41. Tina O’Connor. I can’t really separate Tina from her mother, a woman we called Granny, who died at the age of 103 sometime when I was just out of college. I had know Granny my whole life – the O’Connors were our next door neighbors in the house where I was born. Both our houses were on a hill with what I remember as huge backyards, and we would walk through a hole in the hedges to go over to their house. Their kids were older than us, more babysitters than playmates, but we loved to go over to the O’Connors to visit, especially to see Granny, the O’Connor kids grandmother, and Tina’s mom. Granny was always happy to see us, she would read to us, or bake her famous pie crust mix, cheddar cheese and walnut crackers, or show us old tools from the 1800’s – tools she remember from her childhood, like a darning egg or a grease lamp – and tell us the stories about them and what her life was like then. I remember how she used to breathe kind of loudly, and sometimes at night when my sister Patty and I would be going to sleep in our shared room, we would play a game called “Guess this sound,” and sometimes we would breathe like Granny.
The O’Connors were a huge part of our life. Every Christmas eve, we would bake cookies and go over to their house as a family. We would ring their doorbell and when they answered, we would sing three or four carols we had rehearsed and then give them the cookies. On Christmas day we went to their house after opening presents, each one of us bringing our favorite gift, and receiving our gift from Mrs. O’Connor – Tina.
See, Tina owned a store “up-town,” as we called it in Montclair. “Wit’s End” was kind of a high end home decorating shop that had everything from antique furniture to beautiful trinkets. Every year at Christmas, they had an event where people put their name and the thing they wished for most on a tree in the store. Sometime around, or maybe on, Christmas eve Tina would have one of us kids choose the tag from the tree and announce the winner. I remember one year when it was me and I’m not sure if Tina gave it to me, or it was something my mom bought for the occasion, but I remember perfectly this long velvet skirt, a dark cherry color, with a green satin bow that I got to wear while doing the honors. Tina always gave all of us some token gift from Wit’s End and we loved that part of Christmas Day.
Later, both families moved, us to the big house on Edgemont Road, and then to North Mountain, and the O’Connors – really now just Mr and Mrs O’Connor and Granny since their kids had all moved out – moved into the house behind Wit’s End. We kept up all of our traditions when we moved, and even added on some more. For many years, Ruth Ford, Gina and Laura Heyman and Brendan and I would walk to Tina’s house before our weekly CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – that sounds way more intense than it seemed at the time!) lesson at the church. Tina would always make us some delicious meal – she was an incredible cook – and tell us some story, often something historical related to the date, and usually accompanied by some token, some tangible thing, for us to recall the story. Tina was a great conversationalist and we loved and looked forward to that part of the week.
Over the years, we kept our tradition of going to the O’Connors every Christmas (while seeing them frequently all the time) as first Mr. O’Connor died, and then Granny. Or it may have been the other way around, but for the last many years, there was just Mrs. O’Connor, or Tina, as Gina and I always called her – and I have no idea when or why we made that transition.
Tina stayed a part of all our lives, and the Kennys never went to Montclair without going to visit Tina. While Tina was 20 years to the day older than my mom, when you visited her, you never felt like you were “visiting an old lady.” You felt like you were visiting an old friend. TIna walked steadily and upright, wrote extremely good poetry and prose, traveled adventurously, participated fully in both church and political matters (she was a staunch democrat – I called her the day Obama was elected and asked her what it was like for her to see a black president. She was thrilled and emotional, just like the rest of us.) She was a powerful voice with her peers – mostly all my mom’s age, and many of whom have been in the same breakfast group for over 40 years, and she was the go to date for my dad and Mr. Heyman when they had tickets to the theater or the symphony and their wives were away for the summer, and she reciprocated by taking them both in and feeding them her delicious dinners so they didn’t have to eat alone.
Up until the very last time I saw Tina, she was active, progressive and thoughtful, recalling all of the things I was doing and helping with any advice I needed. I remember asking her, when I got to spend my 47th birthday with her and she was exactly twice my age at 94, what the secret was, how could I be like when I was her age?
Tina, in her typical no nonsense fashion said, “Well, it looks like you are doing things right, so just keep doing what you’re doing.” That was Tina. She always had faith in us, always saw the good in what we were up to.
Tina died last year at 97, I sure would have liked to celebrate her 100th birthday with her. I guess a lifetime of love, conversation and inspiration will have to do. Thank you Tina. You showed me so many things, but most of all, that getting older just means growing more loving and expansive, never the opposite.