Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Homage: my sister Peny and the Challenger

Peny Jil Cosgriffe Hayes was a beautiful and
talented sister who died 27 years ago this week. 


(Editor's Note: This essay, by Christene Meyers, was first published three years ago. It is reprinted today by request, on the 30th anniversary of her sister Peny's passing.)

TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, the world was mourning the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Our family was saying good-bye to our beloved Peny Jil, my sister, who was enduring the last few days of a nine-month battle with leukemia.
I was on my way from Montana to University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, on one of 25 flights to see sis since her diagnosis on April 5, 1985. It was the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, and I’d raced into an airport lounge in Salt Lake City to watch the Challenger launch. Waiting for my connection, I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed for the TV. I watched in disbelief as the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into flight. Soon, everyone knew that all seven crew members had perished. I’ll never forget the anguished faces of Christa McAuliffe’s parents, Ed and Grace, as their joy turned to horror.
FOR MY family, it was sorrow upon sorrow.
"Evita" was the last pay the sisters saw.
My father and mother, Richard and Ellen, were experiencing their own grief as the doctors in San Francisco told them that morning that Peny would not survive. The ardors of chemotherapy, radiation and failed bone marrow transplant had weakened her beyond recovery. We had been so hopeful  – battling the odds – conferring with doctors, reading everything, hoping for a miracle. She slipped into a coma the night before and although I had just left San Francisco, hope in my heart, I headed back to say good-bye.

Christa McAuiffe left the planet
the same weekend as did Peny, 27 years
ago during the Challenger launch.
PENY WAS BORN in 1949. Christa was born in 1948. They would have been friends. Both were gregarious, over-achieving, loving, fine teachers, intrepid adventurers, with daring, charisma and humor. Christa became famous as the first teacher to train for a space flight. Peny was a ground-breaker, too. She left Montana to live in a commune in northern California, taught aerobics, grew her own vegetables, was an accomplished cook, singer and seamstress and made blueberry pie instead of birthday cakes. She never missed an opportunity to hear a jazz concert or take in a play. As children, she and I were known as Cookie and Peny and we toured a song-and-dance act to Montana towns, performing for many functions, including a gubernatorial inaugural. Our musical mother dressed us like twins until we were in our teens. In our last years together, we began a tradition of a sister weekends in San Francisco, seeing plays, going to clubs, ordering room service at midnight. Our last play together was “Evita” and I think of Peny every time I hear “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” I wonder if Christa’s sister, Betsy, thinks of her sister every day. Even after 27 years, I’ll bet she does.
Peny, on mother Ellen Cosgriffe's lap, and Cookie, 1952, at right.
The sisters performed and dressed alike until their late teens.
PENY JIL Cosgriffe Hayes had gorgeous red hair and a lilting soprano voice. She learned to play the viola in days and stopped the show with her passionate dancing. She also mastered piano, guitar, trombone and flute. In her last weeks, she played her flute in the cancer ward, greeting other patients, her instrument in one hand and her portable IV in the other. She was also an accomplished artist and was building a successful porcelain business with her husband Jim when disease struck.
Both Peny and Christa were married happily and had small children. Christa’s children, Scott and Caroline, were nine and six when they lost their mother. Peny’s children, Amarylla and James, were twelve and nine. I am devoted to my niece and nephew and follow their lives with pride. I often wonder how Christa’s kids are, how their lives have gone, what they’ve become.
I KNOW Christa would be proud and I’m certain Peny would be pleased that her children have full, happy lives. She loved both town and country and her kids have many of her wonderful traits – one each living in the two worlds she loved. James is the country boy, settled in rural northern California where he grows and markets organic vegetables and eye-popping flowers. Amarylla lives in the Bay Area where she is taking time off from her marketing and catering career to be a busy mom. Both have loving partners. I gave each couple a holiday gift of a video my own partner put on a DVD. In it, their mother sings a leading part in a Christmas cantata in 1984.
From left, sisters Cookie, Olivia and Misha, with their niece Amarylla,
Peny's only daughter, of whom she was proud.  
That long-ago rehearsal is one of the few remnants we have of Peny in action, along with a funny tennis match with her husband Jim, filmed at Flathead Lake in Montana during the summer of 1983. My late husband, Bruce, provides a hilarious commentary for the match, the youngsters’ antics in the lake and the picnic we shared later in the day.
ONE OF MY late mother’s favorite Cookie-Peny stories was of a holiday performance Peny and I gave in the Congregational Church in Columbus, Montana, in the early 1950s. We were singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” with our grandmother Olive accompanying us on the organ. I was four; Peny was three, “Irish twins,” as we were known. When Peny began fidgeting with the brass rings on the velvet curtain framing the altar, I slapped her hand. She slapped me back. The fight continued, all without our missing a note and offering a teeth-clenching “amen.” The congregation was in hysterics and the minister was laughing so hard he had to remove his glasses.
I CELEBRATE my sister’s rich but brief life and her robust 36 years on the planet. Christa had only a year longer. How much more could these two wonders have accomplished had they lived? How I wish Peny were here with me now, for I’ve recently settled in California. We would see even more of one another, enjoy the jazz and the plays. She would cherish her grown children, and her adorable grandson. We’d meet again at the Fairmont or St. Francis to toast with chardonnay and order chowder at midnight.
WHAT I KNOW about loss is that it becomes a permanent part of our lives. Each fallen loved one holds a sacred place in our heart and history. Our affection never changes. Our sadness in their leaving never abates. But slowly, miraculously, the debilitating sorrow gives way to wistful thanks. Thanks for their having been here. For since their existence has altered ours, they are forever with us.


  1. Beautiful tribute Auntie xo

  2. What a lovely story of your sister. I was told one time that we "live" until the last person that talks of us passes. Peny is truly "alive" in the world with your memories.

  3. wonderful --- remembrance!

  4. I, too, have lost a beloved sister. I wish I could find such an eloquent way of expressing the profound loss one feels from losing, essentially, part of oneself. I have printed out this beautiful tribute to send to our brother.

  5. Cookie, I had no idea. I am so sorry, Peny was such a beautiful, spirited young lady. I can see she lives on through her beautiful daughter and wonderful siblings.

  6. Cookie, I am so sorry. I had no idea. Peny was such a beautiful, spirited and kind person. I can tell her kindness and spirit lives on in her beautiful daughter and wonderful siblings.

  7. Penelope from PennsylvaniaOctober 17, 2019 at 7:11 PM

    With bittersweet emotion O read this story for the second time. Remarkable writing. Thanks so much for the wonderful ode to a truly blithe spirit.

  8. Amazing eulogy, for a third read. Thank you for beautiful memories.