Sunday, September 11, 2011

My odd little essay re 9/11

My Shirley Temple Bender

By Roz Cummins

“Hey, boys, do you want Shirley Temples?” my friend Elizabeth asks her son William, who is dining, on this late August evening, with his best friend and neighbor Johnny. They are seven and about to enter third grade.

“What’s a Shirley Temple?” Johnny asks.

“It’s a cocktail,” William replies, shrugging slightly in a this-is-no-big-deal-we-drink-cocktails-every-night seven-year-old’s version of studied nonchalance. Johnny nods as if now everything makes sense. “Can I have one too?” I hear myself ask. It’s been a while since I’ve had a Shirley Temple.

This is one of the last of the summer evenings of bare feet and no homework and going to bed when you feel like it. The boys seem blissfully unaware of their impending doom, but Elizabeth and I have the grown-up habit of spoiling the present with preoccupying thoughts about the future and the beginning of school and work and autumn and the rest of our lives. Maybe that’s why she offered them a treat. She is the coolest mom around.

She indulges me as well. “On the rocks?” she asks me archly. “Straight up,” I reply, “and make it a double.” Elizabeth and I are famous among our friends for our nearly tee-totaling ways so it’s fun to use grown-up drink-talk, since we never do. “I don’t know,” she says with mock concern, “don’t forget – it’s a cocktail! Oh, but you’re staying the night, right? So you don’t have to drive. Well okay then, a double Shirley Temple for the lady at the kitchen table.” She even puts two cherries in my drink.

I bring the glass to my lips and enjoy the bubbles and fizz and the ginger smell. The golden liquid is marbled with crimson spirals of unfurling grenadine. The childhood pleasure of drinking Shirley Temples and the glamour of taking part in the grown-ups’ cocktail hour rituals does a fleeting memory dance across my mind. My friend Sally, the consummate New Yorker, always whispers “Shirley Temples at the Rainbow Room” in my ear whenever we air-kiss good-bye, suggesting that it’s a jaunt, a secret friend-tryst, that we must plan to go on sometime soon, sometime when we’re both back home in New York. It is, however, always somewhere off in the future. It is never on our immediate list of things to do.

I drink Elizabeth’s Shirley Temple and it’s delicious – refreshing, flavorful, quite fantastic, really. “You make a mean Shirley Temple, barkeep.” I tell her.

“Thanks,” she says. “It’s all about the grenadine. You can’t skimp on it. It’s the basic building block of a successful Shirley Temple.”

“Well, I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” I say and then I empty my glass.


Later, after William has been in bed for a while and Elizabeth and I are sitting around the kitchen table talking, he suddenly cries out “I’m not cozy!” He sounds sort of panicky, as if he is even more horrified by the notion that he has only just now made this discovery than by the lack of coziness itself.


The next day I head back to Cambridge, leaving behind hills and valleys and boys about to begin school, and the friend who will make me a Shirley Temple and put two cherries in my glass. I’m headed back to a pile of unfinished articles that are in the research stage. Right now I’m working on a piece about Turkey red damask.


When September begins a few days later, the pace of life suddenly quickens. Harvard Square fills with returning students. From my office I can hear young women squealing with excitement when they first catch sight of one another after a summer apart.

I spend most of my time researching the history of red dye. I go to libraries and museums and I track down accounts of dyeing secrets being smuggled out of Turkey and Venice and into different kingdoms in Europe, each country hoping to establish its own red-dye industry and capture a bigger share of the market. Eventually a German chemist revolutionizes the dyeing process by developing artificial dyes that produce uniform results rather than the unreliable red made from madder root, and suddenly knowledge of the old materials and techniques becomes worthless. Just like that. No more espionage, no more spying, no more international intrigue.

The editors want me to write captions for some of the beautiful examples of Turkey red damask that they’ve found and they send me photos to look over. In addition to blankets and tablecloths, they have suggestions for what to do with scraps of Turkey red, such as making a tea cozy or a Christmas stocking out of the remnants of a flea market find.


It’s a beautiful Tuesday morning, almost strangely so. The air is sweet and cool and the sky – an intense blue – seems to be taunting those heading to work or school. As I approach my car I discover that it has a flat tire and I’m secretly grateful for a reason to linger on my porch rather than scurry indoors to sit at a computer. I still have work to do, though, so I get out my cell phone and begin my round of work calls after placing a call for help with Triple A. First I call one of the editors in New York about the Turkey red article. I get his voice mail and leave a message: “We have to talk about the tea cozies. Call me!” After hanging up I think of something else I have to add and then am unable to get through. I get nothing but busy signals, which seems odd. Eventually I get a message that all the lines to New York City are tied up.


I call the friend with whom I am supposed to have lunch. “I don’t think I can make it today,” I tell her, “my car has a flat tire and there’s going to be a few hours wait to get it fixed.” “Well, that’s not a problem because it’s pretty crazy around here,” she replies.

This is how our conversations always begin, so I say, “What’s happening?” expecting her to tell me that a colleague has gone berserk or that a server is down but instead she tells me that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. And then another. And then the Pentagon.

I feel myself sink to my knees. I grab the iron railing as I sit down on the stone stairs to the porch. “You didn’t know? You haven’t heard?” she asks me. “No,” I say, barely able to get the word out. “Well, I hope everyone in your family is okay. I’ve got to go. We’re closing for the rest of the day. Let’s talk later.”

I know instantly that someone I know will have been killed. I think of friends and family members working in or around the towers and I start to keen. I feel like an animal, like a wolf or a coyote. A yelp starts deep inside my chest and makes its way through my throat to the surface and I gulp for air. I feel like I’m trying to swallow a slippery liquid. I can’t catch my breath. Finally I am able to inhale and I stand up and go inside.

I start my round of phone calls to friends. It takes many attempts to get through, but the friends that I am able to reach tell me that they and their husbands are safe, have walked away from it, have made it all the way uptown or to New Jersey.

“It’s amazing,” one friend tells me, “I thought that there would be lines everywhere, people lining up to take money out of the bank or buy food, but the only lines I’ve seen have been people lining up to give blood.” I burst into tears when she tells me this.

I turn on the TV and see the footage of one plane and then the next hitting the towers, and then the towers themselves falling down. I am riveted to the screen, barely breathing because I am so tense. There is still a fourth plane missing, they say. All other planes that have been in the air have been instructed to land. There is just that one still-missing plane.

I walk to a friend’s house. Her face is red from crying. We sit on the couch, side by side, staring at the TV. Eventually we turn it off and I walk home. I know my body is moving as I make my way down the sidewalk, but I feel empty and strange. I make my way home on autopilot and remember nothing about the trip.

As evening falls I resume my TV vigil. I feel as though I cannot leave the couch. I cannot stop watching TV. I have no appetite but eventually I am thirsty. There is nothing to drink in the house except for the ginger ale, grenadine, and Maraschino cherries I recently bought, inspired by Elizabeth’s Shirley Temple. All night I sit in the blue light of the television drinking glass after glass of sweetness and innocence until they are all gone.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This essay is dedicated to my high school and college friends who died in 9/11 and to the families they left behind, and to all those who perished and those who lost loved ones.


  1. What sweet story of that sad day. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Yes, trying to hold onto innocence. Moving.The contradictions we live through/in/for.

  3. This is one of the most moving and meaningful essays I have read about that day. Your attention to slow, sensual pleasures, honed by deep research and writing about food and fabrics, effectively provides stark contrast with the sudden tragedy (and irreparable damage) we know is coming. So well done, Roz!