The items themselves are not remarkable, a hodgepodge of everyday objects.
A box of worn pennies. Fruit from a backyard peach tree planted long ago. An aging sedan, stationed indefinitely in a Peabody driveway.
But in the two decades since they lost loved ones to the deadliest act of terror in American history, these are the things they have kept, carried with them, the rituals they have gone back to, again and again.
Much has changed in the 20 years since their lives were forever altered, but much has stayed the same, too. Afghanistan is in the headlines again, as a two-decades-long war winds to a chaotic and agonizing close. As the country seeks to honor the 20th anniversary of the attacks and the nearly 3,000 lives lost, their private grief is once again spilling into public view.
And they find themselves returning, once more, to the items they cherish — the things that can transport them back, however briefly, to another, better time, before the sun rose on Sept. 11, 2001.
A handful of pennies
In the hours after the towers fell, Diane Hunt drove to Connecticut to find her son. She pleaded with God: Let him somehow be at home there, let him have amnesia, let him materialize in a hospital bed, groggy. Alive. He worked on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center, a vice president at Eurobrokers.
She returned home to Kingston, Mass., three days later without him.
“Of course,” she says now. She is 74. Her son, William Christopher Hunt, who everyone called Bill, died at 32.
In the days and weeks after the attacks, she barely slept. One morning, she stumbled into the bathroom just before 6 a.m. and discovered, in the middle of the carpeted floor, a penny. It hadn’t been there before — she was sure of that.
“It was a sign saying, ‘Mom, I’m OK,’” said Diane. A conversation cracked open.
Of course he wouldn’t just disappear — he still felt so close. He and his younger brother chopped down their own Christmas trees in the woods behind their house every year, decorating them with paper chains and cranberry strings to display in their separate bedrooms. Bill was cocaptain of the high school basketball team at Sacred Heart in Kingston, though his brother was the better player.
Most of his relatives attended Bridgewater State University, and he did, too. Once he returned home so upset over a breakup that, weeping, he convinced his parents to send him to Cancun to recover. Diane laughs remembering it — what a smooth talker he was.
He married. When his daughter was born at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, 15 months before he died, the nurses carried her around to show other parents how to bathe a newborn.
“I see him in that chair in the hospital telling her, ‘See, Emma, you’re already a star,’” Diane said.
Bill sang to his daughter every morning, the same song Diane had sung to him: “Good morning little yellow bird, yellow bird, yellow bird... "
Every so often over the years, he sent his mother a penny. She found one in the dirt on the side of a road, by a memorial bench in her yard, in her granddaughter’s sneaker. She collected them in a glass box with two marbled pink hearts on the top, carefully noting the story of each one on scraps of paper.
“Happy Birthday Bill,” she wrote on a slip in 2008. “I love you,” she wrote on another. A way of keeping up her side of the conversation.
Broken down, but still here
The car must go. Linda LeBlanc knows this.
For nearly two decades now, the old Saab has sat stagnant on her Peabody property. All four tires are flat. The engine, best anyone can figure, is shot. Gravity, too, has taken a toll; The vehicle has begun to sink into the grass beyond the driveway.
It’s strange, though. Every time the subject of parting with the car arises, Linda finds herself changing the subject.
The car had been her sister’s. N. Janis Lasden was 46, blonde-haired and full of life. She loved line-dancing and country music, which she’d play from the small car’s Pioneer compact-disc player.
Janis taught Linda’s then-teenaged daughter how to drive in that car, and the two would go out practicing in it, back before Janis boarded an American Airlines flight one September morning 20 years ago — bound for a California vacation — and never came home.
In the blur of grief that followed, Linda inherited a number of her sister’s things. Two dogs, Jessie and Sasha. A house in Peabody. And her 1995 Saab.
For a couple years, early on, Linda’s daughter drove the Saab. But mechanical issues eventually took hold, and the car took its place in the driveway, a kind of sky-blue memorial.
This summer, as the 20th anniversary of her sister’s death approached, Linda began to think more seriously about getting rid of it. Perhaps she could donate it. Or someone could come and haul it away to the junkyard. She and her husband won’t stay in her current home forever, she knows; at some point, they’ll have no choice.
And yet, there is part of her that wonders — however unrealistic — whether there’s still a way to fix the old car up. Get it into working shape. Give it to her granddaughter, Janis’s great-niece.
Maybe, Linda sometimes thinks, that would be a way to keep the old Saab around, just a little bit longer.
Shellac gel manicure, no chip
Cora Holland raised her three children with energetic devotion. She managed the Little League snack bar in her free time. The back of her lilac-colored Ford tended to be filled with gifts for the people she loved: often the same shirt in three different sizes and three different colors. She was the family’s hub, said her oldest daughter, Stephanie Holland.
Stephanie is now 50. Cora was 52 when she boarded Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001.
Stephanie recently grasped just how young that is to die. Cora had been raising children since she was 22; her last child left home the month before the attacks. She was taking classes at Cambridge College to earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, finally coming into her own as a professional, Stephanie said.
“I really only knew her as my mom,” Stephanie said. “I was starting to get to know her as a person.”
