Memory of Mom: Daughter shares 9/11 legacy
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Patricia Smith strives each day to keep alive the heroic memory of the mother she hardly knew, and to live her life the way she believes her mom would want her to.
She was a 2-year-old when police Officer Moira Smith, 38, guided dozens of people to safety from the burning World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. For rescue after rescue, Moira Smith returned to the South Tower and was killed when it collapsed -- the only female member of the New York Police Department to die.
Patricia, now 13, started the eighth grade at East Hampton Middle School last week. She wears bracelets on both wrists that bear her mother's name.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't look down and say 'Hey Mom,' and I don't think about her," Patricia said. "But it seems so surreal, this is going to be the 11th year that she wasn't here."
Patricia was home with her father, James Smith, also an NYPD officer, on that tragic morning. Three months later, clad in a red velvet dress, she held his hand as they walked across the Carnegie Hall stage at a police department award ceremony, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani draped her mother's gold medal of honor around her neck.
The heartbreaking photograph of the little girl was the first of a series over the years -- Patricia at 3 getting a present from Santa Claus at a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association holiday party; at 7 in a pink dress, holding a long-stemmed red rose, at the Sept. 11 memorial ceremony in 2006; in March at the dedication of the Moira Ann Smith playground at Madison Square Park, in Manhattan's 13th police precinct.
'Watching over me'
She finds meaning in these commemorative events.
"The way I felt, it was like I always felt she was watching over me," Patricia said, talking about her mom last week at her home in East Hampton. "When the little kids play on the playground, a little bit of her attention will go to them."
Her mother is a symbol, and so is she. More than 3,000 children under 18 lost a parent in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"When I was little, I really liked the attention -- I was a 'spotlight' kind of baby," Patricia said as she rubbed the thick black fur of her 130-pound Bernese mountain dog named Guinness. "I didn't really know what was going on; I didn't know why I was being interviewed. They asked me questions about my mom, and I thought that is just what people did.
"But after a while, I started getting the meaning of the questions, and I was, like, I don't want to do this anymore -- this is too hard," she said. "But then it would always come back to my mom and my mom would've been, like, 'Hey, what's up?' and I was, like, 'OK, I will do this.' "
While Patricia hardly remembers anything of her mother, she has learned about Moira from stories told by relatives and friends. Her favorite one is about how her mother saved someone who was drowning years before she became a police officer.
Patricia's bedroom is filled with snow globes, stuffed horses and mementos of her mom. Moira Smith's two medals on ribbons of red, white and blue hang above her bed. A framed poem about her mother that she wrote for a school assignment last year is on the wall. Nearby is a photograph of herself at age 2 in the iconic red dress, and tucked in a corner of the frame is a wallet-size image of her blonde-haired mother as a teenager.
A 'little Moira'
"I look exactly like her, but with brown hair," said Patricia, dressed in a cream-colored sweater and light blue jeans, her long hair falling past her shoulders.
James Smith, 50 and now retired, sees Moira in his daughter, especially in the way she tackles a challenge.
"Moira was a trouper. If they knew Moira, I would say Patricia is a little Moira," he said. "She has that same spirit, the same caring, the same vitality that Moira had."
After Patricia finished preschool, he moved with her from Queens Village to East Hampton to live on a sprawling two acres where deer and wild turkeys roam the wooded property. He remarried in 2006. Along with a stepmom, Christine, also a former NYPD officer, Patricia has two brothers, James, 4, and Christopher, 20 months.
Her father recalled when Patricia, an avid equestrienne, fell off a horse, breaking her collarbone and a wrist. She missed only one day of school and returned to riding as soon as she could. She has competed in multiple events, including the famed Hampton Classic in Bridgehampton, and has won many ribbons. She is a good student, her grades typically reaching into the 90s, and likes writing and math. She also plays field hockey and softball.
"There are times, especially ceremonies, graduations and things like that, that you are thinking, 'If only her mom was here,' " her father said. "That is when it's hardest, you know. That they are both missing out."
Keeper of a legacy
Last year, she read aloud at the opening of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. In October, she is scheduled to attend the Anti-Defamation League's 18th annual ADL In Concert Against Hate, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
She is looking ahead to high school and college and is applying to boarding schools, with her top choice the co-ed Millbrook School in Dutchess County, a college preparatory boarding school for grades 9-12 with a challenging academic program. Patricia said she would like to be a writer or a teacher.
"If I get into a good college, I will have a good career and then I will have a better life," she said. "I like having a plan."
That desire for certainty stems from her experience with loss, Patricia said. The way her life was supposed to be, she said, "just disappeared" on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We were really supposed to be moving out to Pennsylvania, and we ended up coming here and everything changed," she said, referring to the pre-2001 plan her parents had mapped out for when they could retire from the NYPD. "I wasn't supposed to be here."
This Tuesday, a ceremony -- smaller than on the 10th anniversary last year -- is planned at Ground Zero. For the first time, Patricia will not be there. She plans to be in school and go to field hockey practice afterward. She is trying out for team captain.
"I would rather be surrounded by my friends, because I know that is what she would have done," said Patricia, who has given all her friends the same bracelet she wears -- a blue rubber one that reads: "9-11 Never Forget P.O. Moira Smith."
"I want people to know that she was lovable and everything she did was for someone else. She never considered herself," she said. "She was a good person and was full of life."
Patricia Smith's poem about her mother:
You Can Never Forget
I sit down with my head in my hands and count out ten years:
Three thousand, six hundred fifty days;
Eighty-seven thousand, six hundred hours;
Five million, two hundred fifty-six thousand minutes.
I feel like if I keep counting I'll go insane,
But the seconds that she isn't with me, I die a little inside.
I skip school on the day every year.
People always tell me they are sorry,
But I don't want a sorry. I want my mother.
They tell me they will pray for me,
But I don't want a prayer. I want my mother.
I shed my tears upon this page,
Then put on a smile like nothing ever happened.
The two of us are so close but forever apart,
The love I have for her is endless.
Police Officer Moira Smith, South Tower, September 11th, 2001. Never will I ever forget.