The Story Behind Come with Me

 

I used to walk along the East River each morning,

ten blocks north to 37th Street,

then cross west to the old office on Third Avenue.

I remember the morning of September 11 like yesterday,

bluebird sky,

air warm & crisp . . .

my husband, a first lieutenant in the army & now in the reserves,

always headed south—

he was a trader on the American Stock Exchange.

The planes hit and the towers came down and the air over New York changed.

 

When the AMEX re-opened, my husband stood at his post

as a ninety-year-old broker rang the bell.

The ninety-year-old’s son, a broker too,

was having breakfast at Windows on the World

thirteen days earlier.

Ding ding ding BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!

 

Each day from there,

my husband passed the vacant lot,

where the towers once stood—

there was tons of debris to be removed,

within it the people who didn’t make it out,

another pile / and another / and another . . .

Loaded onto trucks, which drove past the exchange.

The traders had been assured the putrid air was safe to breathe.

 

I remember my own way home that day . . .

I hadn’t lost a good friend

or a child

or a parent

when the towers fell . . .

yet I, like every other New Yorker,

grieved for those who did

and for the city

and the world

we’d known before that day . . .

It would never come back.

 

I was afraid, too—

for myself and my husband,

for our baby girl 18 months old,

for the people left behind—

for the world.

I wasn’t alone—

everyone was on alert,

nobody felt safe anymore.

 

A package came

addressed to me, from overseas.

A very small painting,

sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard

in a manila envelope.

It was a painting from a friend

who lived in Brussels, a friend I loved very much.

 

In the painting there was a man,

a frightened grieving man,

planting a flagpole at the World Trade Center site,

its flag bearing a big beautiful red heart, blowing in the breeze.

The painting made me feel connected

to my friend

and to the world.

It became a symbol for me—

a symbol of courage, bravery,

and of people holding each other,

in the face of tragedy and fear.

This tiny gesture

from one friend to another,

and from one man to the world,

gave me courage to go on.

I started carrying a bottle of water, in my purse, wherever I went.

And I bought a miner’s headlight, to keep in there too.

I was ready to do my part, small as it was, if something happened again.

 

Fifteen years hence, I sat with my three children,

in Maplewood, New Jersey,

just miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel,

glued to CNN, to the lockdown in Brussels

that took place after the attacks on Paris.

The baby was now seventeen, and she had a sister and a brother, thirteen and eleven.

The CNN camera stayed fixed on an apartment where the suspected terrorists might be . . .

And I wondered if the very neighborhood the news showed was the one my friend lived in.

I’d never been to Brussels.

I wanted to know if my friend was okay.

Not only he, but also his wife and his child, who was just the same age as our middle child.

 

I was across the ocean, in New Jersey,

and I wrote him an email, every day of the lockdown.

I asked if he was okay

and what he was doing in the face of such terror?

I wanted to know his daily rhythms.

Could he walk outside, water the garden?

Where was he and was he safe?

And he answered me.

He said he continued to walk the dog.

He said that his twelve-year-old daughter insisted on riding the subway to school,

despite a bomb going off in the station earlier that week.

He said he and his wife continued to shop at the Moroccan grocery store that others were avoiding.

Emailing with him, back and forth, helped me remember what mattered most.

Connecting to one another.

The two of us got together when he next came to New York.

And we decided to make a story about it—

Come with Me by Holly M. McGhee & Pascal Lemaitre is available in bookstores everywhere September 5, 2017.

 

On the Way Down

Tomorrow, March 14, is the book birthday of my debut middle-grade novel Matylda, Bright & Tender, a novel I started in the summer of 2012. I came home one night recently, and there was a box on the dining table, addressed to me. I opened it right away—and inside I found a necklace, with a note from one of my closest friends . . . the note said that even though she couldn’t be with me in person, she hoped I would wear the necklace on publication day and keep her near me that way.

I looked at the necklace closely, and on each silver circle were words:

She took the leap

and built her wings

on the way down.

It didn’t take long for the tears . . . because this person understood where art (in this case a story) comes from. The tears came because it is such a gift to be seen and loved and understood for all of who we are, with the knowledge that writing requires bravery, and leaps into the unknown, and the hope and trust that we’ll get stronger every time we dive. I’ll be wearing my necklace tomorrow.

I’m also doing two events very soon that I wanted to let you know about. The first is a middle-grade panel at [words] maplewood bookstore on Saturday, March 18, at 4 p.m. I’m excited to be on this panel with other middle-grade authors Sally Pla, Barry Lyga, and David Weisner, and I’m especially happy that my very funny, smart & sassy friend and fellow writer Jenny Turner Hall will be the moderator. It’s sure to be a thoughtful discussion, with a lot of laughs I promise! If you’re in the New York / New Jersey area, I hope you can come.

Then on March 28, a Tuesday at 4 p.m., I’m doing a solo presentation as part of the Maplewood Ideas Festival. I’m honored to be in this impressive line up, and I’ll be sharing my journey of writing Matylda, Bright & Tender, how I transformed the worst thing that ever happened to me into art, into story. I’ve been working hard on this one, because it means so much to me personally. The talk runs about 30 minutes or so, and we’ll have time for questions after.

I’m a writer and a literary agent, and up till now, I’ve written under pen name Hallie Durand. With Matylda, Bright & Tender, a novel with a plum line straight to my heart, I decided it was time to integrate my agenting career with my writing career, and from here on out I’ll be writing under my given name, Holly M. McGhee.

I hope you can come, and bring your children ages 8 & up if you like—I’ll do everything I can to make you glad you did.                                                                      

Despite everything . . . happy holidays

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Heading home last night, on the 8:51, after a rigorous cleaning of my work desk, I was in a four-seater on NJ Transit, sitting across from a middle-aged man with wire-framed glasses, in navy blue dress pants, blue tie, and light blue shirt, texting on an iPhone 6—he had a gold watch too. I left home pretty early yesterday, and my mind was kind of hazy by that hour . . . yet this man reminded me of another man, on another commute, several months ago, on an equally long day  . . .

It was back in June, and I was thinking about the lazy days of summer ahead, when I boarded the 8:05 from Penn Station. I headed toward the quiet car as usual, when I “saw” the president of a publishing house I do a lot of business with; I like this guy—he’s witty, clever, and somehow or other he’s never lost the enthusiasm of a twelve-year-old kid (he’s a shark too but you really can’t tell at first glance). He makes you pay attention. I kinda wondered why he was on the Maplewood train (he doesn’t live in Maplewood), but it didn’t really register in my brain-soft state.

I walked up to him, gave him a hug, and kissed his cheek . . .

“Hi,” I said.

He grinned . . .

I took a step back—he was tall, with short grey-black hair just like my friend, but when I looked at his face, I realized he was much older than the man I knew  . . .

oh my god.

I fled to a seat in another car—had I really just kissed a complete stranger?

Apparently.

I never told anybody about what happened that night on the train, but it seems like the right time to tell it now . . . because . . . I don’t know . . . just that despite the election, despite the state of the world, despite everything really . . . that guy’s grin is sticking with me . . . and it’s making me smile too.

 

Happy Holidays!