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Yvonne Abraham

The things they kept

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 11, 2011

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Ten years. So much is gone now. Clothes that held their scents cleared from closets, books they read given to libraries, homes they made renovated or sold. These are some of the things that remain. Dirty work boots, a graying sweater - the unremarkable suddenly become precious talismans. The belongings of those who died transport those left behind to the day before the day. They burst with life.

NEILIE HEFFERNAN'S SWEATER

“Take this,’’ Neilie Heffernan said, offering the periwinkle blue turtleneck.

Neilie’s younger sister Lynsey had spilled a drink, needed to change, and scored.

Lynsey loved Neilie’s clothes. Neilie was the cool Heffernan, the fashion guru. She would open her mother’s closet, survey its contents and say, “OK, we’re done with all of this, let’s go, ’’ and only because it was Neilie, her mother complied.

“Give it back to me next year,’’ Neilie told Lynsey. Seven months pregnant, she couldn’t use the fitted sweater for a while anyway. So Lynsey reveled in it for the rest of the winter. She wore it to the hospital to meet Neilie’s baby, Riley, born in February 2001.

The days got warmer and Lynsey put her sister’s sweater away. Neilie, 32, went back to work, at TJX. On the morning of Sept. 11, she left her home in Wellesley for a business trip - her first away from the baby - on American Airlines Flight 11.

As September gave way to the chill of fall, Lynsey pulled out her sweaters and happened upon that periwinkle blue. “I haven’t given her sweater back,’’ she thought.

She knows it wasn’t rational, but she couldn’t bring herself to wash that sweater for a year after Neilie’s death - even though she’d washed it many times before.

“It’s not like it had her smell,’’ Lynsey says.

She has other clothes of Neilie’s now - things her sister’s husband could no longer bear to have in the house. But none of them summons her sister like that fading cotton sweater.

“She gave this one to me,’’ Lynsey says. “When she was alive, and pregnant.’’

CARRIE PROGEN'S BABY DOLL

This is what Kathleen Progen sees whenever she comes upon the pink gingham baby doll with the yarn hair and stitched mouth.

Her baby Carrie, just a few months old, is lying on a braided rug in the living room of her Gardner home. The doll, Puff the black Siamese-Burmese cat, and Puff’s three gray tiger kittens are with her.

It takes Kathleen back to that beginning, when Carrie was so new that all her mother knew about her was that she was mellow and happy. It’s a time when a parent can’t help but look at her child and wonder: Who will you be, and for how long?

That was Carrie “before she became herself,’’ Kathleen says.

Before she became the opinionated, goofy, quick-witted girl who knew what she wanted and didn’t let anybody stand in her way. Before the good-natured arguments with her older brother who, like the rest of the family, was less liberal than she. Before the obsessions with arts - fine and martial. Before the move to her beloved New York, and her defection to the Yankees.

Before she took the desk job at insurance company Aon at 2 World Trade Center, just to save money so she could do what she really wanted, which was illustrate children’s books. She was 25 on Sept. 11, preparing to launch that next life.

Kathleen had hoped to pass that baby doll along to Carrie’s children one day. Now it lives in a cedar trunk in her bedroom.

“She’s safe,’’ Kathleen says of the doll. “It’s not difficult to look at it. Not difficult at all. When I look at it, I remember that scene.’’

JUDY LAROCQUE'S RING

It was one of the first things Danielle and Carie Lemack had to know.

Where is the ring?

Their mother Judy, 50, had never been big on possessions. But she loved the milky white opal set with diamond chips. Danielle remembers just how her mother’s hands looked when she wore that ring, the mesmerizing way the opal caught the light.

Judy’s husband had given it to her on a family trip to Disney World shortly before their marriage ended. When she was around 10, Danielle asked Judy why she still wore it after the divorce.

“Well, it’s a beautiful ring and it gives me joy,’’ her mother had told her.

On the first day, when the sickening realization dawned that her mother was on Flight 11, Danielle went back to her condo and shed everything she was wearing. It was all too heavy, freighted with the horror of those first hours.

Jewelry repelled her, with one exception.

Alone in their mother’s home in Framingham shortly after the attacks, the sisters went in search of the ring. They found it in a dresser drawer, waiting to be fixed because the opal was loose.

“There was just this feeling of relief, and unbelievable sadness,’’ Danielle recalls.

They had replicas made, one for each of them, engraved with their three initials: “DJC, unconditional love.’’

Today, it’s one of the few pieces of jewelry Danielle, now 39, enjoys.

“Jewelry makes me think of a lightness of soul and being,’’ Danielle says. “I have a wonderful life, but I am still in a lot of pain. It doesn’t represent how I feel.’’

JEFF COOMBS'S WORK BOOTS

“When are you going to get a real job so I can quit mine and work at home,’’ Jeff Coombs teased his wife, Christie.

The vice president at Compaq was always happiest when he was building things. As soon as he got home to Abington after a business trip, he’d shuck his monogrammed shirt, pull on his work boots, and get to fixing.

His latest project: a deck out back. “He researched the heck out of that deck,’’ Christie recalls. She remembers him lying on his stomach, heaving boulders from holes he’d dug for the footings.

This was a family enterprise. Matthew and Meaghan, the older of the couple’s three children, worked the electric screwdrivers. Julia was 7 then, too young for power tools. She made Jeff lunch sometimes.

“What kind of sandwich do you want?’’ she asked him once.

“I don’t know. Peanut butter? Turkey?’’ Julia dutifully slapped together a peanut-butter-and-turkey sandwich, and he ate it. “Best sandwich I ever had,’’ he told her.

Reluctantly, Jeff, 42, left his deck to fly to California for a conference on Sept. 11. A few months after he died, Christie and the kids strung the grimy, paint-spattered work boots up on the wall above his beloved basement workbench - just above a kitschy Mona Lisa Jeff had rescued from their first house and found hilarious.

Christie is finally at the point where she can go down to the basement without crying. It’s one place in the house that Jeff would recognize since Christie renovated - that and the deck, though it’s no longer quite as well-organized as Jeff liked it.

“He’d have a heart attack if he came down and saw how messy it is now,’’ Christie says.

RAHMA SALIE'S NECKLACE

Afkham Salie doesn’t remember how he and his brother-in-law Micky Theodoridis slipped away from his sister Rahma, but they managed it somehow. The couple were visiting Afkham in Sri Lanka, and Micky wanted to buy his wife something special for her birthday. He needed Afkham, a gemologist, to help him.

“He adored my sister,’’ Afkham says. “He wanted me to tag along to make sure Rahma would be ecstatic.’’

They snuck off for a couple of hours to visit a jewelry store. One piece struck them both: A short necklace made of rough emeralds and gold.

“From a gemologist’s point of view, it was nothing much,’’ Afkham says. “But it was beautiful.’’

Micky was thrilled. He gave the necklace to Rahma when they got back to Boston, and she adored it. The couple sent Afkham a picture of Rahma beaming in a green dress that matched the emeralds perfectly.

A couple of years later, Micky, 32, and Rahma, 28 and seven months pregnant, boarded Flight 11. They were headed to a wedding in California.

It fell to Afkham to sort through the belongings in the couple’s South End apartment in the weeks following the attacks. It was grim work, surreal. But he was overjoyed when he opened a drawer and spotted the familiar velvet case.

“I remember opening it and seeing the necklace and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to give this to my daughter,’ ’’ he says. Nadia, now 11 and a lot like Rahma, will love it when she’s older.

Until then, the necklace and its associations belong to Afkham alone. “Right now, the only person alive who understands the value of it is me,’’ he says. “The real joy of it is all mine.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com