"We Thought the Sun Would Always Shine on Our Lives"
After college I lost touch with most of my Chi O friends. I moved to Washington, D.C., and then to Charlotte, away from the everyday lives of anyone I knew. I didn't stay in Mississippi to marry a houseboy, or be in my friends' weddings, or to raise my children alongside theirs—not because I rejected that life but because the option simply never occurred to me. The voice that told other girls to stay told me to go.
I've not had the life I might have expected based on the presumed power of a charmed pair of Greek letters. Rather, quite ordinary and uncharmed, I've made and botched and remade myself as a journalist, wife, divorcée, great friend, terrible friend, good daughter, awful daughter, nonmother, dog owner, and college professor—having surrendered whatever illusions I might once have had about what I could surely count on in life.
But in my mother's house I keep a packet of newspaper stories, yellowed relics. And when I look at them I feel no time has passed. I am back in the Chi O house, living in the room above the front door, listening to girls come and go, drifting off for a nap as Lynn strums "Leaving on a Jet Plane" on her guitar, as Michelle practices piano in the parlor off the front hall, as Chandler and Fig and Bryan and the other houseboys banter in baritone while setting up the dining room for dinner. I see Robin and Margaret lined up for the lunchtime salad bar minutes before they leave for Highway 6. And Margaret tucking her keys in her hiding place in the foyer, because she'd be right back.
Time collapses. I've probably spent far too many hours thinking about that day, too often concluding that if I'd just spoken up—"This is the stupidest thing"—five girls might have lived.
I always wondered whether the others felt stuck in the spring of 1987, too, and bore its effect like a watermark on their lives. As the 25th anniversary of the accident approached, I decided, finally, to find out.
Mary Helen welcomes me in, just as trim and blonde and fast-talking and fun as I remember. She seats me at the breakfast table for iced tea and hummus served on the Mississippi-made McCarty pottery we all started collecting in college. Her husband is at work, one of her young sons is out swimming, and the other is about to go to lunch with his grandmother, she is saying, yet even though it's just us in the lovely late-morning light of her Jackson home she makes me feel as though I've walked into a party.
"Mary Helen," I say when we finally settle down. "I can't tell which leg—"
"The right," she says.
"And the amputation was below—"
"Above. Above the knee." She says it like she might tell me the paint in this room is Benjamin Moore. We talk about who's divorced, who's dating, who's got kids, who's "cuckooville"—the usual stuff—neither of us unaware that if a sixth girl had died, it might easily have been her.
Within days of the accident an infection developed in Mary Helen's gashed and shattered leg. Surgeons had to amputate. And how has it been all these years, living without the leg, I eventually ask, and am relieved by the Mary Helen–ness of her answer: "Well, not fun! Not fun, losing a leg! But what're you gonna do, get all ridiculous about it? You thank God for your life, for your family and friends, and you jump back in."
Up in Oxford, I find Maggie with the same dust-yourself-off moxie. Disaster Victim 10, Maggie stayed in the hospital the longest—seven weeks. Like Mary Helen, she had to miss all five funerals. Her pelvis broken in four places, her left femur crushed, her leg nearly ripped off at the groin, she spent a year in physical therapy, then had to have the leg rebroken and another surgery to align things right. Despite all this, she managed to become Chi O president, graduate with honors, earn her CPA, and get married. The doctors warned her not to be too hopeful about having children. She now has four.
In Tupelo, Marget's final Chi O portrait hangs in her parents' den. "We still have lots and lots of stuff we can't get rid of," her stepmother tells me when I visit. "For a long time it was kind of like she was going to come back, and we thought, "Oh she'd want this". Little things that belonged to her, like this silver jewelry box somebody sent her when she got into Chi O."
"For initiation," her father says.
Across town, Robin's mom and dad tell me, a little sadly, that some people avoid mentioning Robin for fear of upsetting them. They take me into her room, where her mother pulls a storage bin from beneath the bed. Inside are hundreds of sympathy cards, those that came 25 years ago and those that have come every spring since. "Your precious daughter... I cannot imagine... We're so sorry... You're still in my prayers...." No wonder they love to hear people talk about Robin. The stories reanimate her, let them picture her as a kindergartner, or an eighth grader, or a Chi O pledge with shiny black hair and a bellowing laugh, and not as they last saw her, perfectly beautiful in her casket.
More than anyone I wanted to find Robert Lee Davis Jr., the driver of the truck. I wanted to know where he went that day after the ambulances raced away wailing and the tow trucks hauled off the wreckage. I wondered how he'd lived with the deaths of five girls. I wondered if he, like me, was relieved that nothing was made of his race. We were white, and Davis was black, and this was, after all, Mississippi.
The highway patrol determined that Davis, who was 45, committed no crime, that he hadn't been drinking, had not drifted off. A grand jury found the same. As improbable as it sounds, and as much as it enraged the dead girls' parents, the state police determined that Davis had simply run upon the Maxima, not realizing how slowly it was moving until it was too late. A vehicle traveling at 2 mph may as well be at a standstill when hit by a vehicle going 55. At those speeds, on that stretch of road, the gap would have closed in about 16 seconds. Davis's truck, hauling the hay baler, was a three-ton missile. It's a miracle everyone didn't die.
For years I put off finding Davis—put it off too long. When I do locate him, he's in the back corner of a church cemetery, in some of the prettiest bottomland in North Mississippi.
But his sister, Shirley, still lives in the little brick house she and Davis, who was divorced, shared after the accident.
"Tell me about your brother," I say.
Well, he drove for a living, she tells me—a taxi in Chicago, big rigs in Mississippi. At the time of the wreck, he was driving for a family that owned a farm-services company called Hay Equipment. Once, when Robert Jr. lived up north, he rebuilt a yellow Chevy, drove back and forth to Mississippi in it, 572 miles, nine hours give or take, stopping only to eat and use the restroom. Two things about Robert Jr.: He was a hard worker ("That's a Davis trait") and he "loved to ride."
After the accident, Davis never drove again. Never again laid eyes on Highway 6. He took a job at a Memphis ironworks. To get there he'd walk from Shirley's house to a gas station near I-55 and catch a ride.
About a year after the crash he had his first stroke. Shirley eventually moved him to a nursing home, where one Thursday, 12 years past the worst day of his life, he died.
After the memorial service at the coliseum, after five funerals in two days, after the dead girls' rooms had been stripped to twin desks and bare twin beds, after investigators had chalked off distances, reenacted the wreck, and filed their reports, and after the condolence bouquets began to wither and wilt, we returned to class with black remembrance ribbons pinned to our sweaters, to finish our last four weeks of school.
Every day the loss seemed to splinter into some new species of pain. We'd think of something we had to tell Beth, and it would hit us. We'd be crossing campus and see someone who looked like Robin, and then remember. At Wednesday chapter meeting when the secretary called roll, we heard like thunder the absence of those five names.
But things went back to normal, sort of, too. It's not as if we stopped laughing, or goofing on the secret handshake, or getting locked out of the Chi O house and having to spend the night in Mrs. Caldwell's car. Day by day we went forward because we had no choice. We dated, went to baseball games, got loaded and sang "Cheeseburger in Paradise" at the Phi Delt house. We'd not changed, and we'd entirely changed.
The girls with damaged bodies came back to us on crutches and in casts, with jaws wired shut, with devastating scars. Yet while we hurt for them, it was Snowe we worried about most. Her best friends had been swept right from her side, and she'd suffered not so much as a bruise. Two senior Chi Os from Tupelo gave up their room in the house so that Snowe and her remaining best friend, Alice, could move out of the dorm. We thought pulling Snowe closer would help, but she only withdrew. She stopped coming to dinner and chapter meetings. She began fixating on the other survivors' injuries and wishing for visible scars of her own. She wondered why she hadn't died, too, and decided she still could, if she wanted: get in the car and drive it right off the road.
