'I Still Have Hope'
10/15/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
With movers due in two days, Beth Holloway stepped into her daughter's bedroom, untouched since Natalee left Mountain Brook, Ala., on the May 2005 senior class trip to Aruba from which she would never return. It had been Natalee's sanctuary, and as Beth began packing it up last Jan. 3, a closet shelf yielded a discovery: poems and classroom essays in Natalee's hand. Here were her thoughts on heaven, dreams, desires—and a piece on "the three most influential people in history," whom Wizard of Oz fan Natalee, then 14, had decided were Jesus Christ, Christopher Columbus ... and Judy Garland. "It just knocked me out of my shoes," says Beth, laughing. "I had to call somebody. I had to call lots of people, actually!"
That moment of delight is a measure of the healing that, ever so slowly, is transforming this devastated mother's life into something almost bearable. Twenty-nine months after Natalee disappeared, in a case that made international headlines, there are still no answers. With the lack of criminal charges freeing all prior suspects, the investigation has stalled. But Beth Holloway is moving on. Separated from second husband George Twitty since last December, she has a new home in the neighboring Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Homewood. She has written a memoir, Loving Natalee, that tracks her failed search and the long journey to acceptance that followed. And she has found love—with, of all people, a man also thrust into the spotlight by his daughter's tragic fate, JonBenét Ramsey's widowed father, John (see box). "We share the same philosophy," Beth explains. "We like positive thoughts and strong people."
Which explains how she's come this far. "There's nothing in Aruba I would change as far as what I did," she says. "I don't have a stone that I didn't turn over." Her spiritual foundation (raised a Methodist, she now attends services at a variety of churches) grew along with her resolve. "I didn't know I could stand so firmly on my faith until it was put to the test." Learning through Natalee's writings that her daughter's faith was equally solid is "what every parent needs to feel peace and comfort," she says. "Of course I knew her. But I didn't know how she was thinking about life, love, emotions. I never imagined learning more about my daughter than I already knew."
Natalee's unfulfilled goals add poignancy to the message Beth now shares. Since launching the International Safe Travels Foundation, the former teacher of special needs children has relayed practical tips to 15,000 students in 20 states: Develop a buddy system. Activate international calling on cell phones to ring for help if needed. Don't tell strangers when your trip will end. The platform "lets me vent my frustrations and also feel like I'm being proactive," she says. "You just want to prevent another family from going through the same experience."
The pain remains—as does the anger. Writing her memoir forced her to relive it all, starting with the call on May 30, 2005, that Natalee had failed to join classmates for the flight home after leaving an Aruban bar early that morning with three young men. Of those young men, Beth writes, "we all know they lied. But what they don't know is that I'm willing to wait out all of their lies.... I have the rest of my life to find out what happened to Natalee."
Since her return from the island four months after Natalee's disappearance, family holidays have been spent dodging the past. "We sat in Canada for nine days last Christmas looking at each other," she says. "But I'm actually thinking of having Christmas here this year. It just takes time."
Son Matt, 19, now a freshman at Delta State University, did not take a senior trip—but did visit Puerto Rico over spring break (and "understood completely," Beth says, when she gave him a safety lecture). The two have drawn closer "because it is just he and I," says Beth. While Natalee's disappearance added to the strain on her marriage to Twitty, a manager for a metal-sales company (Natalee's dad, Dave Holloway, is an insurance agent in Meridian, Miss., who joined the search in Aruba), it wasn't the deciding factor in her divorce. "We were having some difficulties," she says, "long before Natalee disappeared."
In the light-filled new home Beth has created for herself, there is no bedroom for Natalee, yet she is hard to miss. Her portrait hangs in the living room; the armoire from her room holds the TV. In the office off Beth's bedroom is Natalee's daybed, along with her chair—in her favorite purple—and a lamp shade monogrammed with her initials. A purple cabinet contains the teen's treasured Oz figurines. "I didn't want a shrine or memorial," Beth says. "She's kind of everywhere."
A hope chest at the foot of Beth's bed holds Natalee's snapshots and fleece jacket. It's also where Beth safeguards Natalee's writings, including this on heroes: "He or she is very selfless and cares about the well-being of others. Heroes ... remain strong through tough times." Marvels Beth: "It's almost as if she was placing herself now, thanking everyone for everything that they have done." But not her mom, who insists she's no hero. "I'm supposed to be Natalee's ultimate protector," she says. "That's what mothers do."
Something else this one does: await the phone call that still might bring an answer. "I don't ever feel that it couldn't surface out of the blue just as it did that day." So she keeps her passport with her—and alongside it, Natalee's. "Just in case," Beth says.