Indiana woman's message in a bottle connects grieving families

Gail and her granddaughter (left) and the message in a bottle (right). (Hanna McMurray)

HAGERSTOWN, Ind. (WTHR) — Many of us are fascinated by "message in a bottle" stories.

The idea of launching something special and secret into a vast ocean, with the chance that a stranger far away might find it, appeals to our sense of wonder.

One of those stories has a Hoosier connection, starting with a woman in Hagerstown who was drawn to the ocean to honor her mom.

“She was a force of nature, she really was.”

And it ended with families lost in grief, who found comfort through that bottled up note near the beach.

It's fitting that the ocean is what finally helped Hanna McMurray navigate life without her mom, Gail.

Hers was a beach soul.

"She was a force of nature, she really was," Hanna said.

But Hanna never expected personal memories sent out to sea would find strangers who needed healing too.

"When we opened it, that's the first thing that we said. Anybody on that beach could have found it," Kristin Scholefield said.

The journey begins

Hannah in Florida as a child. (Hanna McMurray)

Outspoken and adventurous, for years mom and daughter traveled the coast together.

"She had what I called a magic bus. It was a red Volkswagen VW bus and that's what we moved to Florida in," Hanna said. "It was just her and I. My father was killed when I was 19 months old. So it was just me and mom."

When Hanna eventually settled in Indiana, Gail stayed by the ocean working at a fishing pier in Virginia Beach.

"And she knew everything," Hanna said. "They would call mom for everything: what are the waves looking like? What's biting? You know, how many more hours do we have on this run of such and such."

Bottling memories

In the summer of 2018, Hanna's world took a sudden shift, with a phone call from the maintenance man at her mom's cottage.

"He said 'Hanna, I just found your mom,'" she said. "He goes, 'you need to get here.'"

The bottle Hannah made for her mother Gail. (Hanna McMurray)

Gail had suffered a stroke.

Hanna, a registered nurse, became her caretaker 24/7 until Gail passed away in January 2019.

For months afterward, she said the heartache was nonstop.

"I just still, still couldn't talk about her without crying, which told me I wasn't ok," Hanna said. "I knew at that point, I had to do something to at least start the process of closure."

But that all changed with inspiration from a film.

"I heard two words: 'Dear Catherine'," Hanna said. "I was like there it is. Love the book. Love the movie. That's what we're doing for Gail! We're gonna do a memory in a bottle. So I put a picture, her obituary and a little bit of information, my contact information. Swam it out there, you know, and said'happy adventures'! I was going to be ok because you know, she's just going to continue on this journey."

It was one last trip launched near Gail's pier.

For the first time in a long time, Hanna said she felt closure.

'We found your mom's bottle'

A few days later, Hanna got a text message.

"Nine days later I got it," Hanna said. "Saying 'hey! we found your mom's bottle!' And I'm getting pictures and they're like, 'our daughter found it and how awesome is this' and I was stunned."

Lilli Scholefield and he family found the bottle in North Carolina. (Kristin Scholefield)

Lilli Scholefield is the one who found the bottle.

"She said she saw this bottle floating and everybody looked at it but was scared to touch it," said Lilli's mom, Kristin.

"I got it. I was like this is gonna be like from a pirate," Lilli recalled with a laugh, "and I picked it up and ran to mom with it."

Gail's bottle traveled 59 miles from Virginia Beach to the Outer Banks in North Carolina and found a vacationing family...from Virginia Beach.

The Scholefields live, work and play right near the fishing pier Gail so loved.

But that wasn't the only bond created by that bottle.

There was a bit of fate in those waves, carrying this message to a family who truly needed to find it.

"I mean right away once we saw it, it's gonna make me cry but right away we thought about Kate," Kristin said, tears spilling onto her cheeks. "We knew we now wanted to do it for her."

It turns out, the Scholefields were in mourning too.

They'd lost a dear friend, Kate Nixon, in the mass shooting that took place at the Virginia Beach municipal building in May.

A disgruntled employee killed 12 people, including Kate, an engineer and mother of three.

Kate Nixon

"We actually were with her kids that night and were with them when they got told the next morning," Kristin said.

Discovering hope

Just like Hanna, this family's grief was overwhelming.

But the message in a bottle carried hope.

"They were like, 'we were so meant to find her'. This was all supposed to happen," Hanna said. "Them finding that bottle gave them the idea to do a bottle for their friend to give them peace and closure."

“This was all supposed to happen.”

"It's just really cool how the whole thing came around," Kristin said.

Now, the Scholefields plan to take Kate on an adventure, with a message in the ocean.

"Hopefully we can put something inspiring in there and let Kate live on and then hopefully whoever finds it will do the same thing," Kristin said.

"Instead of, you know, having sad tears, I get happy tears because I'm thinking, 'how cool is this," Hanna said. "It's about the memories. It's created memories for me, memories for these other families and it keeps it going!"

In fact, two other families have since found Gail's bottle.

The most recent, a family from Buffalo, New York, even re-launched the message in Cabo, since Hanna's mom always wanted to travel to the tropics.

Her next journey has just begun.