A Box in the Attic

In 2010 I received a mysterious email with the subject header, “Searching Family Baltuck.”  The sender was Johan Lebichot.  For some reason, the name rang a bell, though the bell was rusty and had long been silent. It began…

Dear Madam,

My name is Johan Lebichot, 33 years old, and I am writing you from Belgium – Europe. Perhaps this name recalls something in your memory.  I am searching a family from Detroit who corresponded with my grandmother 60 years ago…If you are the right person, you are able to confirm this: Your parents are Harry and Eleanor Baltuck and your grandmother is Rose Baltuck…Your brothers and sisters are Lewis, William, Leonore, Debbie, Connie and Miriam…

No wonder his name seemed familiar!  Lebichot.  A missing piece of the puzzle I’d tried to put together over the years.   

I am sorting the contents of my grandmother and found a letter from Mrs Rose Baltuck, two pictures of your uncle Lewis Baltuck…

…his military grave…

…and six New Year cards coming from your parents during the year Fifties.

…made from pictures with their children, you, your brothers and sisters when you were young.

Your grandmother explains in her letter that during the war your father…

 …came into my grandmother’s flower shop to buy flowers for his little brother’s grave.

Johan went on to say his grandmother died in 2002 and her shop was sold, but he’d saved a box of old letters from the dust bin, transferring it from her attic to his.  Eight years later, while on paternity leave, Johan remembered the box. From its contents, he pieced together the frayed threads of a story binding together our two families all the way back to 1944.  It was the same story I’d heard from my grandmother’s lips.  

It all began when my father visited his brother Lewis’s grave in a temporary American Military Cemetery at Fosse-la-Ville, Belgium.

He tried to buy flowers at a shop owned by Madam Jeanne Lebichot, but locals were observing their own memorial services, and the flowers were all spoken for.  Already shattered by grief, my father broke down and wept, and so did the shopkeeper.   She told him her little daughter had been killed in an accident the same day his brother was killed on the Siegfried Line.  Jeanne Lebichot gave my father flowers, refusing payment, and adopted my uncle’s grave.   She sent my Grandma Rose sprays of flowers from the bouquets she left on Lewis’s grave.  Grief, gratitude, and mutual comfort blossomed into friendship.  Long after my uncle’s remains had come home to Detroit, they exchanged gifts and letters.  

Rose kept all of Jeanne’s letters, just as Jeanne kept Rose’s.  But Jeanne spoke no English, and Rose spoke no French. For twenty-one years my father wrote to Jeanne, and translated Jeanne’s letters for my Grandma Rose.  After his death in 1965, the women lost touch, and the story might’ve ended there, but for a box in Johan’s attic, and another one in mine.  

Since 2010, our families have become reacquainted.  We’ve exchanged gifts, stories, and letters, both old and new.  We’ve learned more about our own grandmothers from the letters they wrote to a stranger on the other side of the ocean.  A new generation of strangers has become friends.  And I’ve had the pleasure of watching the newest Lebichot grow up, albeit from across the ocean.  

Two weeks ago my sister Constance and I traveled to Liege.  For the first time in sixty-nine years, the Baltucks and the Lebichots met fact to face.  I was apprehensive.  My French is so rusty.  What if their English was too?  What if we couldn’t understand each other?  Worse yet, what if we met and didn’t even like each other? 

Johan and Anita generously took a day off from work to drive us to the site of the American Cemetery.  They picked us up outside our hotel, looking just like their photos.  And they spoke very good English!  We had an hour in the car to visit before we arrived at what used to be the temporary military cemetery.  

At the time we made our plans, it hadn’t registered that we’d be in Belgium on the 69th anniversary of my uncle’s death, but it gave me a little shiver to realize it.  The soldiers’ remains have long since been moved to permanent military cemeteries in France, or sent home to their wives and mothers.  The site had been assigned happier uses–a playground, gardens, home to windmills generating new energy.

But a plaque commemorates its history.  

“In proud memory of the 2199 American soldiers here buried with 96 Allied Brothers in Arms.  They gave their lives to set free our country in the fights of the fall 1944 and in the Battle of the Bulge.”

While in Fosse-la-Ville, we paid our respects at Jeanne’s grave.

We visited the flower shop.  Vacant and in disrepair, it holds tight to its stories, as fewer and fewer people remain who know them or even care.  Really, what difference should it make that seventy years ago my father’s footsteps echoed down that very street, or that the door of that shop swung open with a push from his hand?  Listen carefully, and hear no clue, not even a whisper of the sound of anguished tears spent long ago; only an autumn breeze whistling through a broken window pane.

At Johan’s childhood home in Fosse-la-Ville, I learned more about his early years, the next generation of his family stories, and my heart made room for them.

Chez Lebichot, Johan cracked open a bottle of champagne and shared photographs and letters.

