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

One More Time

Sharon Creeden has been my good friend for thirty years.

She was a King County prosecutor, a right-brained person in a left-brained world.  I would describe her as a person with one toe deeply rooted in the earth, and an ear bent toward Heaven.  No wonder she left law, and went on to become an acclaimed storyteller and author.  Fair is Fair: World Folktales of Justice was awarded the American Folklore Society’s Aesop Prize, as well as a Storytelling World Award.

 

Her brilliant anthology, In Full Bloom: Tales of Women in Their Prime (foreword by Naomi Baltuck!is well known in the storytelling world.

 

But at heart she has always been a poet, and a visual artist.

Sometimes both at once. Her work, Generations, is a collage featuring a vintage photo of four generations of the women in her family.  Having grown up in Kansas, Sharon chose to include the quilt pattern called “Kansas Troubles.”

On the back of this piece–and at the heart of it– you will find her poetry.

Writers, poets and artists, teachers, mothers and grandmothers…hell, everyone occasionally needs a boost.

I am fortunate to know creative people with whom I can retreat and reenergize.

To share ideas…

To feed our spirits…

To get the creative juices flowing.

To create a quiet space to write….

…and write…

…and write.

Whatever it takes!

Last week I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the next writing project I have committed myself to.  Sharon said, “Before dawn this morning, I was stewing about my resistance to starting a new painting and was reading Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING. And this poem came:

I am more than the sum of dried paint tubes and stacks of attempts and tries.
I am the breath of color on canvas,
I am the vision of something never before.
I am the incessant urge of “one more time”.

Sharon transported me from that space of uncertainty.  I felt cradled and spooned by the good women in my life.  I felt bound not by blood and bone, but by our passion for language, story, and the incessant urge of “one more time.”

I know I can and will do whatever it takes.

One. More. Time.

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

c2013 Naomi Baltuck.

Please allow me to introduce you to another friend.  Jamie Dedes is the founder and managing editor of an inspiring blogazine called INTO THE BARDO.  Above all, Jamie is an incredibly talented poet, whose words give pause, bring smiles, tears, and moments of breathtaking recognition.  You will find her poetry on her blog,  THE POET BY DAY, the journey in poem.  Another good woman.

Staff Infection

As a newly graduated English Majorette, I headed Out West to seek my fortune, and arrived in Seattle just before the holiday season.

While I decided what to do with the rest of my life, I landed a temp job selling shoes at the downtown Frederick and Nelson’s to pay the rent.

The shoe did not fit.  Most of the saleswomen spent their paychecks on new clothes, using the employee discount, of course.  I had two and a half presentable outfits, and rotated.  I didn’t wear make-up or high heels, but I did have a decent pair of leather boots that went with everything.  I was competent and polite, except to the imperious bitches who mistook the fitting chair for a throne and were used to being waited on hand and foot.  They were the ones who came in five minutes before closing, ordered me to fetch four different pairs of shoes in three sizes, then stuck out their feet for me to remove their own shoes for them.

That six week position seemed an eternity, but I had a secret superpower to get through it.  Long before the invention of Photoshop, I had mastered my own techniques for photo doctoring.

It was crude, but effective.  And my family was very forgiving.

All it took was a pin to scratch away here and a red marker to color in there, and voila!   I turned my Frederick and Nelson’s staff pin into a Frederick and Nelson’s staph pin.  No one even noticed, but somehow it was a sign, and it made all the difference to me.

Then one cold December day my boss called me into the back room.  I was sure she was going to fire me for badge tampering.  But she said, “I want you to work here on a permanent basis beginning in January.”

Before I could tell her, “Thank you, but I want to check out job opportunities in Hell first,” she leaned forward to stare at my bosom.  Or at the badge on my bosom, to be more precise.  “I think there’s a typo on your badge.”

“So it would seem,” I replied.

“That’s never happened before.  Go get a new one, and then let me know as soon as possible about the job.”

