ROMULUS — Thanks to an old photograph and a Geneva native with sleuth-like skills, an Indianapolis family has been able to spend a weeklong summer vacation in their childhood home.
This is a convoluted story, so strap yourselves in for its twists and turns. However, like a roller coaster, it’s worth the ride.
Debbie Combs, a Geneva native who has been living in Connecticut for 40 years, came into possession of a bag of old family photographs that had belonged to her late uncle, Jack Long, who died three years ago. Combs’ mother, Nancy Long, could identify most of the people and places in the pictures, but there was one that remained a mystery. It was an image that lodged in Combs’ mind — a young girl with a pageboy haircut, seated in a wagon that’s being pulled by a miniature ram.
“You don’t see this (kind of picture) in this day and age,” said Combs, who found it very intriguing. “It just told a story to me. You knew it had to be some family’s heirloom.”
A genealogy fan, Combs — with time on her hands thanks to the pandemic — decided to try and track down the photo’s subject. One clue was the date, name and subject’s age written on the back: 1923 Jean Roembke, age 3. She entered the name and a 1920 birth date on Ancestry.com and saw that the late Jean Roembke was born in Indianapolis. She tried the White Pages, and even Facebook, to try and connect with Roembke’s listed relatives, to no avail.
It was when Combs stumbled on the Roembke Family Reunion Facebook page and reached out to the administrator that her digging started to yield results. Although the administrator did not know of a Jean Roembke, she put the word out. Within hours, Combs had connected with Mary Arnold Houser, Jean Roembke’s daughter.
Texts, photos and putting the pieces togetherCombs and Houser exchanged texts and photos, and one from Houser of children posed in front of a fireplace caused Combs to gasp.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, I know where this is. It’s at my Uncle Jack’s house,” she exclaimed.
Mary Houser and her three brothers grew up in that house on East Lake Road. It was built by Mary’s father, William Arnold, a Naples native who served in World War II and met his Indiana-born bride in a California hospital after being injured at Guadalcanal.
In 1960, Houser was 11 when her mother returned to Indianapolis after Mary’s grandmother died; Jean Roembke took her four children, ranging in age from 2-13, and her husband did not join them. Mary Houser didn’t see her father again for 20 years. He died in 1983, seven years before her mother passed away.
As adults, Houser and her brother, Jim Arnold, returned to the area to visit with their father and his family. Two years ago, Houser drove by the home. On a prior visit, Jim Arnold drove by and Jack Long invited him in for a look around.
How Long, the home’s second owner, came to possess a childhood photo of Jean Roembke is anybody’s guess, but Combs surmises he discovered it after the family left and stashed it with his own family photos.
After learning of the house connection between the two families, Combs told Houser that her late uncle’s family (who still own the home) were renting it out this summer for the first time. Houser and her brother, plus their families, quickly booked it and stayed this past week, coordinating their visit with a family reunion on their father’s side in Naples.
After months of online and telephone conversations, Combs and Houser met in person this past Wednesday(July 14), looking through old pictures (and even a report card) as Combs detailed how that mystery photo led her to the current moment.
Houser joked that when she first connected with Combs online, she assumed she was a Roembke.
“I feel like I am,” Combs laughed.
Arnold and Houser said being in their childhood home has unleashed a flood of memories, like running in a nearby field and picking dandelions; sliding down the laundry chute; or, for Mary, being stowed by her older brother in the closet with her dolls. Both remarked how the cabinets and woodwork have remained the same and the home is in good shape.
Despite the rainy weather, it was a wonderful vacation week.
“I sat out in the rain this morning on the front porch, looking at the lake,” Houser said. “You just couldn’t take the smile off my face.”
Both siblings noted the visit also provided an opportunity to share different memories about an unexpected and painful move.
“I didn’t ever feel like I got closure,” Houser said. “I never got to say goodbye.”
This experience inspired Combs to join two family heirloom Facebook groups, where people post pictures of things ranging from unidentified family photographs to discovered items that could carry sentimental value, like a Army dog tags found while digging in a yard. Combs said it can take anywhere from a few hours to a week to make the connections people are seeking, but every minute spent on such a project is worth it.
“It just makes you feel good,” she said. “You don’t know what something is going to mean to somebody. ... You never know how one act of kindness can affect somebody else.”