Lackawanna native Renee A. May loved kids.
She loved giving art tours to children as a docent at Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. She loved playing with her young cousins in Orchard Park and Hamburg. And her Baltimore home became a mecca for neighborhood children.
Her loved ones, including her grandfather and two sets of aunts and uncles in Western New York, never will know exactly how she spent her last minutes as a flight attendant aboard Flight 77, before it crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
But they can make a pretty good guess.
"If there were any children up there that she needed to take under her wing or comfort, we're sure that that's what she would have been doing," said her aunt, Marjorie Mantione of Orchard Park.
Renee May, 39, grew up in Lackawanna and then Springville, before leaving Western New York with her family just before her teenage years.
She was baptized in Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, the same shrine where local family members and friends will say goodbye during a memorial service at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Loved ones will remember May as a free spirit, a young girl who discovered her artistic soul while collecting colorful fall leaves for a school project in Western New York some 30 years ago. They'll remember her passion for art, her yearning to explore different cultures, her desire to pursue a career in the art world, her plans to marry and start a family.
And they'll try to dwell on her well-rounded life, not on her violent death.
"The world lost a beautiful person," her fiance, David Spivock, said in a telephone interview this week. "Just like she led the children on the tours, she was also a tour guide to us in life. She was just so alive."
Her uncle, Andrew Mantione, Marjorie's husband, called May a free spirit.
"Renee really had a unique perspective on the world," he said. "She wasn't so concerned with convention as she was with being happy and making sure everyone around her was happy."
May wouldn't hesitate to fly to Buffalo to attend a young cousin's ballet performance. At the Baltimore art museum, she specialized in children's tours and started "touch tours" for blind children, so they could touch the paintings and feel their texture.
"She had a sweet little voice and a big smile, and children were drawn to that," Spivock said.
Following her death, her family discovered that her 150-year-old row house along Baltimore's Inner Harbor had become a photo gallery of her young cousins, as she proudly displayed almost yearly photos of Melissa and Andreas Mantione, Dustin and Devin Kielbiewicz.
"Her whole house was covered with pictures of people's kids," Spivock said.
Unlike several Western New York families waiting for word about their missing loved ones shortly after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, May's family knew she was aboard Flight 77.
May reportedly called her parents, Nancy and Ron, at about 9:10 a.m. that day (6:10 Las Vegas time) to say her plane had been hijacked and to ask them to call American Airlines, according to published reports.
The family has tried to keep that conversation private. Out of respect for her parents, Spivock wouldn't even confirm that May made the call.
May honed her passion for art as a teenager in Southern California, finding art on its sandy beaches and in its Pacific waters. She earned a degree in English literature from San Diego State University, before becoming an American Airlines flight attendant in 1986.
Before she died, May wanted to find a job in an art museum.
"Fifteen years of (flying) had taken its toll," Spivock said. "We wanted to get married and start a family."
Her wings allowed her to spend extended periods of time in Korea, Europe, South America, Canada and the Caribbean.
"My profession affords me an an opportunity that many people only dream about," she wrote in an essay. "That is, the ability to visit and to also physically, emotionally and intellectually explore a variety of cultures."
For some family members, Saturday's memorial service in the basilica will be the third one for May, following one in Baltimore and the memorial service at the Pentagon.
While Spivock chooses to dwell on the positive memories, he admitted that May's death has left him reeling.
"I feel dead," he said. "A piece of me is gone, too."
Local survivors include her grandfather, Frank May of Orchard Park, and two sets of aunts and uncles, the Mantiones and Ronald and Margaret Kielbiewicz of Hamburg.