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Baggage and blessings

It was the song "Greensleeves" that drew Shirley Dempsey-Kahn into the Goodwill store that December morning. It reminded her of her first trip to London as a child, with her father, a naval officer, and her mother.

She would be returning in January, and she thought to buy herself an extra piece of luggage. The kind with a handle and wheels and an expandable compartment. The kind of suitcase flight attendants favor.

In a jumble of luggage in the corner of the store, she found exactly what she wanted: a nearly new Travel Pro carry-on bag. It cost only $8, plus tax. She couldn't believe her luck.

During Christmas dinner, the Baltimore widow, then 75, told her family about the items she had found in the suitcase. A beautiful silver crucifix. An earring decorated with angel wings. The luggage key, still in its box. A St. Christopher's medal. A copy of Harper's Bazaar.

She'd used the address label on the magazine to write to the suitcase's previous owner, offering to return the religious items and the earring. The woman, Renee May, lived not far from her, in Federal Hill. She was disappointed that she hadn't heard back — she had included her email — but it was the holidays, after all.

She poured herself a glass of wine and looked over the items she had found in the suitcase.

"A vision of PBS's Hercule Poirot, stroking his curling-upward-at-ends mustache, is before me," she would later write an essay about suitcase, titled "Goodwill Luggage." Like the fussy Belgian sleuth, she used her "little gray cells" to fashion a picture of the woman who once owned the suitcase.

The luggage lock, unused. "My benefactor is a risk-taker, I conclude."

The crucifix, 4 inches long and on a silver chain. "The design of the crucifix denotes more than her faith. She is modish, artsy." Ms. Dempsey-Kahn concludes.

The single enamel-on-copper earring, with cream and gold-tinged wings soaring across an azure sky, is well-crafted and elegant. Clearly, this woman had style and income.

The St. Christopher's medal must mean that she is a traveler. Or is it a gift to the new owner of the suitcase? Her own mother, after all, never gave away a handbag without putting a quarter inside.

"I conjure up a tall, youngish traveler … her mind more on getting out of the office as quickly as possible on a Friday, dashing off to Pennsylvania Station where she boards a train to Manhattan, reads Harpers … all the time thinking about the boyfriend she will be meeting under the clock in the lobby of the Waldorf."

By the time she leaves for England in January, Renee May is as real to Shirley Dempsey-Kahn as a neighbor or a niece.

During the trip, she gets compliments for her compact and sensible luggage choice. When she opens the expandable compartment to add the books she has purchased, her mind turns again to the young woman she thinks of as "Miss May."

When Ms. Dempsey-Kahn returns to her apartment in Baltimore's Harbor Court, she sorts through email and sees an address she does not recognize. But the subject line reads "luggage," so she opens it.

"The post office sent us the letter you wrote to our daughter Renee, who was killed aboard Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon …"

She stops reading, and a cry she describes in her essay as more animal than human builds in her chest and fills into the empty apartment. "I wailed for hours," she writes.

That is how Shirley Dempsey-Kahn learned that the suitcase she found at the Goodwill store that day in December 2001 had belonged to one of the flight attendants killed on Sept. 11. The elegant young woman she had dreamed up – whom she imagined meeting a tall man in a tuxedo in a Manhattan hotel – had died along with 63 others on the plane.

Renee May was 39 and engaged. She was born in Buffalo, N.Y., the oldest of three children, but grew up in California and graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in English. Her parents and her brothers still lived out West, but she loved to travel and had been flying with American Airlines since 1986.

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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