you – to mess with him. 

But James’ father had a soft spot. He doted on his wife, the only member of the family actually born in Italy, who’d moved from the old country to an apartment under the L train and almost had a nervous breakdown because of the noise. Later, after James met Amelia, and they’d married and moved to Fresh Meadows and had their little girl, his father let the toddler walk on his pool tables: Little Inez can do whatever she wants, said her grandfather, glowering at anyone who might suggest otherwise. 

James took a job as a letter carrier after the war, and worked his way up to customer service director for Queens’ postal complex.

“I learned how to handle people,” he says. “Sometimes you can smile and sometimes you can growl and sometimes you can agree with them even though you don’t.” 

It was a skill he used for his family as well. He didn’t talk about the war much. “You lose a lot of it, thank God,” he says.

And then, what was there to say? “You talk about the lessons you’ve learned and you see the eyes glaze over. After a while, I figured, they’re living their own lives,” he says. “To me [the war] was a big thing. For them – it was what I did.”

For decades, he kept his memorabilia in boxes upstairs – tropics-faded, wallet-sized photos he’d carried through the Philippines; news clippings; documents from the Army. He kept a photo of the YMCA hockey team he played with before the war, the Corona Rangers. It’s in the album now, and beneath it he has made a list, under the words “Cost of Freedom”: Nils Odstrom, killed in action. Clyde Brightman, a prisoner of war. Benjamin Siminetti, killed in action, D-Day. Few members of the team survived. 

James has always believed America is the best country in the world, a nation willing to sacrifice for freedom. But he wonders if people forget what sacrifice really means. They surely forget how important it is to be ready, to have sound defenses. 

Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed that.

He’d retired from the post office and was working as a tax accountant when the attacks happened. He returned home and turned on the TV, taking the same position that he had when President Kennedy was shot, when Apollo reached the moon.

James’ world changed over the ensuing 20 years. He lost a wife, a daughter, and a brother. Other World War II veterans in his neighborhood moved away or died, and no more children play on the streets, watched over by neighbors through windows, ready to break up any nonsense.

But something else has happened, too. Young people have become far more interested in his experiences. His grandchildren began asking him about the war, and he started sharing – first with the boys, then with the girls. He kept to funny stories for a while, but eventually let the more serious slip in. His granddaughter Katelyn and her brother drove him to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Grandnieces and nephews crowd into his hotel room at family weddings, asking for his tales. 

Someone gave him a veteran’s ball cap. Strangers are kind to him when he wears it. He still drives – a new Kia – and the other day when he pulled up to the local elementary school to vote, police officers saw the cap, thanked him for his service, called him “Sir,” and told him to park wherever he’d like. 

He doesn’t know what he’ll do for the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, if anything at all. Maybe he’ll see his daughter, who was one of the helpers in lower Manhattan. 

That day, he knows, is hard for her.

Nobody came from the wreckage

The boy came into the nurse’s office that day complaining of a stomachache. This child was one of her “regulars,” Inez says with the warm laugh that shows why middle schoolers at Intermediate School 10 might have regularly found ways to trade class for her company. “I am a bit of a nurturer,” she says, almost guiltily. 

But this time, the boy seemed particularly out of sorts. He said he’d looked out the window and watched a plane fly into the World Trade Center. It went right into the tower, he insisted. Inez remembers exchanging glances with her colleagues. As a nurse with the city’s department of public health, she heard a lot. But this seemed stranger than normal. She told the child he could rest in the infirmary.

But of course, he was absolutely right. He would have had a straight view of the attack from the school’s upper floors, nearly as clear as the image from the No. 7 train that Inez rode the next day from Queens to Manhattan.

There hadn’t been a question of whether she would go. She’d stayed at school after the attacks, waiting as frantic parents arrived to grasp their children, all the rules of pickup and drop-off shattered into inconsequentiality. Her own children were young adults, her sons working and Katelyn in college. She’d made contact with each and knew they were safe. So she had to help. She called her parents to let them know she would be going to ground zero the next morning. Her mother was unhappy; her father understood. 

