Circle of Life

updated 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Alexa Smagala has the walking thing down pat. She's 16 months old now, and she's on to talking and making observations. One thing she likes to do is point at the photos of Stanley, the firefighter dad she never knew, in her Holbrook, N.Y., home. "Alexa's first word was Da-Da," says her proud mother, Dena, 33, whose husband died in the South Tower. "She even recognizes him in pictures in other people's homes. But I don't think she knows he's a person. She thinks he's just a picture."

Such bittersweet moments bind the estimated 100 women who were expecting babies when they lost their husbands in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. PEOPLE paid tribute to many of them in February 2002. Now, more than a year later, much has changed in their lives, starting with the babies, who are now toddlers. As they watch their children grow, the mothers, too, are finding their footing, feeling their way in a new world. Last month, in honor of Mother's Day, we gathered 44 moms for another series of portraits with their young ones. The reunion gave them a chance to share their stories of hope and hard work, of lingering grief and surprising discoveries. "Oddly, I've become a more joyful person," says Haven Fyfe, 32, mother of Jackson, 3, and Parker, almost "I realize how precious life is. On Christmas I made a toast: 'Here's to my husband. I live my days doubly for you.' " Says Dena Smagala: "In the beginning I thought, 'No way am I going to make it.' I didn't think I'd be as strong as I am. But I think I'm doing a heck of a job as a single mother."

Adjusting to that job has not been easy. "I went from two adults with one child to one adult with two children," says Mary Tselepis, 35, mother of Katie, 4, and Will, 19 months. "It's hard for me to learn the things I was never involved in—insurance, tax forms, oil changes." For Carolann Larsen, 36, the mother of four, including 19-month-old August, a frozen drainpipe was a harsh reminder of her loss. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I have to fix this,' " she says. "Before, it was, 'Go get Daddy.' "

Many still cannot think of dating. "My heart is open to my kids and nobody else," says Barbara Da Mota, 37, mother of two. Others are taking tentative steps toward a new life. Vycki Higley, 31, is seeing someone, though it took a while to break the news to her late husband's family. "My mother-in-law gave me her blessing," says Higley, the mother of two. "She understands we're all too young to go on without anybody."

For all these women, the children are a link with the men they loved—increasingly so, as small personalities blossom. Allison Lee, 19 months, "dances as soon as she hears music, and she's got moves," says her mother, Kellie, 34, whose husband played the drums. "She's got his talent." So many boys inherited their fathers' names: There is Daniel Jr. and Thomas Jr. and Little John, a firefighter's son. "I call him Little Man," says John Schardt's mother, Jeanette, 34, "because it's just too painful to say John."

The kids are proof that their fathers are not just photos in a frame—and that death does not have the last word. Not as long as children like Julianah Cooper, 14 months, keep growing. "She looks like my husband, she acts like him, and she's stubborn like he was," says her mother, Melinda Cooper. "I feel like I'm ready to move on to the next chapter, which is seeing my husband's legacy live on through her."

Alex Tresniowski and Christina Cheakalos
Diane Herbst, Caroline Howard, K.C. Baker, Vickie Bane, Hope Hamashige, Elizabeth McNeil, Jane Podesta, Debbie Seaman and Jennifer Wren

From Our Partners