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The three words that really matter

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

The news closed my daughter's preschool long before the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were being passed around, and the tops pulled off the pudding cups.

She shrieked when she saw me and threw her arms around my legs. Tears pooled in my eyes.

I said it was a special day. We were going home early.

To play? she asked.

What do I tell her?

She is only 3 years old.

Her idea of combat is our 90-pound retriever mix chasing the cat around the house, and the dog always losing.

The dog and the cat. The cat and the dog. Is that what I tell her? That America keeps chasing terrorists around the world, but they move like the most cunning of cats?

What do I tell her?

When I was a little older than she is, our parents talked about bombs falling out of the skies. I learned to recognize the triangular shape by the front door of large buildings as a sign the basement held a bomb shelter. The real enemy wasn't a soldier. It was a poison in the air that threatened the end of the world.

But for 12 days in one month in one year, 1962, the threat was real. But even then, lives were lost only in speeches.

No bombs fell. The rations in the basement went stale.

Pearl Harbor was the experience of my father's generation. Not even Vietnam, unless you lived it, or the death of JFK, were precise equivalents for people my age. We were safe, smug and lucky.

This is my daughter's Pearl Harbor.

The destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, the plane that crashed inexplicably in western Pennsylvania, will cast an enormous shadow across the public life of her generation.

They will understand the word enemy.

They will grow accustomed to living with fear in plain places, fear great enough to put warships in harbors and warplanes overhead.

They will learn the meaning of the phrase "act of war."

Maybe I should have put on the kidvid for my little girl Tuesday afternoon and behaved as though nothing had changed.

But I put on CNN. The World Trade Center was on fire. What happened? my little girl asked.

I told her that bad men had done some bad things.

Where? she asked. To us?

To our country, but not here, I said, and left it at that.

I could have said that the dog and the cat were safe, but my words were like steam, escaping.

I was as bereft as I am when I've lost the car keys or when the phone is ringing under the pile of bed covers and I can't get to it in time.

You're supposed to hold your child's hand through life.

Most of the time you do it from the distance of your heart.

For only a little while do you get to keep those little fingers wrapped tightly in yours. For only that little while, you believe that the connection contains some magical powers of protection that will get her through even Pearl Harbor.

I did not know what more to tell my 3-year-old.

I held her hand tightly.

I told myself I would keep her safe from whatever fell from the sky.

And I told her I loved her, oh how very much I did.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at or (813) 226-3402.

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