STEVENSON, Ala. - Long after we leave this life, there are reminders of the journey we shared with our friends and family. It’s a way for us to hold onto the past in the present.
More than 20 years after TWA flight 800 exploded and crashed off the Long Island coast killing 230 people on board, the loss of life can still be seen and felt in Stevenson. John Graham’s sister was among those who died. “In a lot of ways, they're very present with us,” he said.
John drives by the Michael Scott Learning Center and a memorial in downtown Stevenson several times a day. His sister, Brenda Privette, and her son Tom Weatherby died along with Mike Scott, his wife Barbara and their son Joe. They were on their way to Europe.
The five are gone but not forgotten. “Well, that's probably a good way to put it,” John said. “I feel like they’re ever present with us even though they're very much gone from our sight.”
Stevenson remembered the five last July and honored their memory with a wreath at the downtown memorial. “It was made from hydrangeas, magnolia leaves and mountain fern,” John told me. Some of the flowers came from a hydrangea bush still growing in the back yard of where the Scott family lived. John smiled and said, “It always blooms and it's beautiful.” Mike and Joe gave the plant to Barbara for Mother’s Day two years before the crash. “That made it all the more special,” said John.
The magnolia leaves came from a tree in McMahan’s Cove where John and his sister were raised. “I cut the magnolia from there,” John told us. “And then I went out into the woods in McMahan's Cove and I cut the mountain fern there.”
It was important to John to have that connection to the past, the present and the future. “It’s representative of the places Brenda and I grew up,” he said. “The place where Barbara and Mike and Joe lived and the place where Tom was growing up as well in McMahan's Cove so it’s really special to have that connection.”
John shared the story of the wreath with those who attended the gathering in Stevenson last summer. But he shared something else with us he’s never told anyone before. There's a jar of sand on the mantle at John's home. It came from a memorial service 20 years ago on the shore of Long Island. Next to it is a little blue Tiffany’s box from a trip he and his wife made to Paris in 2000.
“I took some dirt from the farm out in McMahan's Cove and left it under the Eiffel Tower,” he said. “And I brought back that gravel.” While that may sound a little strange to some, John told us, “I wanted to complete my sister’s trip for her at least in some small way, some tangible but spiritual way. On another trip to Europe, John went to the Scottish highlands. He didn't walk the West Highlands trail head but says by going there, he felt like he completed the boys' part of the trip as well.
After the memorial service, John’s wife talked him into bringing the wreath back to their home rather than just throwing it away. The flowers, leaves and ferns have died and are now dry and brown. But in its own way, the wreath hanging on a side porch of the Graham home is just as beautiful now as the day it was created.