Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Patti O'Neil Remembrance

When I think about my friendship with Taffy, countless memories come flooding back. There is one day, though, which stands out above them all. Even more than the day Kate and I made Taffy’s birthday cake, or the time Rem flew all of us to Montreal for the day, or the impromptu dinners of Chinese food, or even all the spirited political discussions. One day, more than twenty years ago, stands out above the rest.

I was sitting in the living room of our home on Redfield Circle in East Derry, NH, playing with my two small children. The doorbell rang and in came Taffy. We were acquaintances at this point; Taffy, Rem, and Kate had recently moved in to the house across the street from us. We had shared cups of coffee and neighborly chats, but we did not know one another very well. In Taffy came, full of life and energy and ideas. On this particular fateful day, she was filled with enthusiasm for one specific new idea. “Do you know,” she asked, “that we’re going to have to build a new school in Derry one of these days? The schools are bursting at the seams.” Undeterred by my less than enthusiastic response, she forged on. “Well, a school is going to be built and we want to make sure that it gets built in East Derry.” She looked at Suzi piling alphabet blocks one on top of the other and at Peter, asleep in his infant seat. “Before you know it, those babies will be ready for school. Here’s what we need to do.” She went on to explain her plan; we would both volunteer to serve on the long range planning committee for the school district so that we could have some input. We would make sure the school got built where we wanted it to be built. Now, this was right up Taffy’s alley, but for me it was unexplored territory. I was still trying to get used to the idea that I was one of the grownups, never mind thinking that anyone would seriously consider me a likely candidate for anything as official-sounding as a long-range planning committee. “Oh, I don’t think I can do that.” I replied. “Of course you can! I picked up these applications. Just fill this out and drop it off at the superintendent’s office.” She handed me the application and was gone before I could say, “Wait a minute, I’m not so sure…” So I did fill out the application, and I did drop it off, and I did serve on that committee because Taffy told me to and I was more afraid of saying no to her than I was of serving on the committee! “Of course you can.” She had said and I wanted to believe her.

And that was the beginning. We served on the planning committee; then we served on the building committee. While others were wringing their hands about the cost of buying the land for a new school, Taffy found a perfect spot for a school in East Derry and convinced the owner to donate the land. While others were wondering how we would garner enough voter support at school district meeting, Taffy was organizing, and networking, and getting out the vote. That school got built just in time for my daughter to enter as a member of the very first first-grade class. All five of my children attended that school, East Derry Memorial Elementary School. Each morning when they walked in and each afternoon as they walked out to their busses, they walked past a plaque with the names of all the citizens who had served on that building committee. They saw my name and they saw the name Kathryn Aranda; and, as if through osmosis, they took in the unspoken lesson: get involved, make a difference, be a problem solver, do your part.

“A friend is someone with whom you can be yourself.” That’s what Emerson tells us. Far be it for me to try to improve on Emerson, but in reflecting upon my friendship with Taffy, I think I want to add something to his definition. “A friend is someone who helps you become yourself.” And that is what Taffy did for me.

Taffy and I shared our stay-at-home mom years with one another. We traded recipes and child-rearing woes. We went to lectures and seminars on all sorts of topics, we tried countless brownie recipes in search of just the perfect brownie, and we even tried our hands at writing a romance novel. On Saturday mornings before anyone else in my house was awake, I would tiptoe out the door and across the street in the chilly quiet of dawn to Taffy’s house where she would be waiting with hot coffee and scones right out of her oven. We would sit at her dining room table and share what we had written that week. We only wrote a few chapters; it was really not very good at all, but those quiet mornings were a precious escape for me from the mayhem of raising a large and boisterous family. It wasn’t until years later, after Taffy and Rem had moved to California and strangers lived across the street, that it dawned on me that she had known that she was providing that respite for me. That had been her plan all along. And I thought we were really writing a novel.

In the recipe department, Taffy broadened my rather limited repertoire. She introduced me to black beans, homemade ice cream, and dill bread. Her wisdom about children took my breath away. It was Taffy who told me that when a child begins to misbehave, it is probably because he or she is bored and needs a new challenge. “Give him a job to do.” She would say, and she was right.

When I think of Taffy, the first word that comes to my mind is grace. She was gracious, of course, in the social sense, and she was graceful; she moved with an easy elegance. Her laughter and her smile could light up a room. But Taffy had a more profound grace: her kindness and generosity, her willingness to serve others and to put her prodigious talents and energy to work for the common good, were a reminder to the rest of us of how life ought to be lived and how our gifts ought to be used. She was blessed with great intellect and wisdom, with a giving heart and a forgiving nature, and she used all these gifts in the service of others. We were all blessed to be touched by her grace and I will miss her very, very much.

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