The crowd in the train car was hushed, passengers gaping at the place where the towers had stood. The first glimpse of the broken skyline was “mind-blowing,” she remembers.

The trains only went so far, so she walked the rest of the way to Chelsea Piers, the new sports and entertainment complex on the Hudson River where officials had set up a medical triage center. The crowd grew larger as she made her way south – doctors and nurses and volunteers appearing from their own corners of the city, joining together to move as a group toward the wreckage, hoping to do something, anything, to help. 

When she got to Chelsea Piers, she walked by table after table set up across what had been soundstages, past state-of-the-art medical equipment and pods of doctors and nurses ready to treat a wave of acutely injured people pulled from the rubble.

But no victims arrived. The morning crept into the afternoon. Once Inez rode an ambulance with a doctor because rescue workers thought they’d found someone in the rubble. But it was a false alarm. Soon it began to dawn on the volunteers that nobody would be coming from the wreckage of the towers. Indeed, fewer than 20 people survived the towers’ collapse, according to most sources, and most of those individuals were recovered by Sept. 12. 

The nurses at the triage center eventually began helping the rescue workers, firefighters, and medics. Inez made sure they had water, helped them tie their shoes, cleaned off the dust, washed out their eyes. 

Shawn Baldwin/AP/File
Rescue workers push through gloom at ground zero, the day after 9/11.

For the next 15 years, she couldn’t bring herself to return to downtown Manhattan.

It’s not that Inez can’t imagine violence or conflict. She’d grown up acutely aware of her father’s role in World War II, even if he rarely talked about it. Her childhood was infused with a deep respect for what it means for people to fight for their country.

She didn’t actively oppose the Vietnam War, because she felt that was just too disrespectful of the boys fighting. She bit her tongue when her peers railed against the military, the government: “I didn’t support the war. I supported the soldiers.”

But Sept. 11 was different. It felt personal. It was her city attacked, her country, a nation she still believes – despite all the political divisions and struggles and mistakes – is the best in the world. 

“We have our freedoms here,” she says. And then she glances at her father and adds, “Only because of what he did in the war.” 

Every year, at the beginning of September, Inez wonders whether she’ll have the strength to watch the anniversary TV scroll of names of 9/11 victims. She regularly tells herself that this year she won’t do it, that she’ll let the day fade into the past.

She always watches, though. Every year.

Questioning “great nation” status   

Her daughter doesn’t watch.

For a few years, Katelyn took a moment, like many of her friends, to watch the names, honor the first responders, and remember the attacks that had christened her adulthood. But then the ceremonies faded out of her life. Only the unease remained.

She was in college on 9/11, and probably would have seen the first plane hit One World Trade Center if she hadn’t been looking down, earphones connecting her focus to her music. The broad, familiar skyline of Manhattan was clearly visible from the overpasses on her bus route to Queensborough Community College – a constant backdrop to her life, weighted by the twin towers to the south, the Empire State Building in the middle, flat Central Park uptown.

Everyone was acting “really weird” when she arrived on campus. This was before smartphones, so there were just whispers and rumors as classmates shifted around a lecture hall. Eventually the professor arrived and said there’d been an explosion: Classes are canceled. Call your families.

She made her way to the theater department, where she was a major, and huddled in the greenroom with her classmates: “Everyone’s freaking out and, you know, you’re not even sure why you’re freaking out.” 

The students were loaning phones, offering their minutes to distraught classmates, but calls wouldn’t go through.

Katelyn ended up at her parents’ house that day instead of the apartment she shared with friends, although she doesn’t remember how she got there. She stayed there until her shift a few days later at a restaurant and sports bar in a neighborhood of Queens that, like many in that area, was in mourning. World Trade Center commuters had lived there; the fire departments were some of the first to respond to the attacks.

At some point that evening, police cars began driving slowly outside the restaurant; then firetrucks and ambulances joined them, and then the people, stopping their constant New York movement to stand still on the sidewalk and wave the American flags that somehow everyone had acquired in those days after the attacks. The crowd started to sing “America the Beautiful.” 

