by Gail Alcarese
There is such an overwhelming need to connect with family, especially long-lost family members and the desire to find those family members is compelling. My Father spent 80 years searching for his mother, a mother he had not seen since he was five years old. I championed my father’s cause as well and spent countless hours searching every genealogy website there is, hoping to find information on my grandmother, Valentina Getsch. She was an enigma to my Father, to me and to my siblings. The desire to connect with her ran deep. Was she still alive? What was she like? What did she look like? What was her life like? So many questions without answers. Not knowing about her became a driving force for me, as it had been for my father. In early June of 2017, my sister and I created a Facebook page entitled “The Search for Valentina Getsch.” We hoped that, with the information we had posted, someone would recognize our grandmother.
What we knew was that her story began in Moscow, Russia. My grandfather, Waldemar Konola, was an engineer, sent on a work visa from the US to oversee a large factory project that was being built in Moscow. While there, he met a beautiful young Russian woman named Valentina Gretsch, who lived in the same apartment building as he did. After a brief courtship, they married on July 14, 1931, and my father was born the following year on June 21, 1932. My grandfather returned to the US after two years in Russia and my grandmother followed with my father in August of 1933. The marriage did not endure, and they divorced when my father was five years old. After the divorce, my grandfather changed the family name from Konola to Buranen and moved with my father from my great grandmother’s farm in Lempster, New Hampshire to New York.
When my grandmother returned to the farm to visit my father, she found that the farm had been sold. My grandmother was bewildered as none of the neighbors knew where they had gone. The last time my father and his mother saw each other was before the divorce. On August 29, 2017, we had the unbelievably good fortune of being contacted by a lady named Maria, who had seen our posts on Facebook. She instant messaged me and my sister, Sandy, saying that Valentina was her Grandmother too. In September 2017, Maria, my Father’s niece, traveled from South Carolina with her husband to meet our family and to share her memories of Valentina and her life. We learned that our grandmother had two subsequent marriages which produced a daughter Nina, Maria’s mother, and a son James. Nina died when Maria was young and our grandmother raised her. Maria shared with my father that Valentina never stopped searching for him but that because of the surname change her search proved futile. Maria told us that our grandmother always carried with her a picture of my father as a child and that she prayed every day that she would find him. She died in 2009 at age 96, from complications from congestive heart failure. She also had dementia. In her dementia she asked for my father, wanting her Walter, wanting to know where he was and why he did not visit her.
In October 2017, my father met his brother Jim for the first time, a brother he never even knew existed until but weeks before. He and his brother Jim had talked on the phone several times over the previous few weeks, looking to get to know each other. Jim and his wife live in New Jersey and made the trip to Maryland to meet our family. When my father introduced my uncle Jim to our family, with a catch in his throat he said: “Meet my brother.” My Dad and his brother spent a weekend together along with our family, reveling in the time they had together, with each of them repeating over, and over …”my brother.”
Our family had the pleasure of watching the two sit together, share their lives, and talk the night through at a dinner planned just for that occasion. It was as though they had known each other as brothers for the decades they had been apart, and yet they had been completely unaware of each other’s existence. Uncle Jim and Aunt Pat had a shoebox full of photographs and memories of Valentina to share with my father, my siblings and me. In most of the photographs, my grandmother was striking a pose. She is at once beautiful and glamorous, yet behind the smile, my grandmother had her share of sorrow and pain.
I had never seen my Dad so content, almost peaceful, spending time first with his niece Maria and then with his brother Jim. Maria said that our grandmother loved fairy tales because she liked a happy ending. After 80 years, to discover his mother and his new family is bittersweet in many ways for my Father. Yet, I think he has finally found closure and I hope that is enough for him …
This article was written by Gail Alcarese, Jim Tchaplygin’s niece, for the February, 2018 issue of Hampton Living, a publication for the Hampton community in Towson, Maryland. The post is used with the permission of the publisher.