Somewhere in my house, I have a collection of things I put in a
box to remind myself of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. There are
emails, lists, names, and hospital numbers. I have not opened that
box in over a decade. I thought maybe I would need it to recall
everything that had been lost that autumn morning. I never
considered how impossible it all would be to forget.
My most haunting recollection comes not from those horrific
moments caught on television. Instead, it was a few days later
when, as part of my job, I asked distraught family members to
collect combs and toothbrushes to bring to the New York Armory
Building to assist with identification. I remember trying to be
professional and calm, as though it was all so normal and
matter-of-fact. I was an ass. I was trying to not let it in. Too
much work to do. Keep it together. Cry later. The families were
kind and understanding because back then, hope was still very
On Sept. 11, 2001, I worked for Aon's Chicago office in the
communications department. Aon occupied a number of floors at Two
World Trade Center. When I was first hired years prior, my
co-workers teased me mercilessly when I asked what "2WTC" meant on
all the interoffice envelopes. I had no idea what a World Trade
Center even was. I was as green as they came, appearing out of
nowhere with my impractical English degrees and a resume that
included Old Country Buffet and Eastern Illinois University's food
I began in licensing and worked with brokers in dozens of
offices throughout the country. My job was to make sure all brokers
had up-to-date paperwork for the states they conducted business. It
was a lot of phone work and I built relationships with many
colleagues over time.
Yet as a 23-year-old Midwesterner, the New York office used to
scare the living bejeezus out of me. The brokers were brash,
impatient, demanding, and brilliant. I never understood what
"moxie" meant until I started talking with the New York staff. I
always received the dramatic brush-off: Marianne, I'm in the deal
of my life here and I got no time for this crap today. I'll call
you next week (click).
Nobody ever called back and my New York charges started falling
hopelessly behind with their renewals and new licenses. I was in
over my head, feeling certain I would be fired at any moment.
And then someone told me about Denise Benedetto. The woman who
would rescue my fledgling new career. She could move mountains, I
was told. And if she liked you, she'd even toss a mountain your way
now and then. Boy, could I use a mountain.
Our very first conversation revolved around what I needed.
Denise was quick, concise, and friendly. I didn't even know New
Yorkers could be friendly back then. By the next morning, she
secured all the signatures and certifications I had requested
before her first morning cup of coffee. Denise always arrived
early. At a company where most New York employees showed up around
9 a.m., Denise typically arrived closer to 8 a.m.
Only one time did she hesitate in helping me. It was when I
rattled off a name of a certain broker who was notoriously hard to
deal with. Could Super Woman actually be afraid of this guy?
"Marianne, this is the World Trade Center. The guy's office is
like a block away on the floor and I've got a busy morning. Do you
know how long it would take me to get over there? Next time they
send you to New York, come by and I'll show you. You'll need a
mule. Send a fax. I'll make sure he follows through."
And she did. And I wouldn't find out until years later that
Denise had a serious spinal condition requiring surgery and had
spent time in a body cast. She wasn't one to complain. After a
while, I learned to imitate Denise's tactics and was able to charm,
bully, and coerce my way into getting the cooperation needed from
even the most resistant of New Yorkers. She had carefully taught me
which names to drop and what days and times to bother certain
people. I had my own insider.
A year or so later, Denise and I had both progressed at Aon.
After earning an impressive and well-deserved promotion, she
arrived in Chicago for some training. Denise made her way to my
floor for our first face-to-face meeting.
Over the phone, Denise seemed larger than life. I thought for
sure she would be tall and old. Authoritative. Imposing even. Yet
when I met her in person, I was shocked. She was this tiny little
lady. As I hugged her, I thought she would break. She was
also much younger than I had envisioned, right around my age now,
and very much her own woman.
I remember she couldn't get over how big Lake Michigan was: "Oh
my God, Mar. I thought, you know, Lake Michigan? I imagined a big
pond. Look at it! It reminds me of the ocean."
She then somehow convinced me to take her to CEO Pat Ryan's
office. My heart was in my throat as she spun around giddily in his
chair. I figured we would be busted by the head honcho himself. Yet
how could I refuse? I understood that if it hadn't been for her
encouragement and help, I would have never lasted a month at Aon. I
would have never become friends with the people who worked there
and who dragged me out the night I met my husband. My husband, of
course, gave me the three most wonderful boys in the world. Too
often, one person can change the course of your life without even
knowing it. For me, Denise was that person.
Denise died on Sept. 11, 2001. The little, confident New Yorker
who somehow took a naive greenhorn and turned her into a gal with
moxie will always be on my mind this day.
And many other days.
Marianne is mother of three sons and the wife of a southside Irish fireman. She has learned that sometimes you're just too dumb to know what makes you happy. She blogs regularly at We Band of Mothers (webandofmothers.com) and curses with even greater frequency. Her material is written for the imperfect, the imprudent, and the impatient mothers who know that all this stuff is really very funny if you just give it a minute.
See more of Marianne's stories here.
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