A New Mexico woman got the surprise of a lifetime when she received a voicemail from a Washington couple saying they had found a trunk filled with treasured belongings she had lost more than 24 years ago.
"I could not believe it," Shirley Willis, 77, of Farmington, N.M. told ABCNews.com. "It had just been too long."
The old metal trunk belonged to Willis and her husband George Willis, who were married in 1950. Inside, the couple stored treasured keepsakes including love letters George Willis wrote to Shirley Willis while he was stationed away from home during the Korean War.
Also among the sentimental items was a small, red coat and matching hat Shirley Willis' mother had crocheted for her when she was 4. "I felt so special when I wore it," Willis remembered.
The trunk and its content were lost when the couple moved from their home in 1988.
"Over the years, we had searched frantically for it," Willis said. After about five years passed, Willis gave up hope of ever finding it. "It was gone and I had no idea what happened to it."
Twenty-three years later, and 11 years after George Willis passed away, she received a phone call during Christmas week from Julie and Phil Hoice, who lived 1,000 miles away, in Vancouver, Wash.
They had found her lost trunk.
"I left a message for her and said I was calling about her suitcase and she called back in early January,'' Julie Hoice said. "We were happy to find out she was the correct owner."
After so many years, Shirley Willis had forgotten what was in the metal trunk.
"She was thrilled," Hoice said. "She asked about the contents, and we hadn't opened it so my husband got it out and said there were letters and some baby clothes…she cried a little bit and was moved. It was very sweet."
Willis was excited to learn that the love letters from her late husband might find her again.
Phil Hoice explained that he found the metal trunk under the sink of an apartment he rented in Farmington years ago. At the time, he planned to find the owner but the task had gotten away from him.
"I had the suitcase, but it got stored away and it was one of those things, 'Oh my gosh look at this, it's someone's treasure, it needs to get back to this person,'" Hoice said. "And it's just one of those things that got put out of sight."
Out of sight and out of mind, that is until Julie Hoice's mother died in September and he was reminded of the value of memories when they cleaned out his late mother-in-law's home.
"She kept every letter from all the way back to the 40s from her grandmother," Phil Hoice explained. After being moved by the experience, he returned home over Christmas and rediscovered Willis' trunk in the attic and said, "This is priceless and it meant something to this lady,'' he recalled saying.
Determined to find the owner at last, he recruited his wife to investigate.
"He had pulled the suitcase out, found a name, because there were mostly letters, and had given me a card with Shirley's name on it and said, 'See if you can locate these folks or her family,' " Julie Hoice said.
With Google she found Shirley Willis' phone number. Willis offered to reimburse the Hoice's for shipping the trunk, but they said it was their Christmas gift to her.
"I'm so sorry that it was here for so long, but I'm grateful she has it and has her memories," Phil Hoice said.
Willis recalled the joy she felt the evening the trunk arrived at her house. "It was wonderful the night I got it," she said.
"I got all those letters out and started reading them,'' she said of those love letters her husband had written her during the war. "I literally went back almost 60 years to 1953. It was wonderful."
In addition the love letters, and clothing the Willis children had grown out of, the trunk also had Shirley Willis' high school diploma, notebooks, report cards and notes from friends and teachers.
Willis was thrilled but surprised by the interest in her reunion with her past. "I had no idea it would be such a big story," she said, stunned that both her local paper and the Hoice's local paper were interested.
"I thought that I would be the only one it would mean that much to, but maybe it's because of the goodness of people,'' she said. "Something really nice comes out and I think that's pretty special to people."