A year ago, my good friend Cissy Taylor died unexpectedly, just shy of her 65th birthday. Her birthday was May 1, and Cissy - a Kentucky girl - always celebrated with a Derby Day party that I looked forward to every year.
Cissy worked for many years at the Union Leader as a crime reporter and editor. Before that, she was my first editor at my first newspaper job, at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. She was a great boss - supportive, good at giving advice, matter-of-fact, fun. I worked for her for about a year and a half, and after that we could focus on simply being friends. It stayed that way for 30 years.
Her Derby Day party was a big deal. It was when everyone in Cissy's circle came together. The party would start slow, a few people milling about under a big tent in her backyard, a few watching the sportscasters' pre-race banter on the television in the living room. Cissy's brother Richard, twirling the edges of his mustache, would case the room with a basket filled with tiny slips of paper featuring the horse's names. "A dollar each," he'd call. "Bet on a horse!"
Each slip had the name of one of the racehorses - intriguing names like Strike the Gold, Go for Gin, Thunder Gulch, Super Saver. You'd pick a few slips, hoping this would be your year. If your horse won, you got the pot; if your horse came in last place, you'd get that year's Kentucky Derby shot glass.
As it neared post time, the crowd swelled. People huddled around the television, fingering their little strips of paper, murmuring their horses' names, commenting on the odds that flashed across the screen.
The food was oh-so-fun - perfect frozen mint juleps, ham-and-beaten-biscuit sandwiches, baked beans, Cissy's one-of-a-kind spinach salad with strawberries and blueberries, hot mustard dip with pretzels, and a giant chocolate sheet cake with a thoroughbred galloping across the icing.
Many years I'd arrive early so I could spend time alone with Cissy. She'd unwrap the ham that her Kentucky relatives - the actual Taylor ham family! - had shipped to her, along with a big plastic bag full of biscuits. We'd sit at the table, slicing open each biscuit, sliding in a few small slices of ham, nibbling as we went along. Often it had been a year since we'd seen each other, so there was plenty to talk about: work, relationships, friends, kids.
She was just the same way she'd been as an editor: supportive, good at giving advice, matter-of-fact, fun. She was quick to smile and had warm laugh lines around her eyes that made you want to smile and laugh with her. And she was a natural storyteller. I got to hear choice tidbits about her work as a crime reporter - about state cops, prosecutors, murderers, crime scenes.
Her bout with breast cancer was an ordeal. An operation, then chemo. Before chemo she gamely threw herself a scarf party in anticipation of losing her hair. I couldn't be at the party, so I sent one in the mail; she expressed her gratitude. Later, after her treatment was over and we met for dinner one night, she told me something about chemo that's stuck in my mind ever since. "It's one of those weird side effects you don't really know about ahead of time," she said. "You know how when you're washing a pan and you go to scrape off some dirt with a fingernail? You can't do that when you're having chemo because it makes your fingernails weak."
She got through the chemo. She was back working, living her life. She'd left the newspaper and worked briefly as a consultant, then as information officer for the New Hampshire House of Representatives. After that job was eliminated, she wound up working as a waitress. She said she loved it.
And then - she was gone.
Unfortunately, I missed any chance to formally mark Cissy's death - I didn't learn about it until after there'd been a memorial service in Manchester. On Facebook, I saw pictures of a small group of friends who stood on a street corner after the memorial and released balloons in her memory. Before Cissy's death I hadn't given much thought to funerals or memorial services. They were grim, something you had to get through. But not being able to mark the passing of someone you were close with? Very bad.
So, one year after Cissy's birthday - and with Derby Day coming along - I am pausing again to remember her. I suspect there are many people in southern New Hampshire, Kentucky and elsewhere doing the same thing.
On Derby Day I hope to find a mint julep somewhere - I'm sure it won't be as good as the ones at those Derby Day parties at Cissy's house, but I'll do what I can - and raise a glass. And remember.
Karen Feldscher is a writer in Needham, Mass.