To See a World…

 

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…”

       –William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

 

…or in one click of a camera.

One picture is worth a thousand words.  Some pictures lay out the facts, like a road map.

But others have all the elements of a great novel, crammed into one quick snap.

Danger…

Mystery…

Character…

 Adventure…

Desperation…

Romance…

Greater purpose…

For me, the best stories raise questions as well as give answers.

 

They present universal dilemmas, and show us how people learn to cope with trauma or loss.

A disaster becomes a compelling tragedy, although the victims lived two thousand years ago, if we can relate to their suffering.  And who can’t?

We like to tie up our stories in neatly arranged ribbons and give them happy endings.  Who doesn’t love a happy ending?

But that’s not always possible.  Perhaps the best stories–and photographs–just remind us of what it is to be human.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Theme: Split-Second Story.

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

Remembering Uncle Lewis

One of my earliest memories is of dinner at Grandma Rose’s house.  Her towels, furniture, and closets smelled of mothballs; she even stored her silverware in mothballs.  Mostly, though, I recall standing on Grandma’s couch to study the framed collage of black and white photographs on her wall.  I recognized my father, but knew the other boy in the pictures only by name, and by heart.

Uncle Lewis was my father’s only sibling, younger than my dad by ten years.  We never met, and Daddy never spoke of him.  But they were best friends.  In one picture Lewis was laughing, having been surprised on the toilet by my father with his camera.  The brothers teased Grandma too.  Lewis would yell, “Harry, stop hitting me!”  Grandma would rush in, and scold my father for picking on his little brother.  Undaunted, they’d laugh and repeat, until Grandma caught on.

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lewis was drafted into the infantry, a shy studious eighteen year old who had never kissed a girl.  My father joined up as an officer.  He pulled a few strings to get Lewis transferred into the 30th ‘Old Hickory’ Division, so the brothers could cross the Atlantic on the same ship.  Lewis wrote letters and post cards home, often addressed to their dog ‘Peanuts.’

“Hey, Peanuts, tell Pa to eat his spinach!”   From the ship he wrote, “Harry and his buddies sneaked me into their cabin.  They gave me chocolate and let me play with their puppy.  Don’t tell anyone, or we’ll all catch it.  They smuggled the pup on board, and officers shouldn’t fraternize with enlisted men…”

While serving in Africa, Italy, England, France, and Germany, Harry was safely behind the front lines.  But Lewis was sent to Normandy two days after the D-Day invasion.  He fought in the hedgerows of France, and in Holland.  “The Dutch ran into the streets and passed out everything from soup to nuts.  As we marched out of there in the middle of the night, you could hear the clink of cognac, whiskey, and wine bottles in the guys’ jackets, amidst all the cursing and the roar of the Jerrys’ planes overhead.”  

To his parents Lewis wrote, “Dear Ma and Pa, today I saw General Eisenhower drive by.”  Or, “Kronk said the war can’t last.  It just can’t.  And he said it with such an angelic look on his face, I believe him!”

But to my father he wrote, “You should see the bruise from where a bullet passed through my shirt, Brub.  It was a close call.”  Or, “They took Julian away.  It’s so lonely here, Brub.  He’s the reason I wouldn’t take that promotion to sergeant.  We dug in together, took care of each other when things got rough.  I don’t know how bad he’s hurt; I just hope he makes it, and escapes this Hell.  Pray for me, Brub. Pray for me.”

On September 20, 1944, the day before his company attacked the Siegfried Line, Staff Sergeant Lewis Baltuck was killed by the blast of a shell.  Twenty years old, he had hardly begun to live.  He was survived by his parents, his dog Peanuts, and his brother Harry.  He never had the time or the opportunity to fall in love and marry.  He left no children to mourn for him—only the Bronze Star and the bronzed baby booties Grandma kept on her bookshelf until the day she died, more than forty years after her son’s death.

Harry married, had seven children, and built his own little house in Detroit.  But for the rest of his life he suffered acutely from the unspeakable burden of depression and Survivor’s Guilt.  When Grandpa Max died, my father became the sole caretaker of his widowed mother.  There was no one to share that burden with, to joke with or jolly her along.  Worst of all, crazed with grief, Grandma Rose blamed Harry for Lewis’s death.

I envied those kids who grew up with cousins to play with, and uncles who cared about them.  Uncle Lewis would’ve been that kind of uncle, and my father would have been a different man, without that black cloud to live under.  When Daddy died in 1965, we lost our connection to my father’s extended family, and our ties to our paternal cultural heritage were nearly lost as well.  But it does no good to dwell on the past or to speculate on what might have been.

Uncle Lewis was right about one thing.  War is Hell.  The price it exacts is impossible to tally, and can never be repaid.  When a soldier is killed, one heart stops beating, but many more are broken.  The wounds inflicted upon whole families are so deep that the scars can still be felt after generations.

