Losing a parent or grandparent is incredibly difficult and emotional. Having to deal with the whirlwind afterwards, funerals and estate sales, the reading of wills, and going through personal belongings can be overwhelming. Sometimes in the rush to get things done and move on, keepsakes can get overlooked and lost. But sometimes, even if things get lost in the shuffle, they can also get found. And sometimes, even returned.
This is one such story.
My mother called me into her room because she had found an interesting book while cleaning the bookshelf. My stepfather had picked up the book a couple of months before at a thrift shop. He had seen the letters inside and thought they would be interesting to read. Stuffed inside the book were two envelopes containing letters from 1947 and 1948
It turns out they were very interesting to read! The letters were from a man named Ernie to his wife, Val. It was obvious from the very first few sentences that he loved his wife a great deal; that at the time, his world revolved around her. She was visiting other relatives and he wrote the letters to her while she was gone, working hard and missing her every day. Tucked away inside the book was also a hand-drawn portrait of a classy looking woman. Val, we assumed. But there was more. An adorable Easter card with a bunny on the front, clearly hand made by a child to her parents, and a high school graduation notice from 1947 for someone whose name did not appear in the letters.
After poring over all these things…
…and realizing that the husband and wife had lived in Modesto, CA, not too far from where we currently live, my mother and I decided we wanted to try to get these keepsakes back to the man who wrote the letters, or at least his family.
So I pulled out my smart phone and began looking up the names of both the man and his wife in a simple Google search. My first discovery was an obituary…that of the wife’s. Val had passed away earlier this year, and in the text of her obituary, we discovered names of family members that were mentioned in the letters, so we knew we had the right woman. My second discovery was the man’s obituary six years earlier. They were both gone and our hearts sank. We wanted so much to return these things to the rightful owners, as even the book had been inscribed with Ernie’s name as a keepsake from his parents.
So we kept digging. We had names of family members from the obituaries and decided to hop on Facebook and look them up, see if we could find them and at least get these family treasures back to their children or grandchildren. We had to search through a few different names, looking at their friends lists to identify family members that matched, and checking places that they had lived to see if they were near Modesto, CA. But we finally struck gold! We identified the woman who had made the Easter card for her parents all those years ago. We tried getting in touch with her first, but when she didn’t respond to our Facebook message, we contacted her son and also her nephew.
That’s when we got a response!
Her son, David, who works in Sacramento, CA, contacted us almost right away after we sent the Facebook message. He could hardly believe what we were telling him! But he was so grateful and excited to see these keepsakes. And we were just as excited to give them back! Unwilling to risk the book and its contents getting lost in the mail, we decided we wanted to put them directly into his hands. Sacramento was an hour and a half away by car, so we all piled in and took off.
It was an emotional moment, I’ll tell you now, meeting and handing the book to a member of the family.
As soon as he opened the book and saw the inscription inside, he got goosebumps. When he told us why, we got them as well. Apparently, the book had been sent by his great grandparents to his great uncle Joe as a Christmas gift while Joe was serving in Europe in World War II. But tragically, Joe had been killed in France just weeks before and the family hadn’t been notified yet. So the book was returned after a time, and was given to Joe’s brother instead: Ernie, the man who had written those sweet letters to his wife a few years after the war ended. Ernie had also served in World War II, in the United States Navy. The unique history of this book and the amazing family it belonged to was coming to light for us. And it was an incredible feeling.
We spoke for awhile with David, laughing about some of the contents of the letters, including the suspicion we had that Val had actually been pregnant with David’s mother at the time one of the letters was written. He told us about his grandparents, how they were wonderful people. How his grandfather had been an extremely hard-working man all the way into his 70s, and how his grandmother had been heavily involved with a local church and its ministries for many years. He also shared with us that his mother was currently ill and these keepsakes were going to mean so much to her when he shared them with her. He couldn’t thank us enough and we couldn’t have been more delighted, honored, and humbled to return them to him. After taking a group picture together and saying our goodbyes, my mother, stepdad, and I all returned to the car and the drive home with smiles on our faces.
I received a text message with an old picture of Ernie and his brother Joe, both handsome young men. Being able to put faces to the names was a treat. And it prompted me to look on Facebook one more time. David had posted on Facebook about the day and the treasures that had found their way back to him and his family. The responses from his family and friends commenting on his page were inspiring. We knew for certain that we had done the right thing.
I think it’s sad that many people would have simply thrown the letters out if they found them tucked in a book, or kept them tucked away until their own deaths without even bothering to look at them, much less connect them again with their rightful owners. With the internet and social media being so widespread today, all you have to do is a little sleuthing. You might be surprised at the joy you can give to someone else and yourself with a simple random act of kindness.
Author - Sarah Mann