Amanda Parker-Wolery was 8 when, on a family vacation in Washington, D.C., her family stumbled upon a battered briefcase filled with World War II memorabilia near the Lincoln Memorial.
Two decades later, Parker-Wolery still remembers how her stomach knotted at the idea of somebody desperately searching for the love letters, old maps and photos that were stuffed inside. Her family unsuccessfully tried for more than a year to find the owner.
Life shoved the mystery to the back burner.
She grew up. Her mother died of cancer. She got married.
But Parker-Wolery never forgot about the bag.
"I always had a feeling in my stomach that this was somebody's life and it doesn't belong to us," said Parker-Wolery, an art teacher who lives in Cincinnati.
Over Labor Day weekend, while cleaning out a shed at her father's home in Mayville, N.Y., where he moved after his wife's death, Parker-Wolery uncovered the silver-buckled, black, plastic briefcase.
It was musty and falling apart. But, the contents remained unscathed.
"It always stuck with me as something I had to do, find the owner," Parker-Wolery said.
This time — thanks to the Internet — it took less than an hour to find Deborah Dean, a 57-year-old Texan and the daughter of the briefcase's owner, Gerald J. Amirault. He died in 1989.
Parker-Wolery called Dean last Saturday.
Dean said she's still in shock.
"I thought I'd never see it again," said Dean, of Hurst, Texas. "The police told me I probably wouldn't either." But the briefcase is in the mail, sent by Parker-Wolery on Wednesday.
The saga started in 1990.
After Amirault died, Dean and her family trekked across the country to Maine, to visit her aunt. Dean hoped she could shed some light on the woman who wrote the love letters to Dean's father.
On the way there, the family stopped in Washington, D.C., where their car was broken into. The thieves took everything - the family's $2,500 in travelers checks, their clothes and the briefcase.
The family still went to Maine, but without being able to look at the documents or pictures, her father's sister couldn't help.
Over the years, Dean has tried to track her father's history, but the job proved impossible. Everything she knew about her father's past was in that briefcase. He never spoke of the war. All she knew was that he served on the front lines in Europe.
Meanwhile, unable to find the owner, Parker-Wolery's mother tucked the briefcase away. She died of cancer 11 years ago. It was put into a Rubbermaid tub, carted to one house and then another. And then to that house's shed.
Parker-Wolery uncovered it while sorting her mother's belongings. She turned to her dad and vowed to find the owner.
After driving back to Ohio last Saturday, she spread the contents of the briefcase on her living room floor.
There were maps of Europe, yellowed, curling at the edges.
A faded black-and-white photo of a young man. The photo wasn't dated.
A luggage tag, suggesting he carried that briefcase with him while in Europe.
And then there were the letters — written in French and broken English over the course of 1945 — from Marie Cleuet. They're long, filled with longings to see Amirault, but also of mundane day-to-day activities.
The two perhaps had an affair, though she talks about her husband and being pregnant with a son. She called Amirault, "my love." She fretted when too long went by between letters, fearful he was angry with her. She talked of wanting to meet up with him in France.
On May 31, 1945, she wrote, "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."
Parker-Wolery feared over time she had romanticized the contents of the briefcase, her little girl sensibilities turning the story into a fairy tale. But, now she knows there was a mystery woman and some sort of love story.
She searched for clues that would lead her to the briefcase's owner.
Inside was a list of Amirault family names, notations from Dean who was trying to sort out her father's history. And the death certificate, which described Amirault as a sheet metal worker who was born in Fort Worth. He died of a heart attack in April 1989.
It was the most recent document and it had a Hurst, Texas, address on it.
Parker-Wolery tried Facebook first, thinking the name was so unusual the search would turn up just a few results.
She got 600.
She then typed that address into the Internet white pages. Up popped Dean, who moved into her father's home after he died.
"I know this is going to sound weird..." Parker-Wolery's message started.
Dean called right back.
She knew just what briefcase Parker-Wolery was referring to.
"I am just ecstatic," Dean said. "I can't wait to get it back."
Wednesday, Parker-Wolery looked through the letters one last time, brown packing paper and a box waiting nearby.
"I almost don't want to let it go because it's become part of my family history," Parker-Wolery said. "But the truth is I have to let it go, it's not ours."
Parker-Wolery slowly bundled the letters in twine, placing them back inside the plastic case.
On top she tucked a letter to Dean.
In it, she apologizes for taking so long to get the contents back to her. And she wrote: "Thank you for sharing your family's memories with me."