After John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, when someone asked the question, "Where were you ...?" they didn't even have to finish the sentence. For those who were old enough to understand, it was like the images from that day (and the days following) were frozen inside a snow globe. Images of a smiling and waving JFK and Jackie in the open convertible, images of Jackie holding JFK after the shots were fired.
Among my most vivid memories is that of Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses, his voice wavering as he delivered the news that President Kennedy had died. It was like his whole body deflated from the gut punch reality of the news he had to report.
And in the days after, images of the funeral procession, Jackie and little JFK Jr. - John-John as we knew him, and Carolyn. And then of course, that image of JFK Jr. saluting his father's casket as it passed.
"Where were you ...?" In November of 1963, I had just turned 8. It was our bus driver, Mr. Christopher, who asked us to be quiet on the bus ride home from school, because our president had been shot. At home, my mother was watching the news. I remember her hand to her mouth in disbelief and the tears in her eyes.
Images from days like that are engraved on our minds and in our hearts.
There were other tragic events that came later, including the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I'm sure that many people can say exactly where they were when those tragic events happened too. But for me, JFK's assassination still stood alone as what instantly came to mind in response to the Where Were You question for 23 years.
Then, on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV, killing all seven members of its crew, including the first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe.
"Where were you ...?" In January, 1986, I was 31. My husband and I worked for the same bank and had decided to go my parents' house to watch the Challenger launch. Together we watched in horror as the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. I remember that I'd had a bad feeling ahead of time, like a premonition of disaster. But then, I think many people did because there had been so many problems and delays before that launch.
The Challenger didn't replace JFK's assassination in answer to the Where Were You question for anyone old enough to remember both. But now there were two of those kinds of days frozen in memory.
Another 15 years passed before the question had a new answer - one that, even for those who remember as far back as JFK's death - replaces it in the hierarchy of tragic national events. September 11, 2001. For those who were alive then and old enough to understand, there is no need for me to resurrect the images of that day.
"Where were you ...?" In 2001, I was 46. We were at our home in East Boothbay, Maine, packing up for a move to Arizona. It was a spectacularly beautiful morning - the bluest, most cloudless sky. I think we all remember that - the juxtaposition of incomprehensible cruelty, inhumanity and horror against the backdrop of a spectacularly beautiful early fall day. Again, one of my vivid remembrances is of the deliverer of news - I remember Peter Jennings, not wearing his suit jacket, clearly exhausted and still in shock and wiping the tears from his eyes as he ended his broadcast.
All you have to ask is, "Where were you?" and people know exactly what you are asking, because everyone who remembers that day remembers exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell.
Our youngest generations have no memory of this day. As they grow and learn about it, they come to understand that it was terrible, but in a kind of abstract way. There is no way to feel what we felt that day, if you didn't feel it that day. For them it is probably just like Pearl Harbor was for my generation - a terrible day that our parents remembered as the worst day in our nation's history. But for us, it was just part of a history lesson. We didn't feel what they felt that day. Every generation, it seems, has a defining tragedy like this - maybe several of them, as my generation has had. One event though, tends to rise above the rest - like Pearl Harbor and September 11th. I find myself hoping beyond hope that our children and their children will somehow miraculously escape that fate.