Such a pretty word, serendipity. Tickles the lips and tongue to say it.
Yet it’s the word’s meaning and its occurrence in life that’s truly delightful.
The fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance.Cambridge Dictionary
A happy coinage by Horace Walpole to denote the faculty of making lucky and unexpected ‘finds’ by accident. In a letter to Sir Horace Mann (28 January 1754) he says that he formed it on the title of a fairy story, The Three Princes of Serendip, because the princes ‘…were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 20th Edition
Serendipity recently brought me lucky and unexpected finds regarding my family history, as well as a new friend.
My brush with serendipity started on social media. For all the bad raps social media gets, many well-deserved, its ability to restore old connections and create new ones is remarkable.
Because I was born and raised in a suburb of Seattle, a friend there recently suggested that I follow a Facebook page called Seattle Vintage. It’s a public page where people share nostalgic photos and stories about Seattle and surrounding areas.
On September 16, 2020, a group member posted a memorial to Brien Wygle, a Boeing test pilot who died the day before at 96 years of age. Brien was my father’s friend and colleague. The two men were the same age, born just months apart. Both started their careers at Boeing in 1951. Brien was someone I remembered from childhood, but he became my friend when, beginning in 2002 and over the next twelve years, he graciously spent many hours with me, sitting for interviews, reviewing photos and fact checking as I researched and eventually wrote my book, Growing Up Boeing (2014). An amazing man.
I commented on the Seattle Vintage post about him.
My name was recognized by other page members. A few comments were exchanged about my father and my book. Then, this:
I reached out to Lindsay via Facebook Messenger, and we quickly established some remarkable “small world” facts and connections.
Lindsay’s parents were friends with my uncle, Jesse Wallick, my father’s youngest brother who followed him out of Kansas to Seattle in the late 1950s to also become a Boeing test pilot. Lindsay sent me this photo.
Lindsay remembers attending Jesse’s wedding in July 1962. Lindsay’s mother made matching dresses for her and her sister to wear; they also wore them for their elementary school photos later that year. I was the flower girl, so Lindsay and I surely met that day although neither of us remember it.
Lindsay’s father, Art Schultz, was a remarkable artist. He spent his career working as a graphic illustrator for Boeing. Lindsay sent me photos of some examples of his work, including a mural of military airplanes he’d done for the Sand Point Naval Air Station Officer’s Club in Seattle. Seeing that photo, I realized his style was familiar. I sent Lindsay a photo of a print I have hanging in my home office. The print is of a much larger original illustration given to my father upon his retirement from Boeing in 1986.
I couldn’t find the name of the artist anywhere on the print. Lindsay couldn’t verify with certainty that this is her father’s work, but she believes it is, and remembers he was sometimes asked to do such illustrations for people retiring from the company.
All of that is pretty serendipitous, right?
It gets better.
After her father passed, Lindsay went through boxes of old stuff her parents and squirreled away over the years.
Among those items she found several letters and postcards that my uncle Jesse had sent her parents from all over the world. (Boeing test pilots and crews flew to various countries to demonstrate airplanes to airlines. They traveled a lot. Enduring memories from my childhood include my father often being away from home for days at a time, returning with gifts from the countries he had visited.) This was a rare glimpse into the life of my favorite uncle as a young man. He was born in 1934, so he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote these. Recently out of the Air Force, Jesse had his mechanical engineering degree and was starting his career at Boeing Flight Test. In July 1962, Jesse – my father’s brother – married Annette, my mother’s niece, keeping things “in the family” and making the bonds between the two families even tighter. Jesse passed in 2016.
Lindsay had yet another wonderful, serendipitous surprise for me. Tucked in one the boxes of her parents’ things she found four letters written by my grandfather.
Lindsay mailed them to me to keep. What treasures!
Neither Lindsay nor I can be sure how that connection between her parents and my grandfather came to be. My father’s father was also named Samuel Lewis Wallick, going by Sam while my father was known as Lew. He lived in Kansas his entire life. My father and his four siblings were all born and raised in Kansas, on the family homestead outside Independence. At some point, most likely when my grandparents visited Seattle in 1959 or 1960 (I’m not sure of the year), Jesse must have introduced them to his friends Art and Mary Schultz.
Grandpa (as I called him) was born in 1876. On May 31, 1922, he married my grandmother, Ethel. He was 45 and she was 31, marrying late in life for their era. So late, in fact, that Ethel’s parents had earlier given her a beautiful white-gold-and-diamond engagement ring. The setting is in the Edwardian style of 1900-1920. Ethel received the ring when she was in her twenties as a sort of consolation gift, being considered an “old maid” by then who likely would never marry. She did marry, though, and had five children over the next 16 years. After she passed in 1962, at age 70, the ring her parents gave her was bequeathed to me. As a child I would beg my mother to pull it from it’s safe storage place high in a kitchen cabinet so I could admire it’s delicate filigree design and sparkling diamond.
Another “gift” from my paternal grandmother is my name. Or, more precisely, my first name. I was given the middle name of each of my grandmothers: Ethel Rebecca and Calista Marie. I’ve always joked that I dodged a bullet at birth, as I could have been named Ethel Calista.
