Baggage and blessings

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Her fiancee told reporters that she was thinking about giving up her job. She worried about the dangers, although a terrorist hijacking was apparently not one that had occurred to her.

Dulles to Los Angeles was her regular route, but she chose to live in Baltimore, in a 150-year-old Federal Hill rowhouse she shared with a cat, Cheyenne. Neighbors said she would reward them with a bottle of wine for taking in packages when she was away.

Ms. May loved art, so she spent her free time volunteering as a docent at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, where she especially loved taking schoolchildren on tours.

"Life gives art meaning," Ms. May once wrote about her work at the Walters, "just as art gives meaning to life."

She hadn't been scheduled to fly on Sept. 11; supervisors had called another attendant to fill in that day. But, according to a detailed Sept. 11 report, the other attendant had said she couldn't get to Dulles on time.

By 9:12 that morning, Ms. May was on the phone to her parents in Nevada to report that her plane had been hijacked.

In the email to Ms. Dempsey-Kahn, Ms. May's mother, Nancy, wrote:

"We donated a lot of her things to her church and Goodwill.  I am glad to know that such a caring person has something that belonged to our daughter.  We would like you to keep it if you want.  She didn't have them with her on the terrible day.  Maybe they will bring you peace when you travel."

In the 10 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Renee May's suitcase has traveled the world with Shirley Dempsey-Kahn. To India, to England again, to Canada and to Bermuda. It sits in the corner of her bedroom in Edenwald in Towson, where she moved two years ago. The wheels still roll and the handle still slides easily. It looks almost new. It was an excellent purchase.

Ms. Dempsey-Kahn sits at an antique desk in her living room working at her computer, polishing the story of the Goodwill suitcase. There are a half-dozen versions. Maybe more. She has collected copies of them all in a folder, where she keeps the thank-you card from Renee May's family. She returned the crucifix and the medal and even the earring. They belong with the family, she says.

Ms. Dempsey-Kahn went to the Walters and talked to the docents who knew Ms. May to learn what she could about the young woman she'd conjured in such happy detail, the young woman she had expected to meet at the Light Street Library one day. Every year around the anniversary of Sept. 11, she attends the lecture at the Walters established to honor Ms. May.

Each time she packs the Goodwill suitcase for a trip, she says, she mourns the woman she has come to think of as a friend. And she thinks of all the places Renee May might have wanted to see.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.
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