Mysteries of the Old Photo Album (part 4) Family Found!

I was speaking with a friend last night and we were talking about what happens to someone’s prized possessions and photos when those people are no longer with us. What’s priceless to one person, worthless to another. Memories fade with time. And so perhaps it was with the old photo album, relegated to a second hand table at a local flea market. I saw it last month and it really bothered me that pictures of Peter and Mary, love letters from the 1940’s, pictures from his time in the Navy, were being picked over for a profit. I went back last week and it was there again. I couldn’t pass it by. They wanted $25 for it. I bargained them to $20 and felt guilty doing it. Someone’s life summed up in the pages of a weathered, old photo album, and I haggled for a better price.

If you’ve been following the stories this week, you’ve heard about Peter and Mary. Tucked inside those pages, the story of a young couple in love. Peter in the Navy. Mary working at home. She’d write him all the time. Letters. Cards. A snap shot of a bygone era. There was a small piece of cloth from Pearl Harbor tucked inside. There was a western union telegram from his birthday. Air mail envelopes with a three cent stamp and the message, “win the war”. Pictures of their young boy.

And so I bought the album and did the only thing I know how to do in this social media era when it comes to finding someone quickly. I wrote a Facebook post, hoped it would go viral, and used the power of the Internet to help me in my search for Peter and Mary’s family.

People shared it. Friends of mine. My reporter friends. First a couple. Then a few dozen. Then a hundred or more. I wrote a second post. And a third. People contacted me from across the country, filling in little pieces of the puzzle. People contacted other folks hoping to find Peter and Mary’s family. I contacted the Navy, Navy historians, and countless wrong numbers. And then, someone contacted ME. “Peter and Mary are my grandparents”.

Family.
Finally.
Found.

“My grandparents were my life.”

And so today I hesitantly dialed her number and we spoke on the phone and I got to hear first-hand– even if briefly– the story of Peter and Mary. She’d never seen this album before, doesn’t know how it ended up in a flea market, and she was grateful that a random person thought enough of the album to retrieve it.

The little boy Peter and Mary spoke about in the album so many decades ago? He was her uncle. He died in Vietnam. It was rough on the family, especially for her grandmother. Their other son (born after this album)– her dad– also fought in Vietnam. He made it home. And recently they too have been looking into their past, tracing their family’s history of service in Vietnam.

I described the album’s rough and worn contents, a treasure trove of family memories. And then I prepared them for transit. Memories from Pearl Harbor to Southern California and beyond, memories of Peter and Mary and the life they made together, now headed via Fed Ex to their next destination, ready for a loving home and a family reunion. As for the next chapter? It’s now her’s to share.

Thanks so much for everyone who helped with the search unraveling the mystery of the old photo album.

Pete Wilgoren
pwilgoren@yahoo.com

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Mysteries of the Old Photo Album (part 3): The Story of the Greeting Cards

To Peter Cherney

A time forgotten is found again. Pete. Can I call you Pete? I know Mary did. I know while she waited for you to come home from the service, she called you Pete. After reading those letters and cards, and looking at those pictures, I feel like I know you more and more. Your service in the Navy. Your love for Mary and your little boy. WHERE did life lead you? WHY did your memories end up on a bargain table at a flea market.

I couldn’t leave them there.

And HOW did people not see the treasures inside. Pictures of you beaming with pride in your Navy uniform. Pictures of Mary. Pictures of your little boy. The letters we’ve spoken about already. Now, the greeting cards. The CARDS tell another story altogether. And if anyone bothered to peel open the cards, or carefully lift them off the weathered pages of the album barely stuck to those little black squares, they would have seen the OTHER messages Mary left to you in those early days of the 1940’s. I found them. A time gone by. YOUR time. Lost. Now Found.