What’s most interesting to me about the correspondence between my grandfather and Lindsay’s parents is it occurred in 1962. There were four letters from my grandfather. I have no idea how many letters Art and Mary may have written to him. After some sleuthing I realized the timing made sense: my grandmother passed in January 1962. The correspondence started in April of that year. I imagine that Lindsay’s parents recognized a loneliness in my grandfather, so recently widowed, and reached out through letters. Lindsay says her mother appreciated farm life, so that was a connection she shared with my grandfather.
In early 1962 my grandfather was eighty-five. He rarely visited Washington, where two of his sons had moved. His three other children were living in or near Kansas. When I was young, my family would often fly to Kansas for the July 4th holiday and Wallick family reunions. We were able to fly for free on Boeing delivery flights to Boeing’s Wichita plant, usually piloted by my father. (Boy, were those fun flights!) Most interactions with my grandparents on both sides occurred in Kansas. My most vivid memories of those early visits include oppressive heat, fireflies at night, and daytime lightning storms viewed from the porch.
I wish I could have known my Wallick grandparents better. I have no memories of Ethel; I had just turned four when she passed away. What I do remember about Grandpa is that he was warm and friendly, happy to hold me, and he always had candy and silver dollars for his grandchildren.
The dates on the old letters, and their contents, helped me settle a long-standing dispute with my mother. I had always believed I learned to water ski when I was five. That was my memory. My mother insisted I was six. We both remember that grandfather Wallick was visiting when I learned because he offered me a silver dollar if I managed to get up on skis while he was there. He offered my mother the same deal. I eventually succeeded, she didn’t. (There’s 8mm film of both our attempts.) In one of Grandpa’s letters to Art and Mary, dated July 2, 1962, he writes that he’s preparing to fly to Washington for Jesse and Annette’s wedding later that month, that my Uncle Ed and his wife will fly with him. I was five that summer. That’s the summer my grandfather was visiting, the summer I learned to water ski and earned his silver dollar incentive. Film shows Uncle Ed driving the boat while my father stood beside me in the shallow water, helping guide and reassure me. All the pieces of my memory fell neatly into place between the lines written almost six decades ago by Grandpa.
The last letter my grandfather wrote to Lindsay’s parents is dated December 12, 1962. After sharing local weather and family news, he wrote of his hope that Jesse and Annette would visit over Christmas “if the weekend before is flying weather for light planes.” He remarked on the color of the sugar maples in his yard in the fall, and thanked Mary for her most recent letter.
Grandpa passed away in August of 1963, at the age of eighty-seven.
Each time I handle his letters and envelopes, I can literally smell 1962. I can imagine my grandfather, his tall, angular body seated at his kitchen table in Kansas, hunched over sheets of letter paper, working to hold his hand as steady as possible as he carefully wrote out each word to avoid mistakes. The paper and ink hold a unique old-time scent that transports me back to being a kid, to memories of Grandpa, shining a small spotlight on an otherwise vague, ephemeral person who is part of my history.
Lindsay and I have shared many long messages and emails over the past several weeks, a bright spot during some difficult emotional challenges and the stresses of an election and ongoing pandemic. We’re learning more about each other, our histories and shared experiences growing up in the same suburb with fathers employed by the same company.
Lindsay’s mother Mary was also an amazing artist. Lindsay sent me a collection of postcards her mother had made from some of her larger drawings. They’re a varied collection of scenes with people in front of homes or in boats, cars, trees and fields. Her drawings have incredible detail, almost photographic. One drawing in particular, of two children standing in a cornfield, brought back a flood of memories of visiting the Wallick homestead during those hot July family reunions, tossing fire crackers with my brothers, playing hide-and-seek among the tall corn stalks, pumping water from the well to quench our thirsts, struggling with all my body weight to pull the big pump handle toward the ground to make the water flow.
After Grandpa passed we didn’t visit Kansas as often. On a visit when I was in my early twenties I remember wandering through what was then an old, dilapidated farmhouse on the homestead. The land was leased to a local farmer to work but no one had lived in the house for years. My father was clearly upset that it had been let go so badly. On the main floor I came upon my grandmother’s old treadle Singer sewing machine, the type that folded down into its own cabinet. It was covered in dust and cobwebs but otherwise in good shape. I begged my father to rescue it, but we couldn’t bring it home with us in the Cessna; too heavy, as we were already fully loaded. An uncle and aunt living near the farm offered to store it for me. I wonder if they still have it, as I never completed the rescue by retrieving it from them. In fact, that was my last trip to Kansas.
I don’t know when my grandfather moved from the farmhouse into town, but based on the return address on his letters to Art and Mary, he was living in town by 1962. Curious, I googled the address. Surprisingly, the home still exists.
It was common for aged farmers to retire and eventually leave their farms, moving into town for easier access to necessities like groceries, health care and assistance with daily living. Because Lindsay found and shared Grandpa’s letters with me, I now know where he spent the last part of his life, living very near one of his sons.
It’s simply amazing, the things – memories, mementos, new friendships – that unexpectedly appeared in my life as a result of a chance bit of writing on a public Facebook page.
Here’s to more serendipity in all our lives.
Feature photo: My grandparents on their wedding day, May 31, 1922.