I am sitting on the couch between my children, reading The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. It is early evening, before dinner, and they are each leaning into a shoulder, the screaming match from five minutes ago forgotten.
I really like it when they’re like this.
I can feel their soft cheeks on my bare arms, Miles has his right hand on my leg, patting it for emphasis when he talks about how hard it must have been for Philippe Petit, a French street performer to walk across that huge space between the unfinished World Trade Center towers in 1974—posing as a construction worker, smuggling his heavy gauge cable and supplies up to the roof of the south tower, and waiting until nightfall to rig the tightrope.
People watched all morning as Philippe stayed out on the wire, walking back and forth, lying down, suspended in time and space hundreds of feet above their heads.
Philippe was eventually apprehended, and did community service for his stunt, but his story is one of dreams and hope. Even today:
“Now the towers are gone.
“But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.”
Reading that passage, I inevitably blink away tears. I know it’s natural to get choked up remembering the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, but my sensitivity goes beyond the tragic loss of lives.
I have a very strong sense of smell.
I have lived overseas, in a country that experiences terrorism on a daily basis. I have been minutes away from the site of an attack on civilians, and should have really been among the casualties, but for the fact that I forgot my bag at my apartment and had to go back for it, missing the bus that would have put me there.
I know what burning flesh smells like. I can feel the acrid, singeing molecules in my nose and throat. I know the smell of death. I think about how the site must have smelled in the days and weeks after the towers fell.
I think about how there are smells associated with so much of life.
The blood and sweat smell of childbirth gives way to the smell of a newborn (just put your nose in the folds of his neck and breathe). Babies make stinky messes and then become preschoolers with stinky messes of playground-sweaty hair. Adolescents become adults. Adults age and become old people who use mothballs. Old people get sick and die.
If you can close your eyes and imagine it, there is a smell we can associate with the stages of our lives, and for every significant memory we can attach a smell: freshly-mown grass on the weekend, the smell of sulfur on the Fourth of July, coffee brewing in the kitchen, the smell of the city after a summer rainstorm, the way an apartment smells after a weekend of sex, the smell of a nursing mother, the smell of hospitals or nursing homes; the smell of lilies at a funeral.
Sometimes I get carried away with my senses. While I realize that my sense of smell may be more acute than most, I don’t think I am alone in my associations. Still, I was surprised and awestruck and a little sad when, at the end of the story, little Jack put his nose in the crook of my arm and inhaled.
“Momma, you smell big. I smell little, but you smell big.”
Stay small, little one.
World Trade Center