HURST -- Deborah Dean's phone rang late one night last week.
She sat up in bed as she listened to the brief message left on her answering machine.
"I couldn't believe it," said Dean, 56.
Surprised, thrilled by the unexpected call, she took a sleeping pill but lay awake until 4 a.m.
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Twenty years ago, Dean, her husband and daughter went on a summer trip to the East Coast. While in Washington, D.C., they parked and locked their car and headed off to view the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments on the National Mall.
During their absence someone, broke into the car.
All their clothing was stolen. So was Dean's purse and $2,500 in traveler's checks.
Another missing item was priceless and irreplaceable: a black, hard plastic briefcase. It contained Dean's late father's World War II memorabilia, including maps, several photographs, and what appeared to be love letters written to the soldier in 1945 in French and broken English.
Dean had found the keepsakes in the attic of her widowed father's home after he died in 1989.
"I was devastated," Dean said of the theft.
Dean's father, Gerald J. Amirault, was born in Nova Scotia and served overseas in the U.S. Army during World War II. His only child knew little else about his life before he married.
She was particularly interested in the bundles of personal letters.
My dear Gerald ... I have for you a very great affection.
Penned in blue ink, faded by time, they were mailed to her father by a married woman in Paris named Marie Cleuet. Who was she? What was their relationship? Was she still alive?
"She's a mystery to me," Dean said.
She hoped her father's sister might know something about the woman and that period of Amirault's life. Dean's family was en route to Connecticut, to see the aunt, when the briefcase was stolen. The Deans went on to Connecticut, but without the letters, photos and other documents, Dean's aunt was unable to shed light on her brother's wartime past.
Dean gave up hope of recovering the briefcase and its contents.
Then, last week, her phone rang.
Where it had been
Amanda Parker-Wolery of Cincinnati had no idea whom she was calling.
"I know this is going to sound weird ..." her message began.
Parker-Wolery was 8 when she took a family vacation to our nation's capital. During the visit, her parents found a briefcase in a park near the Lincoln Memorial.
"We just stumbled across it," Parker-Wolery said. "I remember my parents debating whether they should take it to the police or try to find the person it belonged to. If they turned it over to the cops, they thought it might end up in a storage room forever."
Her mother spent a year trying to find the briefcase's owner, she said.
Time passed. Parker-Wolery grew up. Her mother died of cancer.
But Parker-Wolery never forgot about the briefcase and the puzzling history it held.
She romanticized as she pictured the 25-year-old American soldier reading page after page of heartfelt missives from a woman who clearly had feelings for him. It is a very great pleasure to read your letters and know you are for me. I certainly wish very much to see you very soon.
"This should go to someone," Parker-Wolery, now an art teacher, told herself. "I knew we needed to make this right. It became 100 percent up to me."
Reunited at last
On Labor Day weekend, Parker-Wolery found the briefcase while cleaning out a shed at her father's home in Mayville, N.Y. She carried it back to Cincinnati and again went through its contents. Among the documents was Amirault's death certificate, which listed a home address in Hurst.
She found a phone number online.
Dean, who had moved into her father's home after his death, listened to the message and immediately called back.
Parker-Wolery told the remarkable story of finding the briefcase and her belated efforts to return it to its rightful owner.
On Saturday, the doorbell rang at Dean's home in Hurst.
Dean found a package -- sent via Priority Mail for $21-- on her porch.
When Gerald Amirault's daughter removed the wrapping and opened the briefcase, her heart quickened with anticipation and joy.
"A lot of people would have thrown it away and not thought a thing about it," Dean said as she picked up one letter, then another, sent to her father by a woman in Paris nine years before Deborah was born, a woman whose identity she hopes one day to solve.
With the package was a printed note from the sender.
"I am so glad such a treasure has found its way back home," it read. "I am so sorry it took so long to get there."
David Casstevens, 817-390-7436