At first, she thought it was a hoax. Some radio drama about a plane flying into a skyscraper.
Elyse Van Breemen had papers to file that September morning, reports to write at the public relations firm in Clearwater where she worked. She couldn’t afford to get distracted. So she turned off the radio.
She didn’t know terrorists had hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston and piloted it into New York’s World Trade Center.
She didn’t know her sister was on that plane.
As kids, growing up in Elgin, Ill., they had been close. Elyse had an older brother and kept begging for a baby sister. After Myra was born, Elyse took care of her like a living doll. She pushed her around in a stroller, pointing out trees and birds, teaching her words for the world.
Myra was late to talk, said Elyse, now 80. But she had a glint in her eye “that told you she knew what was going on.”
Elyse left for college when Myra was 9 and never lived with her again. Elyse moved to New York, the Midwest, then Florida. She got married. Myra moved to France, then Boston. They didn’t reunite for holidays or birthdays. They had busy lives, and mostly lost touch.
So after 9/11, after Elyse learned that Myra Joy Aronson had died on that plane, she set out to piece together the life of a woman she had only known as a girl.
“I was in a state of shock,” Elyse said. “What can I do?”
She started calling relatives, tracking down Myra’s co-workers. They led her to friends from the gym, the Boston Ballet, a food co-op, to theatergoers, lovers of French food, beach buddies.
Elyse, who writes and performs children’s stories, compiled their memories into a 24-page booklet: Remembering Myra. She printed 125 copies and passed them out at the memorial service. She saved one for herself.
Last week, in her Clearwater cottage, she thumbed through those pages for the first time in years, pausing at photos of her sister smiling in the surf, hugging a dog in a hammock, sipping wine at a wedding. She read stories about Myra helping people write resumes, sneaking her niece into a Grace Jones concert, holding a friend’s hand through the movie Schindler’s List.
After 20 years, Elyse said, “I still get such a warm feeling going through this book.”
She wrote the first three pages, Myra’s basic bio: high school in St. Louis, Mo., oboe in youth orchestra, college at Miami University of Ohio, graduate school at Boston University. Editorial consultant for the Boston Shakespeare Company. Contributor to the 1970 women’s reproductive health book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Myra never got married, never had kids. Her friends became her family.
“She danced at our wedding, was there when my sons were born and was here last Sunday to bring us herbs from her roof garden,” one friend wrote.
“My late-night buddy, always up for the second set at some jazz show or club,” wrote another.
“When the evening stars came out, we talked softly about nothing in particular,” someone else remembered. “The lightning bugs, whether to have orange Popsicles or red, the little nothings and blessings that make life lovely and cherished.”
A man named Mark described his first date with Myra: “Going to the Aqua Retreat Center, being locked in separate rooms, and floating naked in warm salt water in a very large, egg-shaped, sensory deprivation pod for an hour. We then went out to a sushi dinner afterwards. It was, for me, the most unusual date I ever went on.”
Friends described her as “the size and speed of a whippet.”
“Like a willow tree, graceful in every way, yet firmly rooted and solid.”
“Fearless, spirited, strong and spunky.”
Elyse learned that in college, her sister had been hauled out of the ROTC building by two policemen. Who knows why? She did aerobics at the gym almost every day. She’d loved fancy cheeses, French wines, a shot of Irish whiskey in her coffee.
She took long walks through Boston blizzards. Made everyone do the bunny-hop at weddings. Enjoyed cooking Gallic feasts, throwing lavish dinner parties. When a friend went into anaphylactic shock, she called an ambulance. “Her level headedness and love saved my life,” the friend recalled.
Elyse discovered that her sister had worked in public relations, just like her. That she’d thrown herself a giant party the year before, when she turned 50. That she’d been a manager at Compuware in Cambridge, Mass., on her way to a business conference in California, when five men ambushed her plane.
“I wonder what she said to those hijackers,” Elyse wrote in the booklet.
Elyse said she treasured the chance to see who Myra became, to know how full her life was, how much she was loved.
Sept. 11, 2001, robbed her of her sense of security, she said. And of a future with Myra. But it led her to finally know her sister.