Hurricane Sandy may have brought heartbreak and tragedy to thousands, but for one South Jamesport teen, the storm brought the miracle of truly knowing her grandfather for the first time.
South Jamesport resident Georgette Keller said when Hurricane Sandy hit, her in-laws, Bob, 87, and Gloria Keller, 85, who live on the bay in Aquebogue and have been married 67 years, had over 51 inches of water pour into ther basement -- destroying decades of priceless family memories and treasures.
For her husband, Robert Keller, finding his father's workbench ravaged, she said, was "heartwrenching."
But out of the floodwaters of despair, came hope: Keller, who was helping to clean out the basement while his parents relocated to their South Jamesport home, was able to salvage bins filled with memories.
In the bins were water-drenched photos and letters -- letters a young Bob Keller had sent his love, Gloria, when he was sent off to serve in the Air Force during World War II.
The letters, Keller said, reveal the romantic young man, wooing his girl, calling her "cupcake" and signing off as "Bobbykins."
Her father-in-law, Keller said, had a stroke 10 years ago that has left him virtually unable to speak. "My kids have't really heard their grandfather talk," she said. "These letters have given him back his voice."
And perhaps the most heartachingly tender experession of love born from the flood-ravaged basement is the care and dedication Keller's daughter, Nina, 15, has given to carefully drying the letters by the fireplace, preserving them forever as precious family history, and, while reading them, gaining a whole new understanding of her grandfather.
Nina carefully covered the floor of their South Jamesport home with blankets and, with her sister Grace, laid out all the water-drenched photos and letters, as well as other precious memories found, including Coney Island ticket stubs, birth announcements, and other glimpses into their family's heritage.
For Nina, the past weeks have been a labor of love. "It's a great thing to do," she said. "I'm learning everything about my grandparents' history, especially in the beginning years."
The experience, she added, has brought new depth and meaning to her relationship with her grandfather.
"When I was five, my grandfather had a stroke and it took away his ability to speak," she said. "Reading what he wrote, to see the kind a person he truly was, it has changed my whole view on who he was, and is, as a human being."
Her grandparents, Nina said, "lost so much," in the basement flooding after Sandy, years of keepsakes and memories dating back to her great-grandparents.
"The fact that we were able to salvage a couple of bins, particularly with these letters, is incredible," she said.
Once she dragged the heavy, water-logged bins, out of the basement, to the car, and into the house, Nina painstakingly set out the letters and photos, along with old dolls, baby clothes, and jewelry that chronicled her family's history, some of which belonged to family members she'd never met.
"It was life-changing," Nina said. "When you think about how much history and belongings were damaged by the flood, if you really understand the magnitude of it -- sometimes, I just wanted to cry."
Pulling photos and letters out of the murky, dank water, Nina was on a mission to preserve the past.
"If someone wasn't there to be dedicated, to do this, it would be gone forever," she said.
The letters, Nina said, covered the period of time from when her grandfather first left for basic training at 17 in 1942 and covered the time until he returned in 1945.
Many of those best preserved, Nina said, were written in India ink, which was meant to not bleed, and in pencil.
And in the letters, she said, are the words of love that laid the foundation for a marriage that has lasted a lifetime.
Her grandfather, said, was very much in love and wrote long letters; she has almost 100 pages in all.
"One was so beautiful," she said. "He told her, 'Don't worry about my getting killed overseas. If I get killed, I'll love you from beyond the grave."
Dotted with terms of endearment such as "cupcake," and "sweets," her grandfather, Nina said, poured out his heart and said "I love you" three or four times in every missive -- teaching her about true and enduring love that spans generations.
"People fawn over movies like 'Dear John' and 'The Notebook' because they're so beautiful, but they don't know that stories like those actually exist in real life, between an octegenarian couple who are still living together after 67 years of marriage."
She added, "It's such a beautiful testament. When he wrote, 'I'll love you forever,' he meant it -- he has," she said.
Even after the stroke, Nina said, "You can see the love he has for my grandmother, in his eyes."
Despite his decline in health, Nina said her grandfather will always be a great man. "He retired as Major Robert O. Keller in the Air Force," she said proudly. Her grandfather, she added, was a B29 pilot and married her grandmother in 1945. "She was a war bride," she said. Her grandfather served first in active service and then in the Reserves for 20 years before retiring; he was also a New York City firefighter and deputy chief.
As she takes each letter out of the sodden pile, Nina lays them all out in front of the fireplace.
"I tried a hair dryer, but that just blows them away," she said.
Magnets help hold the letters down; with each letter up to 20 pages, so far she's dried approximately 100 pages, and she is about halfway through the project.
Each page reflects a chapter of his life, revealed. "I wasn't able to talk to my grandfather when he could talk," Nina said. "So I took it upon myself to learn."
Even when he could speak, Nina said her grandfather was shy and had a stutter. "It was in writing, with a paper and pen, that he found his voice," she said.
Another bright spot in her journey of discovery, Nina said, is sharing the letters with her grandmother, who remembers letters sometimes after reading only a few words.
Nina, who hopes to write a book one day, said the experience has taught her that love between a 17-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl -- the same age that she is now -- can prove timeless.
"This has changed me," she said. "These letters are teaching me that there's more than what meets the eye. And everyone," she said, "has a voice."
Watching his daughter strive to preserve his family's history has been a moving experience for Robert Keller.
"Like so many people's family history, all of this was hidden away in some remote corner of the basement, and it took Hurricane Sandy to bring it back to us," he said.
On Thanksgiving, Keller said he will be thankful his children have been given the opportunity to know their grandparents on a much deeper level. "That is, indeed, a precious gift," he said.