I swear my uncle’s little bronze baby booties will never end up on the bargain shelf at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, like so many others I have seen there.  How sad to think that such precious keepsakes might be tossed into the giveaway because no one remembers or cares about the one whose little feet filled them.

I attended the 60th reunion of the Old Hickory Division in Nashville in search of someone who knew my uncle.  I met only one man who remembered him…“a quiet man who didn’t say much, but when he did speak, he was always worth listening to.”

I tell my children that story, and many other stories about their Great Uncle Lewis.  I am confident he will be cherished and remembered, not just for his tragic death, but for his joyful life.

copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck

Pandora’s Box

“You already have a pet,” I told eight-year-old Bea. “You have nineteen of them.”

“Fish don’t count, Mom. I need something with fur.”

“Cats and dogs make me wheeze and Daddy itch.”

“How about a rabbit?” asked her brother Eli.

“Too big to flush.”

I knew something of rodents in captivity.  My sister’s kids had a hamster named Little May.  She’d lived hard and fast, and died young.   A life of costume parties, wild shirt-pocket rides, playing the “show and tell” circuit, and a brief-but-thrilling flight career had proved too much for Little May.  She died at the tender age of six months.  I suspect it was suicide.

“How about a guinea pig?”

“They stink, you have to clean their cages, and for what?  Unresponsive vermin.”

“A hamster?”

“Well…”  Investing that degree of commitment into a pet project was something I might consider.  “If you can accept that a hamster lifespan is less than that of a guppy’s.”

Thus I found myself ankle deep in the world of hamster husbandry.  Why they call it that, I’ll never know; my husband had nothing to do with it.  ‘It’ was a black and white Teddy Bear Hamster.  The cost of the cage, igloo, water bottle, vitamins, cedar bedding and, yes, the hamster potty, for our six-dollar rodent far exceeded the dollar-a-month investment I anticipated.

We still needed a name, but at least that was free.  I voted for Wildfire or Hamlet, but the kids settled on Pandora.  Her purple cage became the infamous “Pandora’s Box,” and we opened it again and again.  Like that divine creation, our Pandora inspired story, song, poetry, even a new family crest, a black and white hamster sporting a golden crown.  Clearly, Pandora was destined to rule.

Rodent Fun Fact #1.   Feral gerbils feed on bed sheets and store the leftovers under the refrigerator.  This I learned in third grade when Napoleon, the classroom gerbil, stayed at our house for spring break.  In sixth grade, Linda Witkowsky put Winky, her hamster, into my hands.  It struggled furiously, went winky on my blouse, its eyes bulged, and so did mine.  I hadn’t touched a rodent since.

Rodent Fun Fact #2.   Hamster is from the German word for  “hamper,” as in laundry hamper, container, storage bin.  I reckon a hamster can hold about ten times its weight in cheek pouches stretching the length of its body.  No wonder they don’t carry purses!  This talent was graphically illustrated the first day, when the kids loaded Pandora with peanuts, seeds, carrots, Cheerios, and turned her loose in the bathroom.  She left an impressive hoard behind the toilet.  We left it there for three days, as a sort of monument.

Pandora was a good-natured little creature, tolerant of handling and mishandling.  She gripped a cracker like a kid with a peanut butter sandwich.  She used the same technique nibbling buttons off a shirt.  She was cute like other peoples’ grandchildren are cute–in a wallet.  I was convinced I could ride this out with no Close Encounters of the Third Kind, until the first time the kids changed her cage.  Holding out the Beast, Bea cooed, “Go to Grandma.”

I was soon babysitting on a regular basis.  Not content to sit in your lap and purr, Pandora was a perpetual motion machine.  In her exercise ball she rumbled like thunder as she raced down our long hall.  The kids made her Lego mazes and seltzer bottle airplanes  She could be a hula girl, Greek Goddess, fairy tale princess, or bikini-clad bathing beauty, depending upon which hole in the Kleenex box she peeked out.

They warn you against looking into a snake’s eyes, but no one ever said a thing about hamsters.

I’d drop laundry in Eli’s room and see Panny staring at me.  I knew what she wanted.  I half expected her to run a little tin cup along the bars of her cage.  The first time I caved, it wasn’t good breeding that brought Panny scurrying to the door to greet me.  I didn’t kid myself; mine were often the hands that fed her.  Dogs love their humans, but what drives a hamster?  Are they too stupid to know fear?  Are we too big to be regarded as anything but a landscape?   Still, it was oddly moving when she stepped into my hands, and I could feel her tiny heart beating against my palm.

One night the cage wasn’t latched.  Pandora climbed from the dresser top to the floor for a walk on the Wild Side.  Tears were shed.  Then we placed a peanut in each room, shut the door, and blocked the crack with towels.  If a peanut went missing, we’d know where to look.  In central rooms we placed treats in deep buckets with ramps leading up to them.

