I didn’t know the photo was missing until I heard from Patti Wagner.
I’m not sure I even remembered it existed. I’d certainly seen it before — an image of my paternal grandmother, Merlyn Putnam Schilling, taken when she was a teenager.
She’s wearing a light-colored dress and a jeweled necklace, and she’s holding a bouquet of flowers.
The photo sat on a bookshelf in my childhood home in Kennewick for years, one of many on display.
But I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at those old photos or learning the stories behind them as a kid, and I never met Merlyn, who went by Mynn. She died before I was born.
So, the photo wasn’t at the top of my mind when Wagner contacted me about it.
She found it at the Goodwill on West Court Street in Pasco, with Mynn’s name written on the back. It was there by mistake, inadvertently left in a frame my parents donated when they downsized and moved across the river. Wagner figured it may have ended up at the store in error, and some online sleuthing led her to me. In no time, the photo was back with my family.
It’s not the first time Wagner has reunited loved ones with a lost item.
The 68-year-old retired nurse is an expert thrift store shopper, even regularly meeting up with friends to thrift together. She’s an avid reader and is often on the hunt for books.
But sometimes she comes across items that seem too personal and too special to be left on thrift store shelves. She’s found military discharge papers and a college girl’s diary from the 1940s.
Recently, she found a baby book — one that had been carefully filled out.
It turned out the baby book belonged to a woman who died in 2021, and it ended up in a Goodwill pile by mistake. Wagner was able to track down the woman’s sister and return it.
“She wanted to pay me, and I said, ‘Absolutely not. This belongs to you,’” Wagner said. “When she started crying, I almost started crying, too. She was so happy to get it back. It’s a good feeling.”
Wagner sometimes enlists help from her brother in tracking down family members; he found the grandson of the 1940s college girl who documented her life in the diary.
Unfortunately, not all of Wagner’s thrift store finds end up back with family.
Sometimes she identifies and reaches out to a relative but doesn’t hear back. In those cases, she holds onto whatever it was she was trying to return, rather than tossing it.
To her, those artifacts of other people’s lives are still special.
“They’re treasures,” said Wagner, who lives in Pasco with her husband, Kenneth.
They have two children and four grandchildren.
Wagner’s kindness in returning Mynn’s photo made an impression on my family.
“I thought it was exceptionally, incredibly nice,” said my mom, Judy Schilling. “I was touched that someone who didn’t know us went to so much trouble for us.”
My mom is the keeper of our family’s history. She’s the one who wrote Mynn’s name on the back of the picture; in fact, she’s labeled all our family photos so my older brother, Al Schilling III, and I will be able to identify the faces in our family tree stretching back generations.
Unlike me, my mom and brother both spent time with Mynn, though not when she was at her best. She died in 1978, five years after a serious illness left her in need of 24-hour care and unable to speak.
My dad, Al Schilling Jr. — who goes by Bert — remembers when she was full of life.
She was energetic and magnetic — the ultimate hostess, he said. And she had a gift for remembering people’s names, which helped my grandfather, Al Schilling Sr., immensely.
He was in the hospitality business, working his way from bellboy to manager of hotels such as The Historic Davenport in Spokane and the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle. He hosted movie stars, astronauts and presidents, and he helped run Spokane’s Lilac Festival and Seattle’s Seafair.
Mynn was by his side through it all, whispering names in his ear and supporting him as best she could.
She used her gifts to enrich my dad’s life, too.
She was a great cook, and she’s responsible for Bert’s lifelong love of crepes and for a ramen-like soup we call “skinny noodles” — which she created just for him after he tried a similar dish at a restaurant.
She also filled their home with music, especially showtunes. To this day, my dad adores “The Sound of Music,” “Phantom of the Opera” and the like, and he plays the piano beautifully.
Like many parents, she pushed him to work hard and succeed.
She also showed him a deep, enduring love, which he’s passed onto his own kids.
“I miss her,” my dad said. “She was central to my life.”
My dad doesn’t talk about his mom much, at least not in day-to-day conversation. But the photo of her as a teenager, and Wagner’s kindness in getting it back to us, brought up memories.
I heard stories I’d never known. I looked at the old photo in a new way.
In it, I still see a girl I never met in a light-colored dress and jeweled necklace, holding flowers. But I also see my own dark hair, my niece Ty Schilling’s sparkling eyes and hints of my brother.
I see my dad, who’s now lived far longer without his mom than with her.
I’m glad to hear him speak her name aloud.
I’m glad she’s back with us, where she belongs.
Sara Schilling works as a reporter for the Senior Times and Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business.
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