One woman remembered candles. Garden City, Kansas, August 6, 1945, her daughter’s fifth birthday. A cake on the counter next to a sink of dirty dishes. Yellow frosting so thick it spilled over the lip of the plate. She lit the candles and picked up the plate to carry it to the table where her husband, son, and the birthday girl sat. News came over the radio that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “I was so shocked, I nearly dropped the cake,” the woman told me many years later. She was in a memoir class I was teaching to senior citizens. But she didn’t drop the cake. The birthday went on, the girl blew out the candles, grew up, and went on to have her own children.
One woman remembered shoes. She was walking to New York University the morning of September 11, 2001, in black pumps. Pointed toes and lace-up closures around her thin ankles. The laces were so delicate, she was afraid she might ruin them on her walk down West Broadway, but she always dressed up for the first day of teaching history to freshmen. And then the crash, the screams, confetti falling from the sky, and other things, heavier things, dropping at terrible speed. “It didn’t even cross my mind it was terrorists,” she told me later when I met her at a conference in New York. “I thought our government was bombing us. All I could think of was my shoes.” She had on the wrong shoes for running. As chaotic as it was in the city that morning, she walked back toward the burning towers, found her apartment, and changed into sneakers.
“Flashbulb memories” these are called, private memories that occur when we experience, or even hear about, an overwhelming public tragedy. Because these personal recollections merge with national traumas, they can be “as clear as something that happened yesterday,” the American Psychological Association writes on its website, “right down to the dialogue, the weather and even what people were wearing when they heard the news.” Flashbulb memories develop like any memory, and some details may change over time. A woman may have been wearing a red sweater on January 28, 1986, the day she watched the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up on her TV screen. But when she recalls that moment ten years later, she might see herself clad in a blue T-shirt. What doesn’t change about these memories is their emotional charge. Like great poetry, they stop time, buzz with energy, carry the power of a moment sharply observed. Because they’re linked to extreme distress, they endure. Oddly, they settle on specific images that feel as tangible as a charm in a pocket. We carry them around for the rest of our lives, where they register a transition, such as the shift from the pre-nuclear age to the age of the bomb, or from the world before 9-11 to life afterward. And they can point the way forward.
I remember a chair scraping a floor. November 8, 2016, I was standing outside of a restaurant in Pullman, Washington, talking on my phone. “It’s over,” my husband said. He’s an engineer with a calm, steady voice, but this time it faltered. I had just finished running an evening workshop at the university where a literary agent who specialized in foreign rights was teaching students about how to get into publishing. “Some American stories just don’t sell in foreign markets,” she’d said. “Cheerleaders. Football games. High school proms.” I had instructed the students to put away their phones during the workshop. No matter what happened in the election, I’d said, books had to be written and sold, and they needed to learn about publishing. The workshop ended, and I was about to meet a few people for dinner when my husband called. “Are you sure it’s over?” I said. “I’m sure,” he said. “Florida is gone. Michigan and Pennsylvania are almost gone. It’s just like Brexit. The polls were wrong.”
I remember being chilled when I hung up. The early darkness of coming winter—we’d turned the clocks back two days earlier—seemed to usher in a world where we might have to register our religions, face mass deportation because of our skin colors, be robbed of free speech, and endure sexual assault championed by the president. A world where fake news trumps hard facts. A world where democracy might transition to fascism. A world where we might have to fight for freedoms we’ve taken for granted. I went into the restaurant and found the table where the literary agent, two colleagues, and two of my students sat. One student had tears in her eyes as if she’d been walking into a cold headwind. As I pulled out the chair to sit down, the legs shrieked along the floor. It was a sound I’ll hold on to—the sound of movement.
I’m not saying this election is like the horror of genocide. No one died in the election. But the world shifted for me that night, as it did for many millions of people, and as it must have for an older friend of mine who told me the story of driving home from work in Detroit on April 4, 1968 and pulling to the side of the road to listen to a news broadcast. Martin Luther King had been shot in the face by a white man driving a white Mustang. The sun was setting. What my friend recalled many years later was digging his fingers into the green leather of his seat so forcefully his nails left an impression that never went away.
DJ Lee’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Narrative, The Montreal Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Her most recent book, The Land Speaks, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. She lives in Chicago, Illinois and Moscow, Idaho, and she teaches literature and writing at Washington State University in Pullman. Learn more about her work at debbiejlee.com.
Header photo of the south tower of the World Trade Center as the second of two hijacked airlines crash into the building in the morning of September 11, 2001. Photo by Dan Doane, Jr. / SIPA Press, courtesy Wikipedia. Photo of DJ Lee courtesy Amy Lee.