For the first time I saw an image of Jeanne.  Constance and I wondered at the friendship between her and Rose, two such different women, with an ocean between,  who shared no common language, who had never even met.  It must be the same as with war veterans: only one who has endured the trauma of the battlefield can truly understand what another war veteran has suffered.  And only a grieving mother could comprehend the pain of another who has lost a child. 

Was it coincidence that  Johan and I had both held onto our box in the attic?  Or that we cared enough to piece together the story and patch together a decades-old friendship?  I don’t think so.  Both our childhoods were difficult, both families fractured, and we both know what it feels like to be orphaned.

People  can shut themselves off from further attachment–and potential pain.  Or they can stay open to new beginnings–and potential joy.  For me, it’s a constant struggle.  This time, I choose to focus on life over death, I choose to mend rather than toss, I prefer an open hand to a closed fist, and I choose to give myself the gift of a happy ending.

Please, could you confirm that you are (or not) a member of this family I am searching ?

Kind Regards

Johan Lebichot

 

Yes, Johan, I can confirm that this is the family we were both searching for.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck

Remember The Alamo?

“You can all go to Hell: I’m going to Texas.”

–Davy Crockett—

Summer in Texas is hotter than hell.  I’m a sweater-weather gal from the Pacific Northwest; I just wilt in the heat.  I nearly died of heatstroke while visiting The Alamo while attending a storytelling conference there twenty-five years ago.  And don’t forget what happened to Davy Crockett.

But in a previous post I’ve told you a little something about my very cool cousins June and Haskell

…and the occasion was June’s 90th birthday, which I wouldn’t have missed for a hundred faux fur coonskin caps.  The party was in San Antonio.   I was going to share a room with my Seattle Cousin Nancy, which meant not only a birthday party, but a PJ party every night!

An added incentive was the chance to meet June’s daughters and granddaughters for the first time.  We had a lot of family stories and family history to catch up on.  June’s husband Haskell is a seventh generation Texan, and he spins a good yarn, whether waxing nostalgic about his childhood in East Texas, his service in World War II, or sharing stories of our own Aptekar family, which he knows more about than any of us born into it.  I didn’t want to miss out on that either.

We stayed in the famously haunted historic Gunter Hotel, on which site a hotel has stood since 1837, the year after The Battle of The Alamo.  (Remember The Alamo?)  Mostly the halls were haunted with Aptekar cousins, nieces, sisters and daughters zipping in and out of June and Haskell’s room for Happy Hour.  Best of all, the hotel was spitting distance from the San Antonio Riverwalk.

It’s a bend in the river that runs through the city, where flood controls were incorporated into the design.  Both sides are lined with sidewalks, shops, and restaurants.

In 1929, the Riverwalk was a bold and innovative urban design.

 They built it in a sketchy neighborhood that even military personnel were warned to avoid.  But the Riverwalk was a huge success.  It revived downtown San Antonio, attracting both locals…

…and tourists…


I’ll try not to whine too much about the heat, but understand that in Seattle, at eighty-five degrees, the city issues “Severe Weather Alerts.”   We strolled along the river that first night, after it had cooled down into the eighties.

Our walk was memorable.

The light…

…and shadows…

were compelling.

And we couldn’t have asked for better company.

The next day we all trooped over to the Historic Mexican Market, with my ninety-year old cousins leading the way there…

…and back…

…in a blistering 110 degrees.


I want to be like them when I grow up.

We had lunch at a restaurant…

…with enough local color…

…and twinkle lights to satisfy even my tastes.

Back at the hotel June opened birthday presents…

…and then we went back out to soak up even more of the local color.

Of course, a Mariachi band serenaded The Birthday Girl.

We packed a lot into four days!  Museums…

…and sculpture gardens.

Talking….

Shopping…

 

Storytelling…

Wildlife…

More wildlife…

And really wild life!

AND REMEMBER THE ALAMO!?!?!

Oh, yes, we went there too.

To escape the heat, in an air conditioned IMAX theater we watched The Price of Freedom, about The Battle of The Alamo.


It was a very good recreation.  Don Swayze, Patrick’s brother, has a role in it; those boys definitely came from the same gene pool. The fellow who played Colonel Travis looked strangely familiar–on the poster below he’s in middle of the lineup wearing the white hat.

It was driving me crazy.  I knew his voice, but his name–Casey Biggs–didn’t ring a bell, so I looked it up.  No wonder I couldn’t place him!  He played the Cardassian ‘Damar’ on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!  I learned that Biggs was called in to Paramount Studios to read for the part because the director had seen The Price of Freedom, and liked him.

Not only did The Alamo movie land Casey Biggs the biggest role of his acting career, the Texans’ defeat at the Alamo inspired an unprecedented rush of recruitment into the Texian army.  Right or wrong, eventually Texas was taken from Mexico and became a part of the United States.

And it was also a darn good setting for an Aptekar family birthday party.

I will never forget it.

c2013 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Nostalgia.

Click here for more interpretations of Jake’s Sunday Post: Urban Design.