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9/11 Memorial: Search for Meaning


 Sitting down to write about my recent visit to the 9/11 Memorial I am really at a loss for what to say.  So much has been written about this ten-years-in-the- making Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center.

Some people love it.  Others think it is mundane.  Others talk about all the controversy.  Hard to know how to add to the discussion.

The experience felt odd at first.  Heading to lower Manhattan, coming up on the massive construction zone, making our way through the line and the security check, waiting for huge pieces of equipment to be moved and watching groups of school kids sporting foam Statue of Liberty headgear  didn’t feel all that reverent.

But soon, the reality took hold.  The two large square pools, cascading 30 foot water falls flowing in an orderly manner into black voids and name after name after name wrapped around the pools, brought home the reality that this is a grave site.  It is sacred ground and a place to speak quietly, offer a prayer and remember lives lost.

Someone described it as an “overwhelming aesthetic of emptiness.”  Not very comforting, but  appropriate.

 We walked around both “Towers” looking for our son’s college friend who had tragically just started a job with Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower.  My stomach clinched in real pain when we found his name.  I wonder how his parents feel when they come here.  I hope they find some measure of peace that he and all the others will be remembered with love.

 I know I’ll go back. I want to watch the growth of the Survivor Tree–a small pear tree plucked from the massive devastation known as Ground Zero and nursed back to health.  Now it is planted in the middle of the eight acre space, the ultimate metaphor for the power of nature and the will to survive.

Part of my memory of this visit will be our visiting St. Paul’s Chapel, New York’s oldest public building in continuous daily use.

Amazingly the small structure where George Washington worshiped on his Presidential inauguration day remained standing when everything around it crumbled.


While covered in ash, dust and debris, it was  turned into a haven for workers at the WTC.  Rescuers prayed and grieved, ate and slept there.

I immediately recognized the Chapel’s long iron fence, shown on the 24/7 coverage of the attacks.  It became a location for posters asking for help finding loved ones and eventually a  make shift Memorial when it became clear they weren’t going to be found.



I was struck by the contrast between the rows of headstones in the small church yard–some of them over 200 years old–and the two reflecting pools–one acre each–close by representing the deaths of 2,977 people.  The magnitude of the death and destruction hit home to me.


The Chapel now houses displays from the events surrounding 9/11, personal items, rescuers’ equipment and the scratched pews, marked by the rescuers equipment. They tell the story of the eight months it was a refuge.


The redeveloped area will include the Memorial, Museum, commercial office space, retail and connections to public transportation.  I f you are planning to go in the near future, be aware you need to get a ticket to reserve your time of entry. It is free but you need a pass.    Go to the 9/11 Memorial Web site for this information.


I hope you will share your thoughts about the experience if you have been to the 9/11 Memorial.

Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    May 15, 2012 Reply

    Susan – since I don’t know when I’ll ever get to NYC again, this is a wonderful and vivid account; the photos add a lot, too. Sorry for the personal loss to your son and thus you. Thanks for adding to the community-wide (as in world-wide) conversation about this place in spite of your report of feeling at such a loss for words. 

  2. posted by
    May 16, 2012 Reply

    When the Towers fell I was only 12 years old and in the seventh grade.  I did not realize the depth of the situation that was unfolding only a few hours from my home.  As I sat in my science class I remember my teacher looking out at the class rubbing his head, conveying a sense of anxiety and worry as he told us our only homework was to go home and tell our parents that we loved them.   Little did I realize the world I had lived in for the first 12 years of my life changed drastically at that moment and would continue to change for the next 11 years of my life.  Having visited the memorial recently my thoughts regressed to that moment in my science class as a seventh grader.  Again the true scale of the events of September 11, 2001 hit me.  In my opinion the scale of the waterfalls and illusion of the ever dropping water are both poignant and appropriate.  As you pointed out those names are the only physical reminders some families have left of their loved ones and as a result the site should be treated as a type of grave site.  At the same time the juxtaposition of the new construction is also important in the “rebuilding” of both the physical and intangible.—Many good points and a well put together post.

  3. posted by
    May 16, 2012 Reply

    Thanks, Susan…this is a lovely and poignant piece about the 911 memorial. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. posted by
    May 17, 2012 Reply

    Susan, I feel the pit in my stomach when I read your description of the memorial. The memories of that day come flooding back. Thank you for giving us all the reminder of how precious life is.

  5. posted by
    Miller Marianne
    May 17, 2012 Reply

    Another WOW as your experience awakened many feelings lost in the wake of life. I took a group of 10 young staff nurses to an NYU conference in NYC in 2002..we stayed around the corner from and walked by the site everyday on the way to the subway. I’m getting choked up revisiting my emotions…this memorial is so appropriate for the senseless empty hole that swallowed up so many lives.  Thank you for sharing this and the surroundings.  

  6. posted by
    emma robertson
    Sep 11, 2012 Reply

    very powerful words and images. thank you for sharing your experience

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