A feeling went through Katelyn, a sense she’d seen something remarkable – a city that was nicer, where people supported each other regardless of what they looked like or where they lived or how much money they had. She kept noticing it over the next few weeks. Strangers stopping to hug each other. People asking if others were OK. 

Ramin Talaie/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Four generations of James Lisa’s family are a cross-section of American perspectives on 9/11: Mr. Lisa (seated) from the Greatest Generation; Inez Regan, a baby boomer (right); millennial Katelyn O’Prey (left), and her 3-year-old, Cole.

But as time went on, other feelings took over. As the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, she worried whether there’d be a draft, and if her brothers would be called to fight. The mail turned dangerous, with anthrax-laced letters sent through the post. Her grandfather no longer worked for the Postal Service, but still ... The car-choked tunnels into Manhattan, she heard, could be a new target for terrorists. The subway, too. Suspicious activity should be reported, she knew, but ... on the New York City Subway? Every fifth person seemed strange in the best of times. The quirkiness of the city took on a darker tone. 

Near her 21st birthday, Katelyn and Inez were at Elizabeth Arden in Manhattan – a mother-daughter spa day – when the lights went out across the city. They fled the building in pedicure flip-flops and joined the throngs walking over the East River bridges, away from the island, wondering what terrible thing had happened this time. 

Even after she learned that it was a massive blackout, not terrorism, the sense lingered that at any moment, something bad could happen. That anxiety was always under the surface, erupting as when a steam pipe exploded in midtown in 2007. Working at a restaurant nearby, she and her colleagues heard the rumble and saw the geyser and bolted out the back door, running frantically away, anywhere away: “We were basically running for our lives.”

It wasn’t only Sept. 11 that gnawed at her sense of safety. She and her friends were in high school when two seniors shot their classmates at Columbine High School. As she got older, those school attacks continued. In her daily life, she read the warnings on public transportation; she saw the metal detectors and security go up in buildings, stadiums, airports. She realized she, and many of her friends, were moving toward a way of being that her husband, Mark, described from his childhood in Northern Ireland – a foundation of mistrust, of knowing you have to protect yourself because threats can be anywhere. 

But those threats, for her, didn’t come from “outsiders.”

She knows many people – mostly older, she believes – blamed Muslims and Islam in the wake of the attacks, but that never made sense to her. She didn’t travel much as a child, but maybe because of the many ethnicities she encountered in Queens, or the shrinking of the world through the internet, or just a different sensibility among her peers, she’s always felt comfortable with people of different backgrounds.  

Despite her grandfather’s dollar bill of destinations, she knows millennials have traveled more widely and differently in the world than older generations; her cohort has tried to integrate and experience, not conquer. She’s no jet-setter herself, although she’s married to someone from abroad, and knows in a way – so deep it’s like breathing – that other cultures exist, thrive, and evolve.

That’s partly why she can’t agree that the U.S. is the best country in the world. What’s best? What does that even mean? She’s proud to be an American; she considers herself patriotic. But who is she to judge superiority?


Pew Research Center

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Katelyn doesn’t plan to attend any ceremony for the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. She might think about it, of course, when she looks at the Manhattan skyline from the Kosciuszko Bridge as she drives between her home in Maspeth, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s so different now. You can barely pick out her favorite, the art deco Chrysler Building, because it’s so dwarfed by new towers. She doesn’t like it. The balance is off, leaning toward the skinny matchbox skyscrapers reaching up from midtown, each vying for the record of tallest.

She and Mark own a construction company. During the week, their team installs drywall and framing to build that new landscape of New York. On weekends, they sometimes take Cole to a local Irish restaurant. The child asks about the plaque there, with the two tall skyscrapers and the many, many names. Katelyn thinks about that day, the deaths, and wonders how to explain it to her 3-year-old. She remembers the people hugging on the streets, the glimmer of hope for a nicer, kinder world.

Those are buildings that aren’t there anymore, Katelyn tells her son. The plaque is so we remember them.

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