There was always something about the Twin Towers that made me feel they were my buildings. They were a seminal part of my new American life, they grew as my American sense of self grew. They said, "So long" every time I flew out of Newark and "Welcome back" each time I returned.
I was a 10-year-old farm girl who had never seen a skyscraper when we arrived in the United States in the summer of 1967. The World Trade Center had just broken ground and construction was beginning. Newark was in flames, there were tanks in the streets -- strange and violent things that registered on our flickering black-and-white television.
It was a turbulent time, but it was removed from my small Passaic street, which was filled with immigrants from every imaginable country. We were busy learning English and trying to figure out this new and crazy place. The things that were turning our adopted country inside out were foreign to us and far removed from our small emigre world.
The towers grew. And ever so quickly. By the time I was fluent in English and feeling comfortable in this brave new American world, the Twin Towers were becoming the signature landmark of lower Manhattan. Their sleek, silver lines shone from afar; the simplicity of their lines spoke of an elegance that we in New Jersey thought of as our own. It was, after all, a skyline that you saw better when you were outside New York.
Folk Dancing And Vertigo
In the spring of 1973 our Ukrainian folk-dancing group was invited to participate in the opening ceremonies of the World Trade Center. Our 12-member all-girl dancing group was a blaze of color in the cold white lobby of the new wonders in lower Manhattan. Decked out in traditional Ukrainian embroidery, wreaths, and the funkiest red boots you can imagine, we danced our hearts out in the lobby.
After we finished performing I went exploring. The lobby was decorated with flags of foreign countries, some I recognized, but many were unknown to me. As I breathed in the fresh smell of new paint and I looked up at those hundreds of flags, I thought, “One day, the Ukrainian flag will hang here as well.” That's the thing with Ukrainian emigre life: we were taught that it was our duty in some small way to always work for Ukrainian independence.
The World Trade Center became a tourist requirement for all my European friends who eventually came to visit. The South Tower in particular became an instrument of psychological therapy in overcoming my fear of heights. My mother had always wanted to see “those two buildings” as she called them. It was twilight when we finally made it to the top. My mother was awed. It was the closest she could get to heaven, while still being on Earth, she said. I on the other hand was shaking inside thinking about how high we were. I forced myself to walk to the edge of the building and pressed my forehead against the cool glass. “There's just a half inch of glass between me and certain death,” I thought. I stood there for what seemed like an eternity. I took deep breaths and looked down at the specks that were cars and people. I am not sure that I overcame my fear of heights completely, suffice to say that my heart no longer races when I am way up high.
I still fly in and out of Newark, but the towers no longer see me off or welcome me back. I miss them profoundly, the way I miss a close friend or family member whom I still remember, but no longer see.
Buildings have souls. They have an atmosphere and an energy, an attitude and a cachet. My towers had all that and more. They stood there proudly, the gates to a world of promise, opportunity, and freedom. They may be gone, but their soul is still there, lingering over us, reminding us of what once was.
Irena Chalupa is a senior RFE/RL Washington correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL