Five Years Later
NH tornado victim's legacy is many cherished memories
Brenda Semprini Stevens, far right, who was killed when a tornado struck her Deerfield hom on July 24, 2008, is seen with her sisters Janet Densmore, left, and Laurie Dunne in 2004. The three sisters took a trip together each year. (Courtesy)
This is a state police supplied photo of destruction to a Deerfield home on Northwood Lake after a tornado hit on July 24, 2008. Brenda Semprini Stevens, 57, was killed when the violent storm destroyed her home, but an infant boy she was rocking at the time was found alive in the wreckage. The structure at the top is a garage that was moved off its foundation, at bottom left. (AP Photo/NH State Police)
At the same time, here on the East Coast, her two aunts plan to toss hydrangeas into Northwood Lake and offer a toast to a woman who loved to laugh and knew how to make others feel loved.
Stevens was the only fatality from the sudden storm, which cut a 50-mile swath of destruction across the state that summer afternoon, the longest tornado path in New England recorded history.
View Towns hit by the July 24, 2008, tornado in a larger map
Stevens, who was 57, had two daughters from a previous marriage, Kalil and Lisa Semprini of Maine, two sisters and countless friends. She worked for the city of Portsmouth for many years as an administrative assistant, ran a bingo hall and owned a small shop.
Her mother's neighbor, best friend and some of her cousins had all been trying to reach her. "I knew that it was my mom, and I just had a feeling, from the franticness, that something had happened to her," Kalil said. "I just knew in my heart that that's what it was."
There was not enough room in Portsmouth's North Congregational Church to hold all the mourners at her mom's funeral, Kalil said. "She had such an impact."
"When I grew up, there was literally never a night she didn't rub my back until I fell asleep. I never remember once getting home and her not being there. We had dinner together every single night."
In their teenage years, their mom became the confidante not only for her own two girls but also for their friends, Kalil said. "She was the one they went to about all the girl stuff."
The three girls had grown up in Skowhegan, Maine, and were always "extremely close," Densmore said. They all ended up in New Hampshire as adults.
Those are "priceless" memories now, captured in photographs that still make her laugh, Densmore said. "We can remember every moment, every laugh."
And that's how she and her sister, Laurie Dunne, will remember Brenda on Wednesday, as they have every anniversary of the tragedy: Sharing a cocktail and a laugh in her honor.
She was 10 years younger than Brenda, but the three were as close as sisters coud be, she said. "We were the Three Stooges. We enjoyed each other's company immensely."
Losing her sister the way she did still seems "surreal," Dunne said. She is convinced that Stevens' final actions spared the baby she was rocking in a chair beside the fireplace. "I believe she definitely saved his life by holding on so tight that day," she said.
"I didn't try to hide my pain. You can't walk around some things; you have to walk through them."Still, the timeworn cliche is true, Kalil said: "Time truly does heal."
And she remembers her mom with a flower on her birthday, Mother's Day and the anniversary of her death, a tradition she started that first, painful year. "Putting a flower in the ocean, it was like putting a little bit of love and pain out there, and letting go of it ..."
She's not really sure about the heaven part. But she said, "I do feel like to some degree when you lose people, they're sort of in the things around you."
"I was so blessed to have her as a sister and to have her part of my life as long as I did," Dunne said. "She knew a lot of people; she touched a lot of lives.
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