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

Through the Looking Glass

January has been a busy month for storytelling– dusting off old stories, rehearsing new ones, attending to related business correspondence.   Last week I was pressed for time, polishing a story for its public debut, when I heard a little thump.  I peeked through the French doors onto the deck.  A tiny olive gray creature, scarcely bigger than a hummingbird, lay stunned and shivering where it fell after flying into the glass.

It was a male Golden-crowned Kinglet, with a bright orange and gold crown.  They favor coniferous forest; this one was likely nesting in the grove of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir in our backyard.  Kinglets are monogamous, and raise two broods each season.  As soon as the first nestlings can fly, Mama Bird lays another batch.  While she protects the new eggs, Papa feeds up to ten fledglings until they can take care of themselves.  Good Daddy!

Perhaps the little bird was an adolescent, driving too fast on his first solo flight, or maybe he was an exhausted frantic father trying to feed his hungry brood.  Birds are delicate, and often die of stress.  Not wanting to frighten it, I didn’t open the door, but I kept watch through the glass for neighborhood cats and hungry crows. What would happen, I wondered, to the fledglings if their Papa died?  How might his mate manage as a single parent when the next brood hatched?

As The Bard said, all the world is a stage.  Everywhere tiny dramas–life and death performances–are played out.  Most will never be witnessed or even imagined, completely lost in the big picture.  Or worse, they will be observed by cold and uncaring eyes.

On my deck, in city streets, in our wealthy country, and all over the world, baby birds are not the only creatures who slip between the cracks, with no voice, and no champion to speak out for them or watch over them.

I turned for an instant to check the clock.  When I looked again, the little bird was gone.  My eyes stung with tears of relief.  Someone looking through the glass onto my deck would see only a few bird droppings, but to me it’s a reminder that life can get messy.  Not everyone has a safety net.  Not every story has a happy ending.  Sometimes we can only  look helplessly through the glass at the world’s suffering.  But sometimes it falls within our power to change the world, one tiny story at a time.

Something to think about.

Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Travel Theme: Glass

All words and images c2013 Naomi Baltuck

Never Too Late!

At our house we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and we also give a nod toward the Solstice.  This year we planned to observe the Solstice with a bonfire, and burn twenty years’ accumulation of tax receipts in our firepit, but it never stopped raining long enough to light a match.

Eli and I told Christmas and Hanukkah stories at the Renton History Museum.  One cannot properly tell stories without feeling the spirit within, so we were primed for both holidays.

Afterwards we went to Farmer Brown’s Tree Farm to cut our own Christmas tree.

Then we went home to light the menorah.

 We had company this year, cousins of my father, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine.  June Aptekar Allen Smith and her husband Haskell traveled to Seattle from Texas to celebrate their first Hanukkah ever.

They played dreidel and sang the blessings for the first time, just as June’s ancestors had done for nearly two thousand years.

At 88 and 89, they are still fascinated by the world around them, by history, travel, current events, and the stories of strangers they meet in their every day life.  We reconnected with June and her daughter Leslie ten years ago, at an Aptekar family reunion in Tucson.  They introduced us to June’s niece Nancy and her husband Ian, who happened to live right here in Seattle, and who we now love like, well… family.

We compared notes and stories about our Aptekar roots, taking into account June and Haskell’s meticulous research, papers and letters from my mother’s attic, my Grandma Rose’s recently rediscovered autobiography among them.  Cousin Bryan drove up from Portland to represent the descendants of Dave Aptekar, yet another branch of the family tree.  We pieced together all our snatches and snippets and scraps of information into a more comprehensive family history, from before the pogrom of Odessa in 1905 to my great grandparents’ subsequent immigration through Ellis Island, and on to Detroit.

In 1905, the Aptekar family huddled in the cold and the dark, listening to the screams of horses and the crash of breaking glass, as Cossacks charged down the street, burning the businesses and homes of Odessa Jews, killing 800 Jewish men, women and children, and causing 2, 500 casualties.  Trapped inside without food or fuel for the fire, the Aptekar family huddled in their winter coats, and broke through ice in the water pail to drink.  With tears streaming down his cheeks, my great grandfather Jacob Aptekar chipped tiny pieces of sugar from the sugar cone to feed to his hungry children, promising them he would find food for them soon, while making a silent promise to himself to move his family far from that hateful place forever.  Jacob’s hair turned white overnight, and my Grandma Rose’s little sister Clara died in her arms.

Victims of 1905 pogrom in Odessa

Over the next two generations, time, geography, estrangement, and self-imposed exile tugged at the threads of the Aptekar family tapestry.  But more than a hundred years later, the descendants of Jacob’s children, Reuben, Rose, and David, gathered around one table for latkes, applesauce, and Hanukkah sushi.

Broken threads can be repaired and rewoven…


…and it is never too late for a happy ending.

All words c2012 Naomi Baltuck.