The old tin trunk took an unlikely thousand-mile trek when it followed Julie and Phil Hoice from Farmington, N.M. to Vancouver.
Filled with old love letters, baby clothing and a small red crocheted coat owned by Shirley Willis, the case was left behind 24 years ago in an apartment in the predominantly rural New Mexico town.
Phil lived there for a short time in the late 1980s before moving to Albuquerque, where he met his wife.
And the trunk, which had been hiding under a sink in the apartment, managed to hitch a ride with him, Julie said.
“He’d seen it and knew it wasn’t his, but some friends helped him when he moved, and the trunk ended up with the rest of his stuff,” she said.
He held on to the trunk in Albuquerque, hoping to figure out who the rightful owner was. By 1990, when the pair moved to Vancouver, though, he had almost forgotten that he still had it, Julie said.
“When we moved to the Northwest, the company moved us, so once again we didn’t really think about it, but the trunk ended up coming with us,” she said.
From there it ended up in the couple’s attic, gathering dust, until a few months ago when they decided to do a bit of cleaning.
“We found it in the attic and he was like ‘Oh my God, I feel so bad,’ ” Julie said. “He gave it to me and asked me if I could track the owner down.”
So Julie fired up the computer, did a lot of Googling, and finally ended up finding a phone number for Willis.
Not long after leaving a message, Julie got a call back.
“It was so sweet,” she said. “She started crying. Her husband had passed away a few years ago and she was thrilled to have it.”
Julie mailed the case back to her in January.
The love letters inside were originally sent to Willis by her husband, George, in 1953, near the end of the Korean War. George had joined the Army and was away at boot camp.
“We had moved from Farmington to Aztec (N.M.) and that’s when the trunk disappeared,” Willis said. “During that time at boot camp we had written back and forth every day for about 45 days, and those were the letters we lost.”
When George died in 2001, Shirley Willis thought she’d never see the letters again, she said.
Phil felt guilty that he hadn’t sent the box sooner, but Willis said he shouldn’t fret.
“He was very apologetic, but he didn’t need to be,” Willis said. “He didn’t need to apologize at all. I was just thrilled to have it back.”
Opening the container and reading the old letters brought back a flood of memories, she said.
“It came late in the evening, and I got all those letters and I just read and I was literally transported back 60 years,” Willis said. “I remembered everything. It was a treasure I thought I’d never see again.”
The little red coat in the box was an heirloom crocheted by Willis’ mother that she had hoped to pass on to her grandchildren, she added.
“That had been one of my most prized possessions,” she said. “Now I’m so glad I can pass it on.”
Oh, and one other thing was in the box — her high school diploma.
“Honestly I didn’t think much about that or realize it was there,” Willis said. “It’s not nearly as important as the other things.”
Julie said she was glad to be able to return the box and help Willis get that lost part of her life returned.
“It meant a lot to me,” Julie said. “My mom died in September and we’re going through letters and things, and it just felt really good to give her those memories back.”
Perhaps karma will pay it forward. Julie said she lost her own box of memories on the move up here that she hopes one day might return to her.
“When I moved from Albuquerque I lost one box of old childhood slides that my grandparents had taken,” she said. “Of course I’d love to have those back but I know they’re probably gone.”
The couple still return to New Mexico, where Phil grew up, from time to time. Julie said she’d love to meet Willis on one of their future trips.
Willis said she’d enjoy that.
“I would love to meet them, I would absolutely love to,” Willis said. “I’m so extremely grateful that they took the trouble to find me.”