For most tourists wandering New York, visiting the 9/11 Memorial is an act of remembrance and respect, a way to understand a foreign place and a shared history by confronting a conspicuous absence. But for the children arriving every day, the memorial is an object unto itself. The columns of air above the fountains have been empty their whole lives.
This is the Memorial's inevitable fate: to be visited by people who can't recall that day, to become an historical monument.
The parents who bring their children to the Memorial are serving as the first guides to the future monument and their reactions to the experience indicate how well-suited the physical and emotional landscape is to learning. That the children who accompany their parents to the 9/11 Memorial cling to legs and arms is a testament to the appropriate pall that hangs over the space even if lines are occasionally crossed. Parents say that their children can tell that this is an adult place and that their nervousness prompts questions. This exactly the point.
"She keeps reminding herself that the daycare children got out," Anissa Davis, who took her 9-year-old daughter on a tour of the site Monday, told HuffPost Travel. "She's asking about how many Mommies and Daddies were in there, but not looking for a number."
Davis acknowledges that the question isn't about facts or figures, but impermanence and thinks the fountains are an ideal centerpiece because they are ever-changing and bottomless. A visual cue can help children struggle to understand loss even if they willfully fail to wrestle with its inevitability.
"My brother served in Iraq and Afghanistan so it is important for her to understand the gravity of what happened here," said Davis.
That gravity and the unanswerable questions that attend it can frighten parents. A Miami man carrying his 4-year-old daughter through the memorial told me that he wouldn't have brought her if he'd thought she'd see it as "more than a pretty thing." He was concerned that the experience might be too powerful.
Acknowledging that facing the the ugliness of destruction can be difficult for children, the 9/11 Memorial has released a guide to "Talking To Your Children About 9/11" that suggests acknowledging that adults don't have all the answers.
"If you can’t answer your child’s question, be honest," the guide advises. "Use the opportunity to model yourself as a learner, and explore the question together.
Ruby Joyner, a 5-year-old from Hoboken, asked her mom two questions when she saw the names circling the South Tower pool. The first question, "Why do some of the names have roses in them?" was answerable. The second, "Why aren't the names of the bad guys here too?" was harder to tackle. Ruby's mother, Wendy, was forced to admit she didn't exactly know.
Despite the fact that visiting the Memorial might raise more questions than it resolves, Wendy says she wanted Ruby to see the place because the hole in the skyline is part of her family's history.
"This is part of my husband and my story because we were in Hoboken and he was working in the City and I work for the airlines," says Wendy. "She doesn't need to know the details, just that something catastrophic happened here."
Though many parents have brought their children to the Memorial so they can better contextualize their own lives, a close connection to the tragedy was hardly a common thread. To the contrary, many if not most of the children at the site when I visited were the sons and daughters of foreign tourists in town to see relatives or take in the sites.
"Unfortunately, tragedy is a part of life," said Johan Sandberg, a Swedish tourist who brought his teenage son and daughter along with their 11-year-old little brother to the site. "We have a week in New York and we'll do the usual things and we wanted to come here. They can think about family and values and life even if we aren't American."
Mr. Sandberg's youngest ran his hand over an inscribed name, part of the tragic roll call that won't change along with its visitors, and reached for his father's hand.
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