That one card with a checkerboard blue and white faded fabric bow still tied to the side:

“this oughter make you better even if it’s junk”… and inside, this: “a crazy card and what’s it for.. well bet it helps to win the war”

When I carefully peeled the card back from the album, THIS message penned in cursive:

“Dearest Pete, I find I can spare three dollars right now and I know it isn’t much but it might help. You’d better get pen and paper and sit right down and write some letters to me, love Mary”

Then there was that other card saying, “while you recover from your operation”.

and in Mary’s cursive on back:

“Dearest Pete, I thought this card was cute. Hope you like it too. The guys sure teased me a lot today when I went back to work. They said I looked like I had a hard weekend. What do you think? Love Mary

one other card said simply “how ya doin’ sailor?” and inside Mary wrote, “Come on Pete, write a letter!”

There was that one card with little red elephants on it titled “about that letter I owe you”.. and inside the final line of the card “I will write soon, honest” to which Mary added in her own cursive, “I really am ashamed”

And one final one- the funny duck with the soft feather still attached after 75 plus years saying simply “Sick?” and inside Mary wrote, “sending you this card was Pepe’s idea. He picked it out and insisted on my buying it for you. Pepe & Mary”

I wonder what YOUR cards to Mary looked like. And how did you end up in San Francisco anyways. I’ve seen that small piece of fabric tucked into the album stamped “naval hospital, Pearl Harbor”. Did you suffer injuries in Pearl Harbor? Were you being treated for injuries at Ward 6 of the hospital in San Francisco where those letters were air mailed with the three cent stamps?

I’ve written now to media relations with the US Navy. I’ve also written to the Naval Historical Foundation hoping to uncover the missing pieces of your service.

Telephone numbers for relatives?
One was disconnected.
One was now a construction company. One had an answering machine!
Bingo!! I left a message and waited.

The nice man returned my call hours later and said he’d never heard of you.

In all fairness, I hadn’t either, until I picked up an old and worn and forgotten album. Now I can’t forget you.

From California to Indiana, looking to see where we can find your family, Peter Cherney, and reunite them with your history.

Pete Wilgoren
pwilgoren@yahoo.com

 

 

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Mysteries of the Old Photo Album (part2): Love Letters From Mary

I poured over the scrapbook of memories found at the flea market. The pages fragile, worn, breaking to the touch. So many pictures of Peter Cherney in his sailor uniform. He was proud of his service you can tell. And then there were the letters. All those letters from Mary.

Today I took a closer look at those envelopes and the postmark: one letter was mailed from Los Angeles in October 1943. That stamp. Three cents. A proud American eagle on the stamp with the slogan “Win The War.” I have a feeling Peter was working to make that happen.

How his mementos and photos and long lost love letters from Mary ended up in the bargain bin of a flea market I don’t know. Maybe people just never took the time to look at every page and every envelope.

All I know is I’m holding letters more than 75 years old. They smell of history and the worn paper they were written on in perfect cursive.

As I hope someone reading this continues to share the posts, as I hope we can reunite someone in Peter and Mary’s family with these treasures, I thought the best way to show you just what I stumbled on, was to transcribe one of Mary’s letters.

So here it is, dated October 11, 1943, Mary writing to the sailor she loved:

“Dearest Pete, received two letters from you today. Still laughing over that corny joke about the Lone Ranger. A few minutes after I read your letter, my brother called up. He’ll probably look you up before this letter reaches you.

Honey, my sister Tony gave me five dollars to send to you. But I used it. (Hope you don’t mind). In case she or anyone else asks you, tell them you received it. You could write my sister a letter thanking her for the birthday gift. You can write it to this address and I can give it to her.

Sunday I took Pepe (on that five) to the baseball game (leading men and comedians) at Wrigley Field. I bought popcorn, peanuts, hot dogs and soda pops for him and myself. Then I took him to a show and dinner. I spent quite a bit of money on him and myself. But because I wouldn’t buy him a coke he called me stingy. I got so angry I almost slugged him. Yet in a way it was kind of cute.

Today, after I went to the nursery after him, we were walking toward the R Car line. Two little girls waved to Pepe. He wouldn’t wave back. I asked him why he didn’t want to wave to them. He said if he waved to them they would be his girl friends and he didn’t want that. I told him they wouldn’t be, that they would be his pals instead. He smiled and said Oh. What a son we’re raising. (One for the books).