I never did trade in my Little Red Badge of Courage for a new one.  As for the job selling shoes… those boots were made for walking, and that’s just what they did.  They walked on down to Grand Teton National Park, where I waited tables, and to King’s Canyon National Park, where I taught canoe.

And they brought me back to the home of my heart…

…where I became a professional storyteller

…and author.

Along the journey, I have learned to pay attention to my instincts, and to read the writing on the wall.

But I still keep the badge as a reminder that sometimes one must relish the tiny victories along the way.


c2013 Naomi Baltuck
Click here for more interpretations of the Weekly Photo Challenge: Signs.

Colores Locales

Wherever we go, there is color all around.  Sometimes the colors are muted, but still, they are painting our world beautiful.

In Mexico, color is a feast for the eyes, a celebration…absorbed through all the senses.

From the jungle parfait…

..to the pink cotton candy clouds.

We could hear colors in the music.

We saw it in the art…

…and in their traditional dress.

We tasted it in the wine…

…and felt it in the colorful characters we were fortunate enough to meet.

…including some we will never forget.


I’ve never seen water so intensely blue.

Or skin so intensely red…

…flora so purple…

…leaves so green…

Colors were hiding everywhere, just below the surface…

…ready to burst out and surprise us.

And everywhere we turned, there were rainbows.

We love Seattle, our silver city by the sea, but long after we had flown back north….

…Long after our footprints had been washed away in the sand…

…to tide us over on those cold and gray Seattle days, we carried a bit of the Mexican rainbow home in our hearts.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Colorful.

Click here for more interpretations of   The Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Color.

All words and images c2013NaomiBaltuck

Berry Picking, Blogging, and a Piece of the Pie

Do I have to?  I don’t want to put on my shoes, and it’s freakin’ cold outside, and now even doing last night’s dishes is starting to look good.  But if I don’t get my butt out into my garden every other day or so, especially now that it’s wet and cold, those ripe red raspberries will grow moldy and drop off the vine into the dirt.  And because I am the daughter of a Depression Baby who ate tuna salad that was green and fuzzy rather than let it go to waste, those fallen berries haunt me like fuzzy green ghostlets.  Waning daylight pokes at me like a sharp stick before I finally get my fanny out the door.

Once I get going, I always wonder what took me so long.   Sure, a spider might drop down in my face, but I try not to scream—it scares the neighbors–and toss the whole bowl of berries into the air like juicy fireworks—all those perfectly good berries hitting the dirt would send my poor mother spinning.

But I can’t hear the robins singing from my armchair, and I enjoy listening to the neighbors calling their kids in for supper.  And while my hands are busy, my thoughts carry me to unexpected places.  This evening I spent a little while with my Grandpa Gus, remembering how he would turn us loose in his garden to fill our bellies with sun-warmed berries.  For the grownup me, the icing on the Forced March Out to the Garden Cake was a colander brimming with raspberries, which turned out to be the filling for the pie.

In the garden I had a quiet moment to reflect upon the writing life.  If you’ve been a writer for more than fifteen minutes, you’ve already heard that if you want a piece of the pie, you need to establish a social media platform.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, other ones of which I’ve never heard so I can’t even spell them, and a blog.  Kristen Lamb, the social media expert for writers tells us to blog at least once a week, ARGH!  But three posts would be better.  TRIPLE ARRRGGGHHH!

I was born an old dog, and new tricks don’t come easy.  My long suffering husband had to drag me to the computer (what is that thing and why are you making me touch it?), tie me to a chair, and force me to learn how to use it.  This happened only about a hundred times before I was willing to trade in my quill for a Mac.  Now writing equals cut and paste, and I use my quill for dusting the keyboard.  Then came e-mail.  (Why bother with that when I can’t keep up with snail mail, and it probably won’t catch on anyway!? )  But you can’t hold back the tide with a teaspoon.  E-mail and the internet were keepers, too; without them I couldn’t run a business, network professionally, or find nearly so many fascinating ways to procrastinate.

I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with the raspberry harvest this year.  If I can do that, I reckon I can learn one more new trick, and keep up with the blogging.  So here I go.

Copyright 2011 Naomi Baltuck