Perhaps each generation can point to a defining episode in their history. For those of our relatives no longer with us, that time might have been the challenges of World War II. Others among us may remember, say, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, or a devastating earthquake or tornado which hit close to home.
For some of our younger generations, though, one day stands out as the dividing line in their reality: the day nearly three thousand people died, and then had that video-taped moment repeatedly replayed on national news.
It's now been twenty years. While I know very little about the long-term impact on those who suffered the deepest losses, I can't help but reflect on how much one day—one incident—can define those of us who lived through that experience. Events shape us. Cataclysmic events shape us immensely.
Perhaps, in some cases, it is not beyond reason to say some events not only shape who we become, but redirect our lives. That certainly was the case for the Irish ancestors of my father-in-law like Stephen Malloy who, in the face of famine and political unrest, needed to make the difficult choice to leave behind all they knew of life.
In the case of Stephen Malloy, the risk he took was to escape his homeland for the possibility of a better life far from his native country. While we can absorb the facts of his life, we can't really appreciate the full import without stepping back to take in the bigger picture surrounding it. To understand his story, we need to comprehend history. The events surrounding our ancestors' lives provide the context shedding light on their choices, their decisions, their next moves.
Granted, when those of our own family shaken by that devastating event twenty years ago raise their own children, that next generation, once grown, may find very little in that remembrance that resonates with them. In turn, that generation may live through an experience which will become to them all the same in magnitude as we experienced waking up on that morning twenty years ago—or, as my own New York family members did, arriving at work on that terrible Tuesday.
As we reflect on the timeline of our own ancestors—just as someone will, concerning us some day—our best chance of understanding why they made the decisions they did will be to find the key within the events of their day, particularly those events which rocked their world, just as "nine eleven" did ours.