I’m writing this letter to you instead of ironing. I’m making this good and long. I hope you appreciate it. Honey this Friday I’m going to be initiated into the union. You should hear everybody teasing me about what color (unknown) I’m going to write. Well I’ll tell you about it when it’s over. I hope you and my brother can come home together this weekend. Well honey, till next time, love Mary.”

With that, her letter was neatly folded in the air mail envelope and sent off to San Francisco in October of 1943. Pete, I know you got the letter because at some point you carefully folded up that envelope. You carefully put it with your prized photos in an album. And you held onto it for years.

You held onto it for years along with cards, and that tattered piece of cloth from Pearl Harbor. I’m sorry these correspondences ended up in a flea market somewhere. It just doesn’t seem right.

So far, we’ve traced you to LA and Indiana. We think you passed away years ago. So did Mary. But your memories and your life live on in these mementos.

Here’s hoping we can reunite them with Peter and Mary’s family.

Pete Wilgoren
Pwilgoren@yahoo.com

 

 

 

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Mysteries of the Old Photo Album (part one): Snap Shots of a Life Well Lived

To Peter Cherney,

I couldn’t let it happen. I COULDN’T. Last month I saw this tattered old photo album for sale at a flea market amongst other old postcards and albums at a vintage stand.

Those things always catch my eye. WHO are the people and places relegated to the past, memories to be bought, and bargained for, and repurposed for some project.

But this album caught my eye. And when I came back today, I bought it. I HAD to.

Peter, you deserve better. I can tell you served your country in the navy. I see postmarks from the 1940’s, addresses to your unit in San Francisco, a tattered piece of cloth stamped from the naval hospital at Pearl Harbor.

And I see so much more.

Letters from Mary. Clearly she was the love of your life. That one letter from 1943 where she apologized for using your five dollars of birthday money. She took your little boy to a baseball game at Wrigley field. She talks about the peanuts and popcorn. “What a son we’re raising” the letter says. And that other letter where Mary says she’s sending you three dollars so you can buy her postage and supplies. “You better get pen and paper and sit right down now to write some letters to me.”

There’s a Western Union telegram.
“Sending $26. One for each year. Love”

I see pictures with your fellow sailors, pictures in the snow, pictures with your family, pictures of a life well lived.

How this album ever ended up tattered and broken and picked over and relegated to a flea market, I will never know.

I am hoping people will share this message and that someone reading this knows Peter or Mary, or their family.

Peter’s legacy, his service to country, his love for Mary, their family, deserve more.

Pete Wilgoren
Pwilgoren@yahoo.com

 

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Witnesses To History

We are witnesses to history.

THAT is what we do in the news business. We witness it and we document it. In the past days, we’ve witnessed more than our share in an intertwined tragedy the likes of which I’ve never seen before in all my years in the news business.

The Thursday before last we all woke up to the news of a tragic mass shooting– Innocent people gunned down for no other reason than being in the wrong place. The names, the faces, the people, forever tied to the Borderline. We were only just beginning to learn their stories, to document what happened, to share with Southern California, to grieve, when our reporters on scene started talking about the smoke plumes overhead.

In the middle of non-stop coverage of the shooting tragedy, with so many questions left to be answered, something happened that I had never seen before. Reporters began having to divide their reports: showing the mass shooting scene over here and then spinning the camera around to show the ominous and growing smoke plumes over there.

And so in an instant began the intertwining of tragedies that would affect the Los Angeles area.

We are witnesses to history.

Soon, we were fully moving crews in the direction of the fires. And the fires would dominate our news for hours and hours more as people evacuated to flee the flames. The same community which dealt with the shootings now dealing with the fires. And they were spreading fast.

GUILT.

Guilt is what I felt that a mass shooting, such a horrifying event, where so many innocent people were killed was so quickly removed from the headlines because we had been thrust into another crisis. I had NEVER seen that. But sometimes the news comes over you like an ocean wave and this was one of those weeks.

