Anyone who knows Taffy knows that her birth name is Harriet Hermaine Gombussy, and her legal name is Harriet Epstein. Of course, she doesn’t answer to anything but Taffy Epstein, and even her apartment complex gave in and put Taffy on the doorbell list. Once, when we were traveling to New York, Taffy had to produce her passport to get on the plane. It turned out that while her ticket had been issued to Taffy, her drivers license said Harriet, and the new flying regulations insisted she prove who she was. Thankfully her passport had Taffy listed as her legal alias!
I’ve never called Taffy ‘grandma’ or any such age defining title per her request. In school and later at work, this caused no end of confusion to my friends, as I’d tell them I was going places with Taffy. One coworker, having met my girlfriend, asked me outright if I was having an affair with this Taffy person.
These are my favorite stories of Taffy’s name ever. Both of these tales, I’m quite sure, have been embellished a few times in the retelling, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I consider them the apocryphal tales of Taffy.
In the mid 1990s, Taffy had bypass surgery to clear up obstruction in her arteries. At the time, Taffy smoked considerably, drank nothing but white wine, and ate little but red meat. It really shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but the only reason we found out was that Taffy had gotten winded climbing up the stairs while visiting Susan in New York. Of course, Taffy hadn’t been sick a day in her life, so she had her own thoughts on the matter.
At the hospital, there was a small mix-up in the meals, and a steak dinner was delivered to Taffy’s room. Knowing that Taffy was supposed to eat low fat and low cholesterol foods, my father and aunt took the onerous duty of disposing of the inappropriate meal in the most gastronomically pleasing way possible. They ate it for her.
The surgery itself went well for Taffy, then in her 70s, and a few hours after it was complete, it became the duty of one poor man to sit and wake her up. The method by which this was done was to have the fellow repeat her name until she woke up. While current statistics say that 100 people a day wake up during surgery, Taffy wasn’t one of them. She also wasn’t one of the people who wake up right away out of the fog of anesthesia, and the nurses at the hospital told her that the young man who was supposed to wake her up had been there for a long time.
Finally, one of the other nurses who had met Taffy before walked by and noticed his problem. Taffy was breathing just fine, her heart rate was fine, and by now the anesthetic should have worn off. In short, there was no reason for Taffy not to be waking up right away. The fellow wasn’t worried, though, since sometimes it just took a while for people to wake up from surgery.
The nurse, on the other hand, realized he had a problem: he kept asking ‘Harriet’ to wake up.
“Why don’t you try Taffy instead of Harriet,” she said.
“Taffy?” said the fellow back.
“Yes?” said Taffy, waking up.
Taffy’s niece, Kahana (who passed away far too soon), had a favorite story about Taffy that takes place right after her bypass surgery. The doctor was talking to Susan and told her not to worry, and that her mother would be back in the kitchen cooking “very soon.” Susan replied “that would be a miracle, because she never did that before the operation.”
This was told to me by my grandfather Harvey, Taffy’s ex-husband, and was retold by my father on numerous occasions. True or not, over-blown or not, this story serves to explain the one question everyone asks.
How the hell did Harriet get the name ‘Taffy?’
Lots of people I know make jokes about the candy, or taffy apples. The name has nothing to do with food. It’s all because of Milt Caniff and an unfortunate hair-cut one summer in Reno.
My grandfather was in the Army Air Force as a navigator during World War II and, naturally, Taffy went along to his posting in Reno with him. In addition to her job as an accountant, Taffy would go out to the air base and pick up the various flyers to drive them to where everyone lived. Given how Taffy loved to drive, I can see her enjoying not only the trip but all the men hanging around her. One thing the boys always wanted to see when they got there was the latest Milt Caniff strip — Terry and the Pirates.
Popular rumor at the time said that Milt Caniff had an uncanny ability to predict where and when our boys would be sent next. Naturally everyone wanted to read the strips to see where Terry and Pat were, so they could be prepared. Regardless of that rumor, Caniff also had a way of writing that was so pure and honest that you couldn’t help but feel like he not only knew what was going on in the soldiers’ minds, but that he was there with them.
A great example of Caniff’s ability can be seen in the October 17, 1943 strip, where Terry has been newly commissioned as a fighter pilot. His instructor, Flip Corkin, takes him aside and gives him a speech on the responsibilities he must now shoulder. This strip was so received that it was read aloud in the U.S. Congress and was even added to the congressional record.
One of the other things Taffy often did on the base was get a hair cut. All the pictures I’veseen of Taffy from that era have her in a short, near shoulder-length bob. On the left is a picture circa 1948 with Taffy and my father, Steven. I never actually saw her with this hairstyle, as by the time I showed up, she’d gone to an efficient, short cropped style that looked just as perfect on her as any hairstyle.
That fateful day in Reno, when the heat was up and Taffy’s temper was too, she told the fellow to just cut it short. Depending on which story you believe, Taffy either asked him to cut it all off, or the fellow was so used to cutting crew-cuts for the service men than he just buzzed her hair short. Either way, Taffy ended up with an incredibly short ‘do.’
At this same time, Flip Corkin’s character was dating an Army nurse. In one rather remarkable episode, she was kidnapped by cannibals and in preparation for making her their dinner, they shaved off her hair.
Out of the canteen come all the service men for their ride back to the base. There in the jeep sits a real live woman with a short hair cut. “Hey, Taffy Tucker!” shouts out someone, and the name stuck. Fifty years later, you can’t even wake her up without using Taffy.