Remembering Two Victims of 9/11
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center September 11, Scott Wahlstrom didn’t know his mother and sister were on the plane. Mary Alice Wahlstrom, 78, and her daughter, Carolyn Beug, 48, had been in Providence delivering the latter’s twin daughters, both fine artists, to begin a year of school at the Rhode Island School of Design. By the time, Scott, at work, heard about the terror attacks, he assumed his mother and sister were long away from the East coast, “flying over Indiana by this time. They had flown out of Boston and that isn’t the same flight path as New York,” he said.
This was before all of us knew how planes could be diverted from their paths and transformed into weapons of mass destruction, before the loss of innocence initiated by 9/11 that both rallied our souls and rendered life less secure.
“At an early stage, I had a difficult time connecting the dots,” he said. As a vice-president of human resources at Wabtec in Pittsburgh, instead he was concerned about tracking down the employees, and his boss was in Montreal trying to come back across the border.
But as the events of the morning begin to unfold, “I could see there was a good chance my mother and sister could be on that flight. You kind of have a gut feel.” He called the travel agent who had booked their flights and learned that they had been on American Airlines, and, with a sinking feeling, he went home to call a number on the help line.
Scott said, “The voice on the other end of the phone asked my Mom’s and sister’s names, and when I told them they said, ‘I’m terribly sorry. It looks like they were on that flight. Sir, are you by yourself? Is there someone who can come to your house?'” Scott answered, “My wife should be here any moment.
Scott doesn’t know how anyone found out so soon, but within two minutes the phone rang, and it was someone from his ward-and the outpouring began-a steady stream of friends and well-wishers who came to give their love.
Still, the loss is devastating, not only because it is a tragic event, but because it is also a public event, whose reminders are ever present. It is hard to go on amidst the general 9/11 consciousness that has permeated the country. The nation’s loss is Scott’s personal loss, but the grief has been particularly hard on Norman Wahlstrom, Sr. who has had some incapacitating illnesses. Scott said, “Not only did he lose his wife of 52 years, but his only daughter, and Mom had been his constant caretaker.” Sometimes, he still calls out for Mary Alice, in a voice hoping for an answer that will never come.
The media has portrayed Mary Alice Wahlstrom as a white-knuckled flier, anxious to return home from her Rhode Island trip. Scot says that’s not entirely accurate, as her husband, Norman, was an Air Force pilot who stared death in the face many times, and flying was not unusual for her. With his career in the Air Force, they had lived all over the world, and she was a seasoned traveler who had looked keenly forward to this trip with her daughter. “Her only worry,” Scott said, “was leaving Dad because theirs is a love story. They were devoted to each other.
Scott and his brother Norman remember their mother for her endless liveliness and vivacity. She was 78, but nobody would ever know it. Her response on their telephone answering machine captured her energy and love. She couldn’t record her greeting without bursting into uncontrollable laughter. She wanted to erase it, but the family wouldn’t let her.
Scott said, “She was so full of life, so fun to be around, so pleasant to talk to. She was a conversation starter and could talk to you about anything. She loved people and I never heard her speak ill of anyone.” For the last several years, she had been an usher on Temple Square. Assignments rotated so that sometimes she was assigned to a door and sometimes her job was to mingle. “She loved the mingling assignment, because she loved people,” Scott said.
“I can’t think of anybody who would be an enemy to my Mom.”
When Norm, a doctor in Salt Lake, wants to have a special time to think about his Mom, he either sits down to the piano, which she played so well, or goes to the Tabernacle. “I think of her mingling with the people. I loved to see her ‘work the crowds’ because she would be just glowing because of the people she met.”
“The last moment I remember of my Mom,” said Scott, “was a year ago this weekend. We were back West visiting my Mom and Dad, and we traveled up to Idaho Falls where a friend from our ward was getting married in the temple. When we got up there, Mom realized that she hadn’t brought any dress clothes to go to the temple. My wife and I went to Target the night before to buy her a skirt, and she just loved it. It’s been one of the memories that has helped me through this time, because the next day we were in the temple together and I saw her in the celestial room. That’s how I remember her. .
According to Scott, his sister, Carolyn, who was a filmmaker from California, was striking, beautiful and self-assured. He said, “She was the kind of person who walked into the room and everyone would stop and look at her because she carried so much presence. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get there. She was different than my Mom, not as easy-going. It would be hard to take a back seat to Carolyn. She was a great mom with three beautiful kids. She could do anything, she really could. She dressed well, she looked good, she wrote well, she was a good artist. She was very witty and very intelligent.
“I always liked to go to Carolyn for advice. She was practical and I miss that.
“Carolyn was a great lady,” Scott said, “very first class. In fact, they were sitting in first class, and I don’t like to think about the last 15 minutes of their lives because a passenger was killed there.
Losing My Best Friend
“Losing my Mom was like losing my best friend. I used to talk to Mom and Dad every day on the phone even though I live thousands of miles away.
“My Mom used to talk about her Mom. ‘When your Grandma died, she was writing a letter to her brother. She just put her head down and fell asleep.’ Mom used to say, ‘That’s how I want to die.’ In some respects, that’s how it happened.”
With loved ones taken in a vicious assault, it would seem there is room for anger or resentment, frustration that mounted with the day as each new revelation comes forth about the terrorists’ hatred and intent.
It’s not so for either Scott of Norman.
Scott said, “My first counselor was one of the first to come to see us. He asked me if I wanted a blessing and I said yes. Though I can’t remember what the blessing said, I do remember this contentment that I felt and I still feel today. There’s a tremendous void, but I haven’t felt any kind of bitterness or anger about what’s happened. Those feelings have not been part of my makeup and I attribute that to the Savior’s love and how he’s touched our family’s hearts. I hope I continue to feel this through the years.
“My mother lived just a couple of houses from us,” said Norm. “My children interacted with her on a daily basis. Rather than continue to grieve, you have to step up and try to replace her loss with something that’s positive. There’s rarely a day that goes by that we don’t refer to Grandma. There has been a lot of happiness still relived. Her memory continues to bless us.
“The New York Times compiled vignettes of all the victims and put it together in a book,” said Norm. “At first I didn’t know if I wanted to see it, but when I looked at all the faces, I saw the goodness there is in the world. Sometimes we go through a crowd and we see all of the strange faces, and all the strangeness makes us withdraw into ourselves because we are afraid. But you look at these people and think every victim had people who loved them. Sometimes we look at strangers and we think that evil lurks behind each face. It would be nice if we could turn that around and see all the inherent good in the faces. There is more inherent good than evil. I haven’t become more distrustful of the world. My Mom was always very positive and always saw the good, so if I’m going to be a good grandfather-and we just had our first in February–I have to remain positive and look for the good in everybody. We have had a great example in my mother.
Time’s a funny thing, a strange thing for all of us who wear mortality like an odd-fitting suit of clothes that we can’t quite get into to. Scott said, “Sometimes I think September. 11 was a long time ago, and sometimes I think it was just last week. You can’t prepare for something like this. How fragile life this and sometimes unfair life, but it is part of the bargain we made. I know Mom and Carolyn are OK.
Still, Scott made a hole-in-one this summer, and one of his first thoughts was that he wanted to tell his mother.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.