On the village green in Rye, next to the Free Reading Room and a stone’s throw away from the monuments to the fallen of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, sits a lovely gazebo. Dedicated on June 6, 2010, it, too, is a war memorial of sorts: inside are plaques bearing the names and engraved signatures of the 15 Rye residents, all men, who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.
One of them, Sean Gordon Corbett O’Neill, was among the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died when the first plane sliced into One World Trade Center. His mother, Rosaleen O’Neill, 81, and his widow, Holly O’Neill-Melville, 41, both wear a remembrance bracelet engraved with his name. Though Holly remarried in 2008, she and Rosaleen will always be bound by their common loss and by Sean’s and her daughter, the child he never got to meet. Born six months after her father’s death, she has not only his name but also his fair Irish looks and his charming, outgoing personality.
“She is our precious treasure from all of this,” Rosaleen says of her granddaughter. “It’s wonderful that we have her.”
Sean O’Neill was the youngest of four children and the only son, all born in Italy, where his father was a newsman. The O’Neills moved to Rye when Sean was seven. He and Holly attended Rye High School together, but they didn’t connect romantically until 10 years later, when both were working in the City. They got married at the Church of the Resurrection on Boston Post Road and honeymooned in San Francisco and Hawaii before settling into Sean’s apartment in Rye. “We went on our honeymoon, came back, I found out I was pregnant, and three months later, he was killed. I was completely robbed of my future.”
The days and weeks that followed “are a blur now,” says Holly, a therapist. Six months after the baby was born, Holly received her late husband’s remains, which are buried in a family plot in Greenwood Union Cemetery, next to his father, James, who died exactly one year after his son, on September 11, 2002.
In the past decade, both women have found solace in activism. Rosaleen served on the committee that chose the design for The Rising, the soaring memorial in Kensico Dam Plaza that honors all 111 Westchester residents of 9/11. “I threw myself into it,” she says. “There were other people who had lost husbands, fathers, daughters. We were all in the same boat; we supported each other.”
Holly chaired Rye September 11th, 2001 Memorial Inc., which was responsible for the gazebo. “I had friends who got involved in the Freedom Tower, but that’s not where I needed to be. This is where he is. This is the town he loved.”
Every year, the anniversary of the attacks pulls the scab off their grief, and Holly is bracing herself for the 10th anniversary. “I’m kind of dreading it. The media starts showing pictures of it again, and I don’t want to watch my husband die again. This is a nation’s tragedy, but it’s our grief, our personal loss. And we have to share it with the whole world.”
Raising a child who lost a parent that day is complex and delicate. “What Sean feels and often says is that ‘everyone knew him but me,’” says Holly, who has a three-year-son with her second husband. After bin Laden was killed, Holly tried to explain to her daughter that the nation was celebrating, and that it was a great thing. The nine-year-old replied, very maturely, “That doesn’t change the fact that no one told my dad not to go to work that day.”