Tears, Hymns for a Kind Girl With a Competitive Spirit

Celeste Peterson hugs Kum Suk Song, who came to the viewing of Peterson's daughter, Erin, to express her condolences.
Celeste Peterson hugs Kum Suk Song, who came to the viewing of Peterson's daughter, Erin, to express her condolences. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Before Erin Peterson's Centreville home became a center of mourning, it was a pizza house, study hall, movie theater, classroom and sanctuary, a place where a teenage girl learned to be a young woman and two parents delighted in helping their baby get ready for the world.

Members of the Westfield High School basketball team, who wanted to bring dinner and some solace, dreaded walking into that space without Erin there.

"Her parents were like her life," said Josephine McLane, a close friend and teammate. "Everyone on our team thought it was going to be so bad seeing her mom."

But then Celeste Peterson did what she has been doing, some nights until midnight, since Erin, a freshman international studies major at Virginia Tech, was killed: She began supporting all the supporters.

"She was like, 'What are you guys waiting for? Eat,' " said McLane, whom Erin had dubbed Robin to her own Batman. "She was trying to make everybody else feel better around her. . . . She was crying a couple times, but she was just telling stories about Erin."

"Just looking at her, you could see Erin in her," McLane said. "She was full of life, too."

Celeste Peterson's memorial to her daughter, that evening at home and yesterday with hundreds of mourners who filled and surrounded Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville, has been, for now, to keep being a mother. She doesn't know how else to make it. Yesterday, she stood outside for more than an hour hugging and talking with those walking in to see the open casket, which was placed before a hanging blue tapestry with two outstretched hands.

Erin was buried later in the day at Rock Hill Cemetery near Round Hill, where her grandfather is the caretaker.

"I just want to scream to the top of my lungs, 'The world is not as good without her.' I know a lot of parents lost their kids, and they are probably feeling the same way. But this kid, I'm just, I'm just shock and awe, that's all. I mean, shock and awe," Celeste Peterson said Monday. "She had such a kind and nurturing spirit. She was something. She was something."

Erin was both a tough competitor and a generous presence. She and McLane at times ripped each other's jerseys in practice, vying for a starting spot on the team, but they were inseparable once they cooled down.

As a sophomore, she tutored a senior in algebra without any embarrassing fanfare, her mother learned a few days ago.

"She was a true Bulldog on the court," said Westfield Principal Tim Thomas. Off, "she was gentle, and she was sweet. . . . I have an answer to the question, 'Mr. Thomas, what's a model student?' My answer consists of three words. Erin Nicole Peterson."

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