Five Years Later
NH tornado victim's legacy is many cherished memories
Kate Kalil will walk out on a jetty over the Pacific Ocean on Wednesday and drop a single flower into the sea.
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.
It's the family's way of remembering Brenda Stevens, who was killed when a tornado demolished her Deerfield home on July 24, 2008.
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
She was killed instantly, family members said, but emergency responders found her husband's 3-month-old grandson, whom Stevens had been rocking when the tornado hit, alive in the wreckage.
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.
Kalil grew up in Rye; these days she makes her home in Carlsbad, Calif., where she is the CEO of an e-commerce import business. She had moved to California in the spring of 2008, Kalil recalled in a telephone interview.
That July morning, she was taking a run on the beach; when she got back to her car and checked her cellphone, "I had about 25 missed phone calls."
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."
She reached a cousin and her mother's neighbor. "They were just hysterically screaming, saying, 'There was a tornado and she's dead, she's dead.'?"
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."
Her mother was "the epitome of a woman," Kalil said.
"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."
Brenda had a flair for fashion and "always looked like a million bucks," Kalil recalled.
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."
Janet Densmore of Kingston is the older of Stevens' two sisters. Brenda, she said, was fun-loving and funny. "She would help anybody at the drop of a hat."
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.
After one hectic holiday dinner, when the three women had spent the day cooking and cleaning up, Densmore had an inspiration that would become a cherished tradition: Once a year, the three sisters would take off by themselves. "No men, no kids, no cooking, nothing," she recalled.
"We did it for 20 years."
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.
Dunne, who lives in Berwick, Maine, said her big sister Brenda was "always there for anybody that needed anything, whether it was a good ear or a laugh."
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."
Now, she said, "It's just like a piece of us is just gone. And nobody could ever fill that."
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.
But Dunne said she can't make sense of why her sister wasn't spared. "For some reason, Brenda's house was in the line of death that day," she said. "I don't know why it had to take her. Maybe she's got a bigger purpose someplace else."
Losing her mother was devastating, Kalil said; she relied on her family and close friends to get through those first difficult years.
"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."
She thinks about what her mom would want for her, she said. "You have to reverse the roles. If you died, would you have wanted her to sit there and cry every day the rest of her life? You'd want her to find peace and happiness and perspective."
So, Kalil said, she tries to live her life with joy and purpose. She runs her company, spends time at the beach, cherishes her loved ones.
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 ..."
Kalil calls herself spiritual but not religious. She sometimes jokes about her mom being up in heaven, having a cocktail.
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."
And she feels her mom is all around her still. "I honestly think when someone as vibrant and powerful as she was dies, they are spread beyond the greater landscape of the universe. You can't really see or imagine what that is, but it's something powerful."
Dunne, too, senses her sister nearby at times. She keeps a photo of Brenda in her car and said ever since the tragedy, "I light a tealight candle by her picture every evening when I'm home."
"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.
"Not everybody gets to say that."