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