In the 22 years that John Mellein has spent collecting beach glass, he always dreamed of some day finding a message in a bottle.
His dream finally came true, but not quite the way he expected.
“I always had this romantic idea: Wouldn’t it be neat if a couple on the coast of France or England wrote a note, put it in a bottle and it somehow managed to make it all the way to the shore of Lake Michigan,” Mellein said with a smile.
A bottle did indeed make it last week to the Lake Michigan shoreline in South Haven, but it wasn’t from a European couple. Rather it was penned by a daughter to her mother, who had recently died.
Unfortunately, some water seeped into the corked bottle, making the message difficult to decipher.
“The cork was glued, but there was just enough of an opening that allowed water to seep in,” Mellein said.
Much of the letter, though, remained intact.
The daughter wrote in part to her mother: “I think about you everyday. Two years have passed since you left...Losing a parent is harder than I thought it would be...You will be happy to know we (family members) are stronger together...You still come to me in my dreams...I will always be your second in command.”
Mellein said he was touched while reading the heartfelt note from Carly to her mother, but at the same time perplexed.
Although most of the words in the letter remained intact, the contact information at the end could not be read due to the water-stained ink. Only two words at the bottom of the note remained legible – “South Haven.” And even though the writer included family members’ names in the letter – dad, Colby and Porter – last names were not included, nor a date.
So Mellein had no idea how he would ever be able to return the note to the person who wrote it.
“It is a mystery,” he said.
Not anymore. A computer search this week of the names mentioned in the letter along with the words “South Haven” revealed that the woman written about in the note was named Claudia Azkoul Walters who died April 11, 2019 after a seven-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She lived in Grand Rapids and was a retired English teacher. She and her husband, Tom Walters, and daughters Carly and Colby, along with loyal dog Porter, spent quite a bit of time in South Haven where the family has a second home.
When contacted by phone Monday evening, Carly and Colby said they were quite surprised someone had found Carly’s message in a bottle.
On April 11th of this year, Tom, Carly and Colby honored their mother by writing notes and placing them in bottles to be released into Lake Michigan by Sleepy Hollow resort, just north of South Haven.
“Last year we released sky lanterns over the lake,” Carly said. “This year we wanted to give her messages in a bottle.”
Family members were able to sink their bottles into the water, but for some reason, Carly’s kept floating.
“I wasn’t able to sink it,” she said. “I was kind of hoping it would go a little further out, like Wisconsin.”
The family comes to the South Haven lakeshore each year to honor Claudia, because she loved it.
“She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease,” Colby said. “A huge part of her (exercise) routine was to walk the beaches.”
The two young women said they have very fond memories of their mother, who was described in the following way in her obituary:
“She was passionate about teaching. Knowing that what students need most is attention, she devoted her time establishing relationships with them by finding out all she could about their families, interests, and their lives.
“Claudia had the gift of hospitality...Even after a Parkinson’s diagnosis seven years ago, Claudia took multiple international trips with family and dear friends. She was determined to manage this new reality with exercise, healthy habits, and keeping her body strong. Long walks around South Haven were a treasured part of her daily routine.
“Claudia was considered a fiercely loyal friend, confidant, advisor and role model. Her greatest legacy was her amazing marriage to Tom, her best friend and soul mate. She was strong, courageous and intellectually curious. She touched a multitude of lives with her patience, kindness, generosity, love of family and most importantly, her love for Jesus.”
Even though Carly’s note didn’t quite make it across the Big Lake, she and her sister are glad that it was found in South Haven, about a mile south of where it first was placed in the water.
“This is so touching,” Colby said, regarding Mellein’s retrieval of the letter from the sandy shores of South Beach and his dogged desire to figure out who wrote the note so he can return it to her.