Sometimes the most treasured gift is the one we never expected to receive, which is how Ashland artist Margaret Garrington felt in July when she answered an e-mail from a stranger in Illinois asking whether she was the daughter of Margaret Ann Eitner.
Diana Vickery sent the e-mail because she had discovered Garrington's mother's baby book from 1924 in an antique store outside of Chicago. It turns out Vickery loves the challenge of genealogy, and her passion is restoring family mementoes with their rightful owners.
Vickery sent Garrington the baby book, which the Ashland woman never even knew book existed, and Vickery asked for nothing in return except that Garrington pass on the kindness to someone else.
"People tell me they feel kind of a glow," says Vickery, who has reunited 15 families with missing mementoes. She has the most success when she finds old photos that include a somewhat unusual family name.
"I mostly use Ancestry.com, but there is also a lot of information from old newspaper archives which are now online," she says. Vickery also uses a reference book titled "America's Newspapers," an online database that goes back to the 1800s.
When she goes hunting, Vickery tells antiques dealers exactly what she's looking for. "Most of the dealers know their stock pretty well," she says, and can direct her to hidden treasures that include family names, such as Garrington's mother's baby book.
"I could tell it belonged to a much loved child, and somebody would want to have it back," Vickery says.
Vickery researches the names she finds, and if she can track down an ancestor, she contacts them to see whether they are interested in receiving what she has found.
"I always felt sad when I used to see old photos in antique stores; sad that they weren't with their families anymore," says Vickery, who feels excitement when she begins her detective work. It is almost like "unearthing artifacts" she says, and people seem very willing to help once she explains what she's doing.
Two of her most interesting finds include an autograph book from Ashland, Wisc., and a 1917 Pennsylvania championship basketball team photo. The farthest her gifts have traveled is one she sent to England to a man whose ancestors came to America in the 1600s.
If the descendents she contacts do not respond to her inquiries, Vickery checks with local historical societies, which are usually delighted to include her find in their collections. Most people, however, are thrilled to be reunited with these long-lost memories.
"It was a miracle that this book came back to me," Garrington says. "It must have been sitting in a box of old books which got sold at the estate sale when my mother passed away."
That's how most of these family mementoes end up in antiques stores, says Vickery.
Many times families don't even know the mementoes exist until Vickery contacts them. One woman was moved to tears because she received a photo of her grandfather, and she had never known what he looked like before that moment, Vickery says.
The Illinois woman's next rescue challenge is to find a lost family bible. Bibles have traditionally been a place where families kept a record of their personal history.
"Unfortunately Bibles are supposed to be burned if they are found by someone outside the family, so it might take some real digging to locate one," she says.
Fortunately for Garrington, Vickery believes in challenges. The sweet, pink baby book with the tiny envelopes of wispy hair and rare photos of her mother as an infant is safe and back where it belongs. A treasured and unexpected gift delivered by an unknown hand reaching out from the distant past.