On a sultry summer weekday at Irvington’s waterfront park, the only sounds you’re likely to hear are the call of seagulls, Metro-North trains rumbling by, and the bouncing of a basketball on the park’s state-of-the-art court. Nearby, a chunk of rock bears a plaque declaring that the court is dedicated to the memory of Bobby Speisman, “a true lover of life and the game,” along with the dates 8/9/53 – 9/11/01.
“The second I say my husband died in 9/11, people ask, ‘Which tower?’” says his widow, Rena Speisman, 58. The answer is neither. He was a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Bobby Speisman was a 48-year-old senior vice president of sales for Lazare Kaplan International, one of the world’s largest diamond distributors, and the father of three daughters, all in their 20s now. In the dismal arithmetic of grief, he has missed 40 birthdays, 10 wedding anniversaries, one marriage—that of his oldest child, 28-year-old Tara, at Lyndhurst in 2010—and the recent engagement of his 26-year-old daughter, Brittany. At Tara’s wedding, it was her mother who walked her down the aisle. “There was definitely something missing because my dad wasn’t there,” Tara says.
During the Christmas holidays, the family tends to go on vacation rather than stay home, where he isn’t. Brittany is pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of South Florida, and Hayley, 20, is entering her senior year at Skidmore College, but, every September 11, they make sure to endure that particular anniversary together. “We’re a changed family,” Rena says, “but we’re still a family.”
A week after 9/11, 2,000 people turned out in Irvington’s Matthiessen Park to remember the funny, charismatic man who had a passion for his family and for the Grateful Dead, who wore a suit and tie to work but refused to cut his ponytail, a souvenir of his former career in the music industry. Bobby never missed a Sunday game of his beloved basketball league and coached his daughters in softball and soccer. “He was our biggest cheerleader and supporter,” Tara says. She was the last family member to see him alive.
Ten years ago, Tara, the class valedictorian and homecoming queen of the 2001 senior class at Irvington High School, headed to college at Georgetown University in the nation’s capital. After a month, “I was so homesick, I begged my parents to visit.” Bobby arranged a trip to Washington, D.C., to see a few clients and spend two days with Tara. “He came in on the ninth of September. He took me grocery shopping and to dinner and the movies, and met my dorm mates.”
They said goodbye on the evening of September 10; Bobby had a flight to Los Angeles the next morning. On 9/11, Tara woke up to the horrifying news that terrorists had flown passenger jets into the World Trade Center. As Tara headed off to class, “word came that a plane was heading toward Washington, so they dismissed us.” At the student center, she and others rushed to the top of a building and spotted smoke rising from the Pentagon. A few minutes later, back in the lobby, she saw on the news that American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles International was missing. The next thing she remembers, someone was picking her up off the floor.
“Rationally, I know that his death wasn’t my fault, but I feel guilty. The choices that I made and what I asked of my dad were the chain of events that led to what happened.”
When Tara returned to the school it was with a new mission: to get the “fuckers who got my dad.” She went on to get a master’s degree in Homeland Security with the goal of joining the CIA. Along the way she met and fell in love with Army Major Matthew Allison. Today they are married and live in Fort Hood, Texas.
Rena, who sought counseling at the Bereavement Center of Westchester, is today a certified grief counselor, working with young children at the Center’s Tree House unit. Her work and yoga “saved my life,” she says. “Every morning after Bobby died, I’d wake up in the morning and say, I’ll do yoga instead of taking a Valium.”
Since Bobby’s remains were never identified, the rock at the basketball court serves as his headstone, and on his birthday and 9/11, his girls leave an offering of his favorite candies, Necco wafers and Junior Mints. When she can, Tara does the same thing at the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial, where each of the 59 victims aboard Flight 77 has a bench (there are another 125 benches at the Pentagon Memorial for those inside the building who died).
“Here’s the thing about September 11th in general,” she says. “It’s the same thing every single day when you wake up. That hole in your heart is there every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s September 10th or Christmas Day or your birthday or anniversary. It’s there.”