Cora was an in-the-trenches kind of mother. But always, even when she got poison ivy on her hands rescuing a ball from the bushes, she had her nails painted. It was her small way of greeting the world. When she was running late on Sunday mornings, she would bring a bottle of Revlon polish to the car and paint her nails right in the front seat, while her husband drove the family to church.
In the years since she lost her mother, Stephanie has discovered that she is distinct from her in certain ways. Her mother never wanted to talk about Stephanie’s biological father; after her death, Stephanie made a point to meet him and embraced her new extended family. Stephanie felt cooped up as a stay-at-home mom, and she’s found purpose in teaching while raising her kids.
“In the early stages, it felt like a betrayal,” Stephanie said. She understands now: It isn’t wrong to be a different type of mother than the one she loved so much.
But still, every two weeks, she drives to the Femiluxe nail salon in Wayland. She asks for a shellac gel manicure, no chip. She switches up the colors; recently she chose violet gray. She has her mother’s hands, her long fingers. On the drive home with her nails painted, her mother is right at her fingertips.
The peach trees
Laura Ogonowski remembers her father in one of his two uniforms.
The first, a pilot’s: navy blue blazer, starched white button-up, silver-gray wings pinned to his heart. The second, a farmer’s: dirt-streaked Timberland boots, short-sleeve work shirt tucked into jeans.
On the family farm in Dracut, he came home at the end of the day with his arms full of fresh-picked corn and peaches, a bounty to share with his wife and three daughters.
John Ogonowski was the captain of American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.
When his daughters were little, he would sometimes bring them with him to fly. In the middle of the trip, he’d walk down the aisle in his captain’s uniform and every passenger would peer up at him as he passed, like he was a celebrity right there on board.
“And he’d come talk to us,” said Laura, who is now 36.
Back at home, he planted hay and tomatoes and 150 peach trees in front of the farmhouse. He showed his daughters where the sweetest blueberries grew and cut them asparagus fresh from the field.
Laura, finishing schoolwork at the kitchen table, would look up to see her father out the window working the hay fields — sharp green in springtime, golden-brown in autumn.
This August, at the farm where her mother still lives, Laura bit into one of her father’s peaches. Every year the trees blossom pink, the petals fall, the green buds ripen, and the peaches return again.
A cotton T-shirt
In Chatham, in the rented house by Ridgevale Beach where they stayed a week each summer, the three Barbuto sisters had a routine.
They’d head down to the beach by 10 a.m. Each took turns watching the children by the water, even Christine, who at 32 didn’t have kids of her own. Naps in the afternoon, more beach time, then Diane or Jeannine or their husbands would cook a big dinner while the kids played in the backyard under Christine’s watchful eye. (As the youngest sister, Christine never brought her wallet out and never cooked.)
After Christine died on Flight 11, Jeannine was given a quilt of the cotton T-shirts her sister used to wear. Some are tie-dyed; some are faded.
There is the pine green one with the burst of flowers that Christine used to pair with cut-off jeans after a day lounging by the water. Her skin, tan from the Chatham sun, smelled like the Coppertone lotion all three sisters used. After 20 years, Jeannine fears forgetting the exact texture of her sister’s curls.
But then the memories rise, sharp and lifelike. Jeannine went to Chatham just 10 days after she gave birth to her youngest daughter by C-section in 1998; each night, her daughter would wake in the dark and Christine would wake up, too. She’d tiptoe into her sister’s room and take her niece out of Jeannine’s exhausted arms.
“Go back to bed,” Christine would say, and she would soothe her sister’s baby for hours, tracing circles in the living room as the ocean crashed nearby.
An old piano sees new life
The piano arrived one day shortly after Amy Toyen’s 13th birthday, a beautiful parlor grand that her parents, Dorine and Marty, situated in the living room of their Avon, Conn., home.
Many kids their daughter’s age had to be coaxed into practicing, but not Amy. For an hour or so each night, during breaks from homework, she would sit at the bench and work through the classical music lessons her piano teacher had assigned, filling the family’s home with music.
Even after Amy grew older, when she set out for Bentley College, and, later, went to work for Thompson Financial in Boston, she’d reclaim her place at the bench whenever she came home to visit. In early September 2001, just a week before heading to New York for a conference at the World Trade Center, she sat in her parents’ living room playing “The Rose” — her father’s favorite.
In the years following Amy’s death, her parents left her things just as they’d been. The photos in her room. The teddy bears on her bed. And her piano, out in the living room.
They took comfort in its presence. Though no one else in the family played, Dorine and Marty kept it in pristine condition. Twice each year, they paid to have it tuned.
As time went on, though, they began to wonder. It seemed a shame, such a beautiful piano and no one to play it. After some discussion, Dorine reached out a couple years ago to the local library, which said it would be happy to have the piano for its children’s section. Movers came and hauled it away. Dorine and Marty rearranged the living room furniture, did their best to fill the hole it left.
At times, they wondered whether they should’ve held onto it.
Then last winter, as the pandemic relegated the world to their homes, an e-mail arrived in Dorine’s inbox. It was from the local library, a list of the upcoming programming. Not long after, she logged onto a live video stream. Children’s faces filled small boxes on the screen, brought together during this time of isolation. A librarian sat before a familiar parlor grand.
Soon, the woman began to play, and for the next few minutes, Dorine listened as her daughter’s piano filled her home with music once again.
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.