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Growing up without a father after 9/11

Tiffany Ramsaroop has spent the last decade growing from a third-grader to a college freshman. Yet at every milestone there has been a hole where her dad should have been.

September 09, 2011|By Geraldine Baum and Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times
  • Tiffany Ramsaroop, 18, was a third-grader when her father, a World Trade Center maintenance worker, died. Sister Kimberly, now 10, was just a baby. Every milestone brings a reminder of his absence, Tiffany says.
Tiffany Ramsaroop, 18, was a third-grader when her father, a World Trade… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — Every morning, Tiffany Ramsaroop wakes up to a picture of her dad. It's tacked in the middle of a bulletin board in her lavender bedroom.

Vishnoo Ramsaroop died 10 years ago in the south tower of the World Trade Center. He was a maintenance worker who supported a wife and three girls on $43,000 a year.

Tiffany, his oldest, was 8 when it happened. It was two years before she stopped believing he got hit in the head by debris and would stroll through the door having recovered from amnesia. Two more passed before she really cried.

Tiffany has walked the terrible line of people in grief, trying to move forward without forgetting. At 15, she flew to his native Trinidad and let his accent wash over her. His starched work shirt with his name ironed on the back of the collar hangs in her closet between the dresses and blouses. She put it on once, but doesn't want to talk about that.

When she turned 18 this summer, her first act as an adult was to have her father's name tattooed on the inside of her left wrist. "Vishnoo" takes up almost the entire space, in elaborate script, black as night.

The nation is preparing to commemorate the attacks Sunday. Tiffany won't be in Lower Manhattan that morning. The reminder is just too much.

America spent the last decade fighting two wars and thinking up ways to keep itself safe. Tiffany spent those years growing from a third-grader in a starched green plaid uniform to a college freshman impatient for new experiences. Yet at every milestone, at every family event, and in some part of almost every day since Sept. 11, 2001, there was a hole where her dad should have been.

That Tuesday, 3,052 children lost a parent in the terrorist attacks. The average age was 9. They came from wealth and from poverty and from countries around the world. This is one child's story.

This week Tiffany is attending her first classes at Queensborough Community College, not far from where she grew up. She is finding her way, asserting new independence. Her mother wanted to drive her the first day; she wanted to go it alone by bus.

Yet still she is bound to her family. It was Tiffany who accompanied her sister to freshman orientation at high school this week and who was at her bedside as she recovered from surgery last month. It was Tiffany who offered part of her earnings this summer to help her mother with bills.

Some day she would like to become a family therapist to make sure others have "the big conversations we didn't have about stuff."

The 10 years getting to this point have been filled with spaces and voids. During her high school graduation in June, she could almost see her father there.

"Ugggghhh…. At every single event I went to I wished my dad was there, holding up the camcorder, waving as soon as I saw him," she says, rubbing her freshly tattooed wrist. "It really sucks when you go to high school graduation and you see your best friend running toward her father."

Tiffany lives in a two-family house on a tight lot in a part of Queens called Jackson Heights, about two miles from LaGuardia Airport. The postage-stamp-sized front yard is overgrown with vegetables. When her father tended it, she remembers it being full of flowers.

These days the house is full of females — Tiffany lives there with her sisters, Ashley, 15, and Kimberly, 10, and Sita, their mother. Sita, 51, has two daughters from a previous relationship and two granddaughters, ages 4 and 3, who are almost always there scampering across the couches and into Tiffany's lap.

Ten pairs of worn fluffy slippers dot the stairs leading to a basement warren of bedrooms where the girls sleep. Tiffany's double bed fills practically all the space in her room. A narrow bureau is crowded with polish and makeup as well as a photograph of Tiffany wearing a strapless white satin dress and lighting a cake with 16 candles.

This is the same house Vishnoo, 45, left that morning, when the family piled into the minivan to drop him at the subway and then Tiffany and Ashley at PS 148. It should have been an exciting day in Miss Syed's class; about all Tiffany remembers is that her uniform was new. Then everyone else's parents came early to pick them up; her mother waited until school let out.

"I went to the car and my mom was crying and I said, 'What's wrong?' And she said, 'I'll show you when I get home.' I sat down on the couch and my mom put the TV on.... I didn't know what to say. All I could say was, 'Is Dad OK?'"

Tiffany remembers her father's job as a "gardener" who planted hibiscus and greenery around the trade center's vast plazas. It was the first work he got after he came to America and he did it for 17 years. When Tiffany didn't have school he took her to work with him. Even intact the towers were tall and scary; Tiffany stayed away from the windows. So when it was explained to her where he was that day she could clearly picture it.

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