I recall thinking, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks occurred — and especially once The New York Times began printing, day after day, those small, heartbreaking biographies of the victims who'd perished in the twin towers — that this heartache would never end, not ever for the survivors, and perhaps not for the country as a whole.
But the majority of Americans seemed to get over it fairly quickly, and these days don't appear to give that terrible day much thought. Perhaps they don't even read any of the occasional stories that appear about the survivors, especially those in the Times, thinking them redundant, that we've moved on, that there's so much more suffering and pain in the world that need to be attended to.
A number of these articles have been astonishing pieces of journalism, as good as anything the Times published during the first days, weeks and months after the attacks — a period that was, without question, one of the high watermarks in American journalism. These news items are like little bursts of anguish that scorch the skin.
One such piece appeared on the front page of the Jan. 19 issue, taking up just a few inches along the bottom right corner before it jumped into the Metro section. The headline told the story in brief: "For 9/11 Families, New Sorrow in Fight Over Grandchildren."
With a dateline reading Oyster Bay, N.Y., the article, written by Paul Vitello, began: "Five years after their father was killed at the World Trade Center, two little girls, ages 7 and 5, sat crying in a car parked at the curb of their grandparents' home here one December day, refusing to go inside for a court-ordered visit. It was a painful family tableau rooted in a hundred tangled details, but one overriding and uncontested reality: 9/11."
The children's father, Peter V. Genco, was a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald. Shortly after his death, wrote Vitello, the relationship between the late Genco's parents and his wife "went sour." The grandparents, Barbara and Victor Genco, eventually obtained a court order in 2003 "allowing them to see the children — under supervision, and for exactly four hours, once each month. In legal documents, the mother accused her in-laws of abuse and neglect, including drinking in front of them."
On that December Sunday afternoon, according to Vitello, the girls had apparently had enough of "the whole business."
"This sad tale," continued the reporter, "is not entirely uncommon among families torn by the terrorist attacks. There is no official registry of such separations. One 9/11 family advocate said he had encountered more than 100 conflicts in which aging parents of a World Trade Center victim, desperate to remain connected to the children of their lost offspring, had found themselves in bitter struggles with a surviving spouse who would rather they did not. A mediator who helped negotiate settlements among 9/11 families in the early years after the attacks said 1 in 10 of his cases involved estranged grandparents."