“I bet she forgot to pack her cheeks,” I told the kids.  “Sooner or later she’ll come out to forage; it’s the Hamster Way.”  I didn’t mention Cousin Jean’s gerbil that set out to seek its fortune.  Months later she found it trapped in a dresser in the basement, keeping the company of maggots.

While emptying the hall closet, I heard a loud grinding coming from the basement.

“Eli,” I hollered down the stairs, “try searching more quietly, so you can hear her.”

“What, Mom?” asked Eli, appearing beside me.

It had to be Panny down there, in the bowels of the basement.  We went downstairs and waited, listening.  The furnace clicked on, and we jumped.  Tick, tick, tick went the clock.  Finally we heard that noise again, like a chainsaw, coming from inside the staircase. That could mean only one thing…

Pandora had entered the Black Hole, where no hamster had gone before.  Our storage room sucks in all manner of objects and morphs them into high density matter.  Not just cardboard boxes and camping equipment.  Baby things for my unborn grandchildren, stacks of Rubbermaid containing every object d’art my kids ever made, a slide projector, medieval tankards, sci-fi dinnerware, my dead uncle’s stamp collection, the hardened dregs of house paint to match the color before the last.  Blacker than a Black Hole.

We peeled away the layers, from folding chairs that come out for parties to stained glass scraps from a class taken twenty years before.  Then I saw her, snug in a nest of sawdust gnawed from the underbelly of the stairs.  Just out of reach.  If I made a grab, I might scare her deeper into hiding.  My heart was pounding as I held out my hand.  “Here, Panny…”

Hamsters are loners, pairing up only to mate, and even that isn’t pretty.  They are so territorial that the most tender hamster mothers drive away their offspring the instant they mature.  What could we offer to match a brand new house in the sub-suburbs?  Why should she respond to the whispered promise of a yogurt treat when there was enough macaroni art down there to last a hamster lifetime?

“Come on, Panny.  Come to Grandma…”

Panny looked at me with her big brown eyes.  And crept out of her nest into my hand.

One evening soon after, Bea demonstrated Panny’s newest trick.  “Up, Panny, up!” Pandora climbed the bars to the ceiling of her cage.  I beamed at my grandbaby’s cleverness, and ran for the camera.  But the next morning she was trembling, listless, and had clearly been sick.  I cleaned her while the kids cleaned the cage.

“Maybe she just needs rest,” I said, but to my husband Thom I whispered, “It’s bad.”

Her condition worsened.  The next morning, the kids were distressed to see her lying listless.  My sometimes-too-practical husband picked up Panny and gently stroked her.  She looked so tiny in his big hands.  “We have an emotional investment to protect,” he said.  “It might be worth a trip to the vet.”

At that moment I knew I would love that man forever.  In for a Panny, in for a pound.  The vet gave our six dollar hamster a hundred dollars worth of antibiotics.

“Do other people bring in sick hamsters?” I asked, feeling a little foolish.

“Oh, yes,” the vet assured me.

“And do they get better?”

She hesitated.  “Sometimes.”  Then she shrugged.  “Hamsters get infections, just like people, but they’re fragile.  In the wild, most get eaten before they get sick.  Pandora should be at home, where she’ll be more comfortable, and the children can be involved.”   So it had come to hamster hospice.

We gave her a few CCs of water, and tucked her into her nest.  The next morning, Eli found Pandora’s lifeless body.  There was no comforting Bea.  She looked at the rain pouring down outside and sobbed, “Even Mother Nature is crying.”

She was in no condition to go to school.  Between bouts of tears Bea stitched a tiny quilt and pillow, fashioned a tiny golden crown, and a little gold coffin adorned with plastic jewels.  Bea tucked in Panny with a tuft of nesting material and a peanut.  On the inside lid she wrote a lullaby, “So it will be like I’m singing to her forever.”

It was an open casket funeral.  Eli constructed a Popsicle stick headstone, and Bea planned the service.  I made copies of Bea’s hymn, “Hamsters We Have Heard on High,” so the mourners could join in.  Eli played flute and Bea sang, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.”

Bea’s tearful elegy was simple, but eloquent.  “Her Grandma said she never knew she could love a rodent, and her Grandpa never said he loved her, but he did.  She’s an angel now.  A furry little angel.”

I was surprised to see Thom wipe away a tear.

“Does Daddy love her?” Bea had asked, when Panny first fell ill.

“Yes, in his way,” I told her.  Did the kids love her?  Absolutely.  Did Panny love us?  I’m sure she did, in her Hamster Way.  She taught us much about love, and the sorrow that is the price we gladly pay for it.  And even the passing of a hamster is a reminder to appreciate every moment of this precious fleeting gift of life.  Bea will tell you Pandora Athena Baltuck Garrard lived a very full life and packed a lot of love into her 18 short months.  And I will tell you that my first grandchild will always be the one with fur on her face.

copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck