At funerals, loved ones celebrate Atlanta spa shooting victims’ lives

An emotional Hollis Wright gazes at the memorial-strewn front of the Gold Spa on Piedmont Avenue on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Atlanta. Wright regularly drives by the spa while taking her daughter to daycare. On this day she stopped to look at the flowers and read the notes left behind. The Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta are two of the three spas where eight people were killed by a gunman on March 16, 2021. Six of the eight victims were Asian women. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
An emotional Hollis Wright gazes at the memorial-strewn front of the Gold Spa on Piedmont Avenue on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Atlanta. Wright regularly drives by the spa while taking her daughter to daycare. On this day she stopped to look at the flowers and read the notes left behind. The Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa in Atlanta are two of the three spas where eight people were killed by a gunman on March 16, 2021. Six of the eight victims were Asian women. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

A beam of sunlight passed through the funeral home chapel window and landed on two brothers in the front row.

The men were saying goodbye to their mother, Yong Ae Yue, a 63-year-old Gwinnett County resident recalled for all the ways she told people she loved them. She would run to H-Mart grocery and then cook for them while clowning around. She would make sure everyone had their turn at karaoke before she sang. She would ask for help moving a 10-pound bag of cat litter, but really just wanted an excuse to see the helper.

Elliott Peterson, 42, noticed the column of sunlight on gloomy Friday morning. He realized it was fixed on Yue’s only two children. Peterson turned to whisper to his little brother, Robert, 38: “I don’t know, but I think my mom’s looking at us.”

Their mother is one of eight people — six of them women of Asian ancestry — killed in a gunman’s rampage on March 16 at spas in metro Atlanta. An hour after Yue’s memorial in Peachtree Corners, loved ones gathered for a service recalling Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49, in Marietta. Private services for Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, 33, and Hyun Jung Kim Grant, 51, also were held this week.

Mom, traveler and entrepreneur

A few dozen friends and relatives of Tan gathered at the Catholic Church of St. Ann. The service was closed, but the church streamed it live online.

Tan, who lived in Kennesaw, owned the Cherokee County spa where she died.

Loved ones said she was a petite and fierce mother of a recent University of Georgia grad, a “feminist without meaning to be,” and a lifelong Catholic whose father had a mission in China.

Her ex-husband, Michael Webb, who adopted Tan’s daughter, recalled meeting Tan in the southern Chinese city of Nanning. They married a year later, in 2004. They set off traveling the country, typically to small cities and villages.

Xiaojie “Emily” Tan was one of eight people — six of them women of Asian ancestry — killed on March 16, 2021, at metro Atlanta spas. (Courtesy of family)
Xiaojie “Emily” Tan was one of eight people — six of them women of Asian ancestry — killed on March 16, 2021, at metro Atlanta spas. (Courtesy of family)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“I would sometimes be required to wake up in the middle of the night and pack without knowing why so we could catch a train to our next destination,” Webb said.

In 2008, they moved to Georgia, where Tan took a job as a nail technician and doted on her only child.

Webb said Tan saved and bought a nail salon on Marietta Square. “Then a home. Then another home. Then owned two businesses. At this time, she bought her mother a new home in China.”

‘Why are you crying?’

In Peachtree Corners, mourners in black masks watched two large screens showing photos of Yue’s life. There she was with her grandkids, joyful. There she was with her youngest son on a beach with brilliant blue waves. There she was with pink cartoon ears, added as a gag with an app on her phone.

Mourners watched the slideshow in silence but for muffled sobs. A video came on. Dance music played in the background, and there was Yue. Was she dancing or hopping across the living room? Either way she was smiling.

Yong Ae Yue with her Shih Tzu mix, Iyong. (credit: Family photo)
Yong Ae Yue with her Shih Tzu mix, Iyong. (credit: Family photo)

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Brokenhearted people laughed.

“That’s my mother,” said Elliott Peterson.

He glanced toward a blown-up photo of Yue grinning with each hand raised in a sign: peace.

“That’s my mother,” the son said.

“Everybody,” he said, “my mom would say, ‘Why are you crying? Why are you crying?’ She’d be very appreciative that you’re taking care of her two boys.”

Mother and daughter

Tan’s daughter, Ying Tan “Jami” Webb, sat in the front row, wearing a mask against the coronavirus. Her mother was her only blood relative in America. In the church, the daughter was surrounded by people who loved her and her mother, and some who only wished they’d known her.

Tan took her daughter to Mass. They went to brunch together. They took trips. Tan was overjoyed when Jami graduated from UGA. The mom sent pictures to friends.

“Jami became a model student and daughter under her mother’s ever-watchful eye,” Michael Webb said, comparing his daughter’s thoughtfulness to his ex-wife’s. Before the funeral, he watched Jami shop for her mom’s final outfit, spending hours to find the right dress, shoes, jewelry and makeup. “(Jami) also insisted on buying three boxes of chocolates for the staff at the funeral home.”

Tan spent most of her time at her spa outside Acworth. She ate lunch and dinner in the back, usually vegetables and rice. She was saving money for retirement.

A framed photo at the altar showed Tan smiling with black hair running past her shoulders. She holds a birthday cake, candles lighting her face.

Tan, who dreamed of traveling the world, missed her 50th birthday by two days.

‘This tragic end’

Robert Peterson planned to speak at his mother Yue’s funeral but instead leaned over crying in the front pew.

Even as an adult, he brought friends over to his mom’s townhouse because they loved her cooking. She made dishes from Korea, where she was born and lived until the 1980s, when she moved to Fort Stewart in Georgia with her husband, a U.S. Army soldier, and little Elliott.

Elliott Peterson followed his dad’s path into the Army. He lives in Japan and didn’t get to see his mother much. But he retired from the service last year and came home to visit with his wife and kids.

“If God had a plan, he knew this tragic end,” the 42-year-old said, “but yet he wrote in two good weeks.”

His daughter, Cassidy, remembered a poker game that broke out during the visit at the kitchen table. Yue, who had also been cooking, joined the game with the grandkids and her son.

At the end, Yue lifted her arms in triumph. Cassidy Peterson lost $20.

Later her grandmother walked over and gave the money back.

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