In the sunny sparkle of a quiet Bucks County memorial garden, there had just been talk of darkness. Of the fear that the memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed 18 beloved community members 18 years ago were fading into the history books like Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, and other great national tragedies. But Judi Reiss sat through it all as a portrait of equanimity.
Then a firefighter rang a bell. And grief poured out as it does. Still.
A Lower Makefield Township firefighter rang a haunting bell during a remembrance ceremony at the garden that Judi, through incredible sadness, had helped build. He rang the bell at the exact time that one of two terrorist-comandeered jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001. Judi’s son died at 23 inside one of those two collapsed towers. Somehow, his mother pulled herself out of extreme depression, became a local elected official, then a county one, and now was running as a Democrat to unseat Republican Brian Fitzpatrick from Congress next year.
But that bell. It shook you like a wailing lamb. Judi, from a white folding chair at the Garden of Reflection, could not bear it, either. She tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and grimaced. She opened her mouth as though exhaling, though it could also have been a mute scream. She cried.
There it was: Maternal sorrow momentarily as bottomless as it was on that cloudless, shattering morning in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I’m a woman," Judi had said with utter control during the ceremony minutes earlier, “that tends to wear many hats. But today, the one I wear is Joshua Reiss’ mother."
Indeed, when State Sen. Steve Santarsiero named the elected officials present for the annual ritual, he conspicuously failed to mention Judi, in a blue suit seated behind him as a mourner. She is county prothonotary ever since a 2017 win that made history in largely Republican-controlled Bucks County. Before that, the retired former Trenton schoolteacher had worked for years alongside another mother who lost her son on 9/11, the late Grace Godshalk, a Republican.
Together, Grace and Judi had helped build this garden -- Republican and Democrat fused in maternal grief and focused on the greater good, arm in arm. At Grace’s urging and their partisan differences notwithstanding, they served on Lower Makefield’s Board of Supervisors.
Grace, who had lost her 35-year-old son, Bill, in the World Trade Center, died after last year’s September ceremony. She was 81. Judi, now 70, is hoping to become a congresswoman next year from the county in Pennsylvania that lost more people to the terror attacks than any other.
“It’s hard to believe on some days that it’s been 18 years," Judi said from the podium to scores of mourners gathered under a mix of sunny and cloudy skies with a gentle breeze. “Because I can still remember, moment by moment by moment that morning. I can remember getting a phone call, being told to turn on the television. And I can remember the actual fear and horror that I felt.”
The message from many who spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony was one imploring Americans to be grateful, to care for each other just as the mothers and spouses in Bucks County had cared for each other through grief. It was a message urging that we all, neighbor to neighbor, stare down hatred in favor of peace.
“This year, I didn’t have my dear friend Grace Godshalk to help with the plans for today’s remembrance," said Tara Bane, who lost her husband, Michael, in the attacks and who had been working with Grace and Judi to help put on the annual remembrance in recent years.
She urged us to live for today. To expect nothing guaranteed for tomorrow. But also, she revealed the ache that love forces into us as a reminder that we loved the people taken from us.
“I’m sad to be here today without her,” Tara said of Grace. "But now she’s been reunited with her son Bill. And I can see her smile on her face to see him again, to be with him. In fact, many of us can’t wait for that day, to be reunited with our loved ones who were taken from us suddenly on 9/11.”
Judi has channeled that into an embrace of public service. She has taken her son’s death and used it as “fuel” to first lift her from paralytic grief in the aftermath of 9/11 and now to mold our communities into the compassionate places that heal us all when we’re down.
“I’m so empowered to see that through such hardship,” 29-year-old Jenn Reiss Sillman, the youngest of five Reiss children, told me, “my mother turned it around.”
There are many lessons for us here. We can be better than the angry, divided nation we have become. Our better angels can win. That is thanks to better angels such as Judi and, perhaps now reunited with her son, dear Grace, too.