Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Oldest Victim

Anna Mae Dickinson

PSAYINGS.5D. As Oliver Stone's World Trade Center rolls out into theaters across the country, New Yorkers are clearly struggling with their emotions about the picture and its all-too-real premise. The normally ebullient gossip columnist Cindy Adams published a review yesterday in which she declared:

Too soon for this. Maybe not for Californians or Belgians, but for New Yorkers.

Her sentiments are confirmed by an AFP story this morning which reports:

 For many New Yorkers it is too soon. For others the very idea of reliving the September 11 tragedy through the eyes of Oliver Stone in his new film "World Trade Center" is too traumatic to think about.

"I have no interest whatsoever. I think it's horrible. Just the idea of having a movie about 9/11 bothers me," said Jessica Amato in summarizing the mood of many New Yorkers about Stone's new project, released nationally August 9.

As sad as all this is, it pales in comparison to the trauma experienced by Anna Mae Dickinson, resident of Lower Manhattan and, at 102, the oldest and last surviving victim of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Her story is told in a moving piece in the New York Intelligencer:

She was eight when she lost her father and narrowly escaped death herself on the Titanic. She was 11 when she lost her Aunt Olivia in the torpedoing of the Lusitania. She was 31 when she lost her first cousin Alfred in the Hindenberg explosion. She was 37 when she lost her nephew Thomas in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.And she was 97 when her tiny apartment was shaken and battered by the collapse of the twin towers on Sptember 11, 2001.

These days, she lives with a full-time nurse who has been with her since her mother died in 1980. The two of them had moved into their apartment in 1912 and remained together for the next 68 years. Anna Mae never married, although she has a cat named Charlie, the fifteenth to bear that name since she lost the original Charlie in the Titanic disaster.

"I'll never let go of Charlie," she says in a voice so feeble that her nurse Edna frequently has to interpret her words for visitors.

The tale that unfolds in the Intelligencer is sad beyond belief. Anna Mae's mother never recovered from the loss of her husband. She was so frightened of water that having landed in Manhattan after the sinking, she never left the island because it involved crossing water. Mother and daughter spent their entire lives in the grip of an inconsolable grief. To this day, Anna Mae does not take baths, but must be bathed in a sitdown shower which she endures only by maintaining a tight grip on her rosary throughout. Fortunately, though, Anna Mae remains in surprisingly good health, except for chronic eye infections caused by her constant weeping.

After a few more prosaic questions, the reporter asked Anna Mae how she had managed to cope with so many stunning losses in the course of her life, especially the deaths of her relatives in the Lusitania, Hindenberg, and Pearl Harbor disasters. The old woman is so overcome by emotion that the nurse has to answer for her:

"She never paid them no mind. To her and her mother, every single day was, is, the 15th of April, 1912. That's when all the clocks stopped for both of them." Sure enough, none of the clocks in the apartment is ticking, and all of them read 2:20.

How, the nurse is asked, did Anna May react to the appalling catastrophe of 9/11?

"Terrible. She thought the apartment had hit an iceberg, and she knew we was going down all over again. She carried on something awful."

Then, finally, the bitterly hard question of the day: How does she feel about them making a movie of that devastating day?

This time, Anna Mae answers loud and clear, with no need for assistance from her nurse: "Too soon," she cries. "Too soon. The wounds are all still too fresh. They had no right to make that disgusting movie about our poor ship when some of us were still alive to feel the pain." And then she commences to sob like an eight-year-old girl.

So if New Yorkers think they're exquisitely sensitive, maybe they should take a minute to think about the titanic example set by Anna Mae. For many of the 9/11 survivors, it will be a long, hard, distracting road to the age of 102, and the truth is, too many of them aren't dwelling nearly enough in the past to make their grief last so long and so monotholically.

Time to buckle down, New Yorkers, and reach for the new gold standard of agony. We always hear that New Yorkers love a challenge. Well, they've got one now.

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