Monday, December 17, 2007

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 2)

From when I was born in 1960 until 1969 we went to my grandparents’ home in northwest Iowa for Christmas each year. For several years we flew (Ozark Airlines DC-3 propeller planes Iowa City to Sioux City) because it was much easier than trying to fight snow and ice for a seven hour drive.

My grandparents always had long needle pine Christmas trees. The tree was always set up in the parlor off the living room, a room whose only other regular use was to provide a place for Grandpa to take his after noon-dinner naps for 15 minutes before going back to work as an independent electrician. What made their tree spectacular were the lights. The lights on their tree looked like glowing snowballs. They were enormous and multi-colored. I didn’t know of anyone else who had lights like them.

In 2005 when we moved in here at Foxcroft my dad gave me an Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice box and said he thought I would appreciate the contