women of chi omega
Photo: Alessandra Y
Survivors of March 26, 1987, gather at the Chi O house, January 2012. Back row, from left: Katie Rose Guyton, Mary Schiele Daniels Scanlon, Mary Helen Sandifer Thomas, Shannon Moore Dye, Snowe Wilks Green. Front row: Ashley Brock Farmer, Susan McGee Smith, Maggie Elliott Abernathy.

The idea of sororities holds stronger in the Deep South than in the rest of the country, and at my alma mater, Ole Miss, in Oxford, Mississippi, the Greek letters on T-shirts foretold a person's station in life. I belonged to XΩ, Chi Omega. Our symbol was the owl; our colors were red and gold, or, in the mythical terms we were taught, "cardinal and straw"; and our chapter, Tau, had been at the top of the Greek order since its founding in 1899. The idea of walking around in anything other than the T-shirts, tank tops, earrings, gym shorts, necklaces, and sweatshirts of Chi Omega was so intolerable that rushees had been known to collapse in grief upon being cut, and to immediately pack their bags and go home.

Chi O freshmen were assigned to dorms, sophomores lived in dorms or apartments, and upperclassmen shared bedrooms in our Greek Revival chapter house, where we were surrounded by evidence of our bygone glories. A generation earlier we had produced back-to-back Miss Americas, whose portraits hung in the front stairwell and had become part of the scenery along with the oil paintings and chandeliers. Our housemother, Mrs. Caldwell, a former First Lady of Tupelo, wore silk blouses, pearls, and a cirrus of golden hair, and her mere presence encouraged us to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting our traditions. Chi Os were not to drink beer from cans. Or use profanity. Or dance on elevated surfaces in public. If we smoked, we were not to crassly stand while doing so, but rather sit, preferably with legs crossed. We were not to cultivate wildness or vulgarity in any form.

Instead, Chi Os were expected to run for campus office, participate in extracurricular activities, maintain the highest collective GPA, date nice boys, and perform community service. Plenty of us could secretly out-drink and out-smoke (sitting or standing) the biggest barfly in town, but we took the other expectations seriously, which is how, on a bright, clear Thursday in the spring of 1987, we arrived at the moment that changed everything.


Socially Awkward and sartorially clueless (purple gel shoes, pink frosted lipstick), I got in to Chi O largely, I suspect, on the lovability of my cousin Jill, the Chi O secretary. While other girls were planning their careers in medicine or education or law, or gathering trousseaus of Wedgwood and linens, I could barely get to class on time.

The girls from Jackson had the glamour of hailing from Mississippi's largest city. (One was an Ole Miss football cheerleader, a form of Oxford royalty. Another played concert-level classical piano. Another had perfected the art of the G-rated stacked date: cocktails with one boy at 6, dinner with another at 8, late date with another at 11.) Girls from Tupelo and Corinth were into tennis and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Columbus and Delta girls were laid-back and fun.

There were about 150 of us, and our stories couldn't help intertwining. Ashley, Mary Helen, and Mary Schiele were all from the Delta. Mary Schiele and Maggie were distant cousins. Maggie and Beth were planning to room together the following year. The two of them had pledged Chi O with Robin, Margaret, Snowe, and Hess; the four of them had been best friends ever since. More precisely, Robin and Margaret were whatever lies beyond best friends. Inseparable since sixth grade, they were almost one person: MargaretandRobin, RobinandMargaret. Chi O had made their sisterhood official.

I knew Robin and Margaret best because they were from Tupelo, my hometown. Robin played basketball and softball and was as black haired and dark eyed as Margaret, lover of kittens and daffodils, was blonde and blue. Both were cheerleaders, class favorites. Both seemed to live on the balls of their feet. The whole Tau chapter, in fact, fairly glowed with congenital promise. As a guy friend once said, in complete seriousness, "Even the ugly ones are good-looking." This was a 100 percent compliment for a Southern girl, an achievement even, and, in our sheltered Chi O world, part of our insurance policy against whatever trouble might come our way.


Mississippi is a vertical state. Oxford, near the top, sits halfway between the hills and hardwood forests of the east and the hot, flat roads of the Delta to the west. One main corridor, Highway 6, traverses this upper region. On the map it starts near the curling inlets and cartoonish peninsulas of the Mississippi River, crosses Interstate 55, and runs through Batesville, Oxford, and Tupelo, on to the border of Alabama. The road rolls a bit between Batesville and Oxford but bottoms out now and then in soybean flats and cotton fields, cutting past one-room churches, lone brick houses, and landscapes of kudzu, which assumes the shape of whatever it drapes, tree, tractor, or shack.

It's about 25 miles from Batesville to Oxford, four lanes all the way. Maybe it was that near-marathon distance coupled with the alternating challenge and relief of hills and flats that made Highway 6 seem the perfect location for a charity walkathon.

That Thursday morning, March 26, Beth, an honors student with deep red hair, drove us to Batesville in the Nissan Maxima her parents had given her for high school graduation. We piled in on each other's laps, as many as could fit. Beth had organized the walkathon because she was our activities chairman, and she planned to do it the same way the chapter had done it for years: start in the McDonald's parking lot, walk to benefit the Mississippi Kidney Foundation, assign cars to deliver fresh crews throughout the day and take the tired ones home.

In the past, though, we'd always had a state police escort: a blue-lighted cruiser following close behind us. This time the highway patrol had said no. They'd started worrying about safety. The highway shoulder offered no buffer against the 55 mph traffic. Even with lights flashing, a trooper going 2 or 3 mph on a road busy with long-haul truckers would have been almost as much at risk as a person on foot.

Some of us didn't learn about the lack of escorts until we showed up that morning. But having been assured by the highway patrol that we'd be breaking only the laws of common sense if we proceeded, we chose not to change our plans. We were already out there, already dressed. We'd gotten up early and skipped class. The Kidney Foundation needed us and we needed the exercise. Besides, we were 25 miles from home, and we had to get back somehow. We had laundry to do, boyfriends to see, homework to start.

The morning had the gauzy freshness of early springtime in Mississippi, the temperature just shy of 70. The daffodils were out, the forsythia blooming in yellow arcs. I had on red nylon shorts with a fraying rip at the hem. When I walked, the hole opened and closed like a mouth.

Eighteen-wheelers blasted by, spraying the backs of our bare legs with pinpricks of grit. Each wake of air felt like a shove; it parted the hair at the back of our heads, whipping it into our eyes. Every minute or two, whooom, another shove. The trucks' honks faded like foghorns.

Next: The devastating accident that changed everything
"This is the stupidest thing I've ever done," I remember thinking. I thought it but didn't say it. Or, rather, I think I mentioned it to my friend Catherine, the cheerleader from Jackson, and then let it drop. We walked and the traffic whoomed. After a few hours I caught a ride back to campus for lunch.

A finish-line banner hung across the street in front of the Chi O house. The dining room was busy. I saw Margaret and Robin at the salad bar, and we talked about a rushee from Tupelo before they left for the walkathon. Soon the lunch crowd tapered off. I think I went to my room. Out on Highway 6 the walkers closed in on the final five miles.

Somewhere during that final stretch the girls decided they could walk more easily on the hardtop, so during the lulls in traffic they edged onto the road. Beth's Maxima, hazards flashing, inched along behind them.

Around 2 o'clock, a state trooper saw the girls from across the highway. He U-turned and ordered them and the Maxima back onto the shoulder. Pulling away, he radioed dispatch to send the first available follow-up trooper, to make sure the girls stayed out of the road. Another trooper 10-4'd that he'd get there as soon as he could.

At the Chi O house, meanwhile, the cooks and the houseboys—our friends, boyfriends, and brothers, who served food and cleaned up in exchange for meals—left for the afternoon. The house settled into the quiet hours when we studied or went to the gym or took naps or called our moms. Mrs. Caldwell put on her sneakers to walk the last couple of miles. She'd already been out to the highway, to deliver water. All was well. The finish-line banner breathed with the breeze.

At 2:25 P.M., 20 girls were still out there, making their way home. Cyndy, Terri, and Mary Schiele walked way out in front of the rest. Mary Pat, Mary Helen, Melissa, Ashley, Evelyn, Shawna, Amy, June, and Katie clustered together in the main group. Behind them were Shannon and Susan, friends from Jackson, and Maggie and Beth, chatting away. At the back of the pack, Hess, Robin, and Snowe walked just ahead of the Maxima's bumper so they could be near Margaret, who'd taken over the driving. Windows down, radio up. They were listening to Dire Straits. "Now that ain't workin', that's the way you do it. You play the guitar on your MTV..."

And then boom—a huge, grinding crash. A few girls turned in time to see a flatbed pickup, towing a two-ton hay baler, plow over the Maxima with the full force of its weight. The Maxima flipped into the girls. The truck flipped into the girls. The hay baler, a massive, spiked, medieval-looking machine, wrenched free of its hitch and barreled through the girls. Heavy chains from the truck whipped through the air like blades.

Sixteen of the 20 girls lay up and down the highway in a debris field of glass, chains, hair, and blood, their arms and legs flayed open, their bones broken and shattered.

The Maxima had landed belly-up in a shallow ditch, crushed against the crumpled front of the flatbed. Nearest the car, only Snowe remained on her feet. She'd been walking right next to Robin and Hess but as the wreck swept past it took them and left her untouched, the way a tornado can demolish a whole house but leave a teacup standing.

For one second, maybe two, Snowe stood there, not comprehending. Then she sprinted to Robin and Hess, who were facedown on the road. Unconscious. She moved on to Margaret, thinking she had to pull her from the car in case it exploded. Unconscious. Margaret lay pinned half in and half out of the car, and all Snowe could do was say, "Hang on, just hang on," and sit beside her in the grass and pray.

Cyndy, Terri, and Mary Schiele had been walking far enough ahead to miss the impact; now they ran back and started flagging down help. A passerby drove on to an antiques store up the road, called 911. Other drivers were pulling over and going from girl to girl to see whose hand could be held, whose hair could be stroked, who could be comforted or calmed as she cried out for her mama and daddy.

A freshman Phi Delt named Todd came upon the scene. He and a date had just driven out to the county line on a beer run, to jump-start the weekend. Not ten minutes earlier the girls had waved at him; now they were scattered up and down the highway like mangled dolls. Todd told his date to stay in the car; he didn't want her seeing this.

Ashley managed to stand despite a gash in her thigh. As she limped toward Todd, she watched him take off his sweater vest and gently place it on a body with no head.

"Is that Beth?" she said.

"Don't look," Todd told her. "Keep walking." He then took off his undershirt and spread it over the lifeless body of a girl in a pink and white T-shirt.

Now came the sirens. Sheriff's deputies, campus police, ambulances from all the surrounding counties. Chi Os who had come to walk the final leg arrived to mayhem, and found themselves holding IV bags for medics and stepping around flesh to grab each other and scream, "What happened?"

At some point, the flatbed's driver—his name was Robert Lee Davis Jr.—had climbed out of his truck to stand on the side of the highway, dazed.

Next: The emergency response
Miles away, a ditchdigger had accidentally cut a major underground phone cable, knocking out long-distance service from Oxford. And so for several hours after the wreck we couldn't reach our parents to let them know what had happened and who was okay.

Maggie's parents, who owned a lumber company, got a call over their two-way radio. Ole Miss set up an emergency line and the chancellor, Gerald Turner, began phoning the families of the injured and dead. TV stations and newspapers picked up chatter on their police scanners, and as parents heard the early reports—Ole Miss...accident...Chi O—they dropped what they were doing and drove to Oxford as fast as they dared.

Every available doctor and nurse in town reported to the hospital. In the ER, they tagged the injured Disaster Victim 1, Disaster Victim 2, and so on. The girls who were conscious sped the identifications along by calling out their names and their fathers' work numbers.

Mrs. Caldwell arrived. She'd gone out to Highway 6, but troopers sent her to the hospital instead. Holding the hand of a Chi O chapter adviser, she was led into the morgue to formally put names to the two bodies Todd had covered with his clothes. She'd seen Beth on the highway and did not want to see her that way again. Her hands trembled as the drawer was opened. "That's Beth," she managed to say.

In the second drawer she could identify the girl with the unrecognizable face only by her petite figure and pink and white T-shirt. Mrs. Caldwell had just seen that shirt, had just seen her while delivering water—the darling little freshman from Atlanta with the curly hair and the heart-shaped face. "Mary Pat," she said, holding on to the adviser, feeling like her legs might give way.

Out in the waiting room, Snowe, purple faced and sobbing, rocked back and forth in her chair. Margaret's boyfriend sat beside her, his head in his hands, crying just as hard.

Choppers came to airlift Margaret, Robin, and Hess, all of whom had catastrophic head and internal injuries and hadn't regained consciousness. By phone, Chancellor Turner advised Robin's parents to go straight to the trauma center in Memphis. On the two-hour drive from Tupelo, they prayed for her to still be alive, just please be alive, when they got there. She was not.

When Margaret's father and stepmother reached the hospital, someone met them at the door and said, "Robin's gone," and when they heard that, they knew Margaret would die, too.

By sundown, some Chi Os had packed up and gone home. Most, though, stayed, and spent the night crowded into each other's rooms or camped on the chapter room floor. I went to my room, preferring to be alone, and at some point managed to sleep. The next morning I woke to a redbird flying into my window, attacking its own reflection again and again. Then I got up and went to Duvall's, on the square, and bought a funeral dress.

The dining hall and chapter room had become the Chi O nerve center. We crowded onto the overstuffed sofas and chairs as CNN replayed images of the flipped Maxima, the ambulances, the smiling Chi O portraits of Mary Pat and Beth and Robin. When someone came in and told us Margaret had died at 9:45 A.M., we sobbed in unison; we were still crying less than an hour later when they came back and said Hess was dead, too.

I'd never seen so many people cry so violently. A new flower arrangement would arrive, someone would read the card aloud, and we would cry. We heard that flowers were now coming from strangers as far away as California, and we cried. We learned that hundreds of our classmates were lining up for an emergency blood drive at the student union, and we cried. We heard that the Mississippi State Senate had adjourned in our honor, and we cried. A pharmacology professor told his morning students, "Regardless of how you feel about religion, I ask your indulgence," then led them in impromptu prayer, and that made us cry, too.

The university had planned a noon memorial service, so we went to our rooms and rolled our hair and put on our pantyhose and the drop-waist linen dresses and floral prints we usually wore to church. A subdued silence had fallen. Twenty-four hours earlier we'd been talking and laughing on Highway 6; we thought the sun would always shine on our lives. Now we were driving across campus in a somber caravan of burning headlights. I remember a student standing on the sidewalk holding her books with one arm. In the instant that we passed, I saw her suddenly realize who we were; her mouth dropped open, and her free hand reflexively went to her heart.

We filed into the coliseum holding hands. Seeing the 3,000 people assembled there—a third of the Ole Miss student body plus faculty, townspeople, parents, clergy, the chancellor, the governor, our adorable houseboys in their Sunday suits—some of us cried until we could hardly breathe. And others, like me, stayed dry eyed and numb.

Next: The wreck's lasting effects on the Chi Omega women, 25 years later

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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