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A YEAR AFTER

A Neighborhood Shares Dinner, Remembrances

Memorial: Residents of a Fountain Valley cul-de-sac gather over a meal. 'Sitting at home wasn't the thing to do,' says one participant.

September 12, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The roast ham came out of the oven at 1 p.m., and the roast beef went in.

On an ordinary American street, on a seemingly ordinary sunny day, Cheridah Heckman, 74, and husband Victor, 75, prepared a sit-down dinner Wednesday for 50 neighbors to commemorate the anniversary of Sept. 11.

The Heckmans, who have lived on the quiet Fountain Valley cul-de-sac since July 4, 1966, don't know anyone who died in the attacks. But it seemed fitting to gather their community together--to talk, to eat together and to say a silent prayer for those who died a year ago and a continent away.

"They gave their lives for their country that morning," said Victor Heckman, a World War II Navy veteran. "They didn't know they were going to when they woke up that day, but that's what they did."

In a dining room lined with Norman Rockwell plates, the Heckmans prepared the buffet table, gathering hand-embroidered red, white and blue napkin rings and other decorations.

"These are my peace doves," she said, pointing out two papier-mache birds.

Loss is not unfamiliar to people on Teal Circle. Her neighbor, Ilse Van Don, is from Indonesia. Van Don told her of losing many male relatives in World War II.

To Cheridah, there is a simple solution to such terrors: cook, sew or do both.

"I told Ilse I really don't know how to make cole slaw exactly the way she does, and asked her if she could make that for tonight," she said. "She said sure."

In 1963, Cheridah had just finished sewing an enormous red velvet bedspread and was running to show it to another neighbor, when the news came that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

She was 13 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. She heard that news on the radio. Four of her brothers were at war within the year. When she graduated from high school in 1948, she ran to catch a bus to Los Angeles to meet her sweetheart, Victor. Within months, he too was at war, a naval machinist stationed in Guam. He came home safely.

Now, after 54 years of marriage, the Heckmans have seven children, too many grandchildren to count, and two great-grandchildren--the second of whom arrived in the early hours of this Sept. 11.

A few hours later, they turned on the television, just as they were doing a year ago when their regular morning show was interrupted with news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

"It was so awful, all those people were dying. All those firefighters," she said.

She returned to setting up in earnest. She already had baked three cakes--"red velvet" chocolate, spice and lemon.

"It's her idea, and I support it completely. I'm the muscle," said Victor while tidying the front lawn of their ranch-style home, where two campers occupy the driveway, an ancient pickup graces the garage, and a flag Cheridah hand-sewed in the same pattern as Betsy Ross' hangs in a picture window.

Inside, a mechanical gerbil on a side table warbled "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" when its paw was pressed, ready to entertain the evening's younger guests.

For the Heckmans, the silver lining of last year's tragedy has been the effect it had on younger people. Cheridah said she loved seeing children gathered on the corner excitedly shrieking "Light the candles!" at dusk a day after last year's attacks.

"It reminds me of what kids used to do in the '40s," she said.

For Victor, "the younger generations are viewing the American flag as something positive now. They're beginning to understand what good it represents."

As evening fell, parents and their young children and seniors piled plates high and gathered at candlelit tables in the street to eat and reflect.

"This is a national memorial day, and sitting at home wasn't the thing to do--this is so special," family friend Kevin Goodling, 37, of Costa Mesa said of the dinner.

"I just think about her," he said, gesturing to his 2-year-old daughter. "And about all the kids who don't have parents because of what happened."

Cheridah asked everyone to raise a glass. "This is to all of those who died the day the World Trade towers fell," she said. "This day should not be celebrated, but it should be remembered.... And because each of you have so many religions, I'd like you to say your own quiet prayer, or say it to somebody special."

Everyone bowed their heads.

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