Widower honors wife with a gift of music

MERRIMACK – Sixty-three years ago at a dance in Nashua, Jim O’Neil met his wife, Doris.

On Friday, two months to the day after her death, O’Neil presented the Community Hospice House with a Yamaha Disklavier baby grand piano to honor his wife’s memory.

While the Nashua resident sat waiting for a dedication ceremony to begin, he remembered his beloved wife.

When they met, she was 15 and he was 19.

He was headed into the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. But before he left, he asked her to wait for him and gave her a diamond ring.

Her mother called it a “friendship ring.” But the young couple knew better.

On a leave in 1943, he returned home to attend her senior prom at Nashua High School. Afterward, she accompanied him on the train back to Boston and was so late returning home her parents worried that she had eloped.

He served in the Army’s 83rd Division Field Artillery for four years, and they exchanged many letters. She kept every one of his in a box she still had in June when they celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. He lost track of hers but guarded his memories as if they were precious gems.

Theirs was a true love and a deep friendship. They depended on each other and worked as a team.

“She was such a giving, loving, generous person,” said O’Neil. “Anybody that needed help, she was there.”

For the five years her mother lived in a local nursing home, she visited every day, feeding her, dressing her, and bringing home her laundry, O’Neil remembered with pride.

“She was a perfectionist,” he said. “Everything had its place and if you were looking for something, she told you, ‘That drawer, the right-hand side,’ and that was where it was.”

In August, when Doris O’Neil went into the Community Hospice House to spend the last four days of her life, her husband watched with gratitude as the nurses and staff cared for her. After, he determined to do something for Hospice that would keep alive his wife’s memory and comfort others – patients and their families and friends – passing through.

“She liked to listen to music,” he said.

Carla Charette, a close friend of the couple for 30 years, accompanied O’Neil to pick out the baby grand.

“She was the person I turned to for advice and comfort,” said Charette, a Hudson resident who met Doris O’Neil when the two worked for the former Sanders Corp., now BAE Systems. “My boys called them Aunt Doris and Uncle Jimmy.”

While they looked at the pianos inside Darrell’s Music Hall on Main Street in Nashua, Charette and O’Neil agreed that a piano was a fitting tribute.

“It’s such a wonderful thing because people enjoy music so much,” Charette said. “The piano is a wonderful instrument. It’s soothing, something that keeps giving.”

At the dedication ceremony, which was short and sweet, Hospice volunteer Linda Chadbourne sat at the new baby grand and played “Shenandoah.” Her hands glided over the keys, almost floating, while the gentle notes rose and filled the room, and Jimmy O’Neil, Charette and a few other invited guests sipped champagne or sparkling cider and remembered Doris O’Neil.