TERRE HAUTE — A piece of an Indiana’s family history from the early 1900s is on its way back to the Hoosier state and into the hands of the closest living relative to its recipient.
Out west in Tucson, Arizona, a stolen car was the bearer of decades of a Hoosier woman’s family’s past. A suitcase filled with letters dated from the 1910s to 1940s are addressed to a woman named Donna. Within the pages are personal letters to her from family in Omaha, as well as others writing to her from overseas during World War II.
For reasons that remain a mystery, that suitcase was found by Tucson Police in a stolen car.
After some digging, the Arizona Department of Public Safety was able to connect with Donna’s closest living relative, who lives more than 1,600 miles from where the letters were found.
“My supposition was that when she died which was 1996, we sold her household goods and whoever bought them, probably put them all up for auction like they do because they take everything,” Donna's niece, Diane Brentlinger, a Terre Haute resident, said. “We had no relatives in Tucson when she died. I lived here. That seemed to be the simple solution. From there on, I have no idea how they got in a stolen car in a black Samsonite suitcase. The letters are on their way to me.”
The trove of letters, photographs and postcards from a loved one that Brentlinger said goodbye to 25 years ago, is now a gift today.
“She was a lot of fun. She was just a neat person, and she was also my godmother. I have very fond memories of this aunt,” Brentlinger said. “I was there when died. She was my last really close relative."
The 86-year-old is anxious to receive this piece of her family’s lost memories.
“It was just last Friday that I learned about it. I couldn’t sleep,” Brentlinger said. “My mind just raced with the possibilities. I am hoping that I will see some letters from my mother to her sister. And who knows what that might reveal? Donna was a very attractive woman. She had a lot of short romances — we will put it that way.”
She is also looking forward to learning more about people she never got the opportunity to get to know herself.
“I was born after my grandfather died, so he is a man I only know a little bit about from my mother,” Brentlinger said. “I know he was a doctor, that he was a good man and took care of his family. But I have no clue about what kind of person he was. I really hope that he had, that if he wrote to her that she would have saved it. That is the main thing I am looking forward to.”
In just days, these letters, nearly a century after they were written, will be back in the hands of someone who will truly cherish the memories shared within their pages.
Those letters are currently in the mail on their way to Brentlinger’s house in Terre Haute. According to WRTV’s Scripps sister station in Tucson, KGUN, the Arizona Department of Public Safety was able to track down Donna’s family using social media.
Brentlinger said she has not been able to spend time with any of her family since last February due to COVID-19. She hopes once everyone is vaccinated, they can have a reunion to share this gift of memories from their family’s past.