I'm not sure what to expect when I meet her after all this time. I heard she became a ministry worker, married another ministry worker, and had a couple of children. I know she lives in Chattanooga and never moved back to her hometown, Carrollton, Georgia.
That's where we meet—in Carrollton, near Atlanta, at the restaurant her brother owns. She doesn't just look the same as when we last saw each other—cute brown bangs, big blue eyes—she looks better.
She's a nurse now. And surprise, she's pregnant again, at 42. "It's like, Okay, this is wild—another baby was never on the radar screen," she tells me. "But it is what it is. It's the next step."
And that's how she made it, step by step. For years after leaving Ole Miss she let the accident define her: She was this person who'd gone through this Thing, and no one could possibly understand her without understanding March 26. Now she mentions the accident only rarely, and never as a way of introducing herself. Now she trusts that wherever she is in life, that's where she's supposed to be.
Snowe was a sophomore at the time of the accident, and she reminds me that after a freshman year of partying she'd come back to school the goody-goody of her crew, with a GPA to maintain and a Bible study to lead. Now she tells me something I never knew: that the night before the crash she wrote in her journal, "And I pray for the strength I'll need tomorrow."
"Meaning what?" I ask.
"I have no idea." And because there's not much we can add to that, we kind of laugh.
Every Sunday at Episcopal Mass, before she prays even for the souls of her own grandparents, Mary Helen, who by now has spent more years with a prosthetic leg than the two she was born with, prays for five girls by name. When Shannon jogs, she jogs against traffic, so she can see what's coming. Snowe startles at the sound of a delivery truck going over a speed bump.
Every spring, five mothers receive cards and flowers from women who are now mothers themselves. And a boy who once loved a girl writes a check in her name, to charity. Every autumn, at the start of the school year, Robin's father drives out to Highway 6 to repaint the five white crosses that have overlooked the wreck site for 25 years. Unbeknownst to the parents of one girl who died, the mother of another leaves flowers at her grave, out of gratitude that her own daughter lived.
Remarkably, the accident triggered only one lawsuit. Mary Pat's family sued Robert Lee Davis Jr. and Hay Equipment, then dropped the case against Davis. A jury eventually awarded them $490,000 in damages. The other families pooled the $3.3 million in liability coverage and let a mediator divvy up the money according to who was injured worst. The peaceful settlement spared everyone the drama of a court case. To me that has always seemed like a tiny bit of grace.
Mary Pat's family endowed an Ole Miss scholarship in her name. The Tau chapter set up a campus service award with the thousands of dollars strangers from around the world sent, unsolicited. On the back patio at the Chi O house, the Tau chapter—where Robin's two nieces are now members—hosts an annual crawfish boil; the proceeds go to a Tupelo nonprofit called the Gardner-Simmons Home for Girls, which by now has taken in a generation of abused and neglected girls. At the home, portraits of its two namesakes, Margaret and Robin, RobinandMargaret, hang in the front hall.
Out on Highway 6, below the five white crosses, beneath five memorial dogwoods, a marker bears all their names. Margaret Emily Gardner. Mary Pat Langford. Elizabeth Gage Roberson. Robin Renee Simmons. Ruth Hess Worsham. "So faith, hope, love abide, these three," reads the inscription, from 1 Corinthians, "but the greatest of these is love."
I've been there dozens of times in these many years. The next time I go, though, will be different, because of one other thing Snowe told me.
She, like many of the rest of us, still dreams about the girls who died, but as she has aged, in her dreams so have they.
It never occurred to me to think of them that way, to picture them coming along with the rest of us as we worry about our own children, as we wrinkle and go gray, as we learn and relearn the truest lesson: that no matter where we're from or how deeply we're loved or how golden our future appears to be, nothing is guaranteed. Losing the girls taught us that.
Yet losing them also taught us we were more resilient than we knew, in large part because we had each other. And after all these years of remembering those five girls frozen in youth, trapped in time, it's a gift to see them, now, as Snowe does in her dreams: forever in the company of friends.
Paige Williams is a narrative journalist and National Magazine Award winner who teaches at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
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