We are witnesses to history.

And the story being written in the coming hours was one of devastation and destruction. Homes destroyed. Lives thrown into chaos. Lives lost. Flames. Rubble. More evacuations.

And Borderline. Those faces. Those victims. They deserved more attention.

By Friday morning, neighborhoods had been decimated. We didn’t even know it yet. People struggled to locate their loved ones. People were still trying to evacuate as flames raced towards the ocean. Paradise in flames.

The weekend brought a fresh look at the devastation and the new week brought other close calls. New flareups. New flames.

And still the faces of the Borderline victims. As we learned of fatalities in the fire, we prepared for funerals for the Borderline victims.

When families allow media to cover a funeral, it is our honor and duty to share that story with the viewers.

We are witnesses to history.

Maybe in just a little way it was redemption for us to be able to finally share more about the lives and stories of the victims of Borderline. One week after the shooting, as the fires had settled, and evacuees still waited to return, with Southern California freshly scarred, we shared the funeral of Sergeant Ron Helus, one of the heroes of the Borderline shooting.

Law enforcement from across the state in formation, in uniform, in mourning. The stories at the funeral, precious, and heartbreaking. That Helus had the first date with his future wife on the same date, so many years ago. That Helus proposed to his future wife, at the restaurant which would one day be the Borderline. As they sang Amazing Grace for a life well-lived, I gulped in the back of the control room.

We are witnesses to history.

The week closed with journalists I know gathering to prep food and meals to feed the firefighters and first responders and those affected by the fires.

The week closed with people writing thank you’s to all who have helped Southern California get through a week the likes of which we had never seen before. Tragedies intertwined. Tragedies not to be forgotten.

 

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A tragic history. Witnessed.

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The DNA Surprise

What’s in a NAME.
Well, I’ve known since I was a little kid that being a “Wilgoren” is an exclusive club. We’re all related. Anyone with that name. It’s unusual. Restaurants always used to get confused:

host: how many
dad: four
host: name?
dad: Wilgoren

ten minutes later

host: party of four for Goren, Will Goren

It happened so often that my parents would just say our last name was “Goren” when we went to restaurants or needed to give reservations.

I always assumed it was some sort of Ellis Island mixup.

Hypothetical:

immigration: name?
family: Will Goren
immigration: Wilgoren. Done.
Welcome to America.

So THAT is how I grew up- the Wilgoren family with a side of cousins also from the northeast that we knew about but didn’t talk to so frequently with because of a rift in the family so many years ago. But we all knew of each other. The Wilgorens.

My dad was Paul Wilgoren.
He was related to our cousin, also Paul Wilgoren. We lived just a few miles apart.

One was a teacher.
One was a youth baseball coach and more.

It made it VERY confusing when my dad died when I was just 14. Both sides of the family got condolences.

When my sister and I heard my father had died, my mother arranged for a meeting with the Rabbi at our temple the very next day. Jewish funerals happen very quickly. We THOUGHT this was the only reason for the meeting. But it turned out my mom had a secret. Actually my DAD had the secret.

As we sat there absorbing the fact that our father had suddenly died, absorbing the fact that we were suddenly without a dad, we needed to absorb another fact too: that we weren’t his ONLY family.

Well, or so they thought.

You see, the day after my father died, in a Rabbi’s office filled with tears and Kleenex, my mother confessed that my dad had been married and divorced BEFORE he ever married her. Before they ever had us. My dad didn’t have kids with his ex. But he had another set of in-laws, and friends, and of course his ex-wife, and apparently a backstory we never knew anything about. And my mother wanted to make sure we knew because she didn’t know just WHO would show up at the funeral that week. Would his ex-wife be there? Other family members? She said he always felt embarrassed about that failed marriage. And that’s why it was buried in the past- until it couldn’t be.

For kids in high school dealing with the loss of their dad, THIS was a mind bender.

We never did meet that other family (if they were at the funeral I didn’t know it). Over the years, just a few other mentions of that conversation, and at least once, a picture that surfaced of the former wife.

When my mom died twelve years ago, many stories from the past died with her. I’ve always wondered about the Wilgoren name and the mystery second family. What if. What if.

Which brings me to this year’s birthday. I mentioned to my sister I was always curious about our name and our background. I’d love to do one of those Ancestry tests. And so she got me one.
I read the booklet, spit in a tube, sent it off in the mail. The process is super easy.

And then my email pinged the other day saying my test results were in. Boom.
The test found I am 97% Eastern European. No surprise there. For a minute I was thinking “Ok that’s cool, but I may have wasted my sister’s money”.

Then another ping.
“View all DNA matches”

At the top of the list, someone without the last name Wilgoren. Or Goren.

Actually, his last name is Houston. And he’s from Tennessee.

And Ancestry says it isn’t just likely we’re related. They say it’s “extremely likely” we are not only related- but at least first cousins.

HOW. I know all my first cousins. We all know each other. All of us. Or do we.

Then this weekend, another ping.

It was J Houston from Tennessee saying Ancestry had gotten in touch with him also.. saying it was “extremely likely” we were first cousins.

So we’ve messaged each other:
J tells me he’s in his 50’s and from the Nashville area. He and his wife have two college-aged kids. Oh and one other thing: J is adopted. He doesn’t know where his birth parents are.

Is J a mystery Wilgoren?
Is he from the other side of the family?

Or do we need to go on Maury for another look at the DNA tests and their accuracy?

J was born in the 1960’s.

His adoptive parents, both have passed away.

And Ancestry says it is “extremely likely” that we are closely related.

A mystery indeed that J and I are just beginning the process of unraveling. He said I could share information in hopes that someone in the family might be able to fill in these missing pieces.

PS thanks to my sister for a great birthday gift and an unusual treasure hunt.

 

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When Parenting Gets Real: The Velveteen Rabbit moments

I’ve had a few of these moments in my life. The velveteen rabbit moments. Maybe you’ve had them yourself. They’re the moments where it seems so “real” for the very first time.. moments where I’ve always “heard” it would be this way but now I see it and experience it for the very first time.

And so it was this weekend- my next velveteen rabbit moment- the stage of parenting I’ve always heard about but seemingly never really experienced. Until now. And it came courtesy of our two kids who both reached big achievements this weekend.

Our older daughter who has been part of the drama club with small parts over the last couple of years took on the part of “Edna” in Hairspray. A leading role. She took the stage and rocked it- singing- dancing- delivering some of the funniest lines in the entire show. I sat there in the audience smiling ear to ear as I listened to her sing, a smile mixed with tears in my eyes. HOW and when did my little gal turn into the kid with one of the leading roles in the school musical. She earned a huge ovation at the end and flowers from mom, dad, and a proud little sister.

Meantime,
That little sister is in the third session of soccer this year- spring cup- a traveling team for soccer all stars. I’ll be honest. She didn’t look like she belonged at the beginning of the year. Other kids had been playing longer and they had more skills and more training. But she worked. And she worked. And she slowly became a defender, and then a star defender. And this weekend they took one game to get into the championship, and then they WON the championship. She got her medal as one of the coaches nicknamed her, “The Wall”.

Two girls. Two huge achievements. And somehow as I sat there between two musicals and two soccer games I realized something: the kids’ achievements had become my achievements. What I mean is, I used to measure my success by what I myself had accomplished. Then what me and my wife accomplished as a team. But now, more and more, I am measuring success by what I’m there to witness my KIDS accomplishing. Yes we had all those little milestones along the way- milestones every little kid has: first steps, first words. This is different. This is these humans coming into their own as people, blazing their own trail on the planet, showing their own talents, and growing as people. Growing.

Their success is our success as a family, as a couple, as me a dad. Sure I still work towards my own goals and achievements. But lately, I’m getting a bigger kick out of their own goals and achievements. The velveteen rabbit moment. This parenting thing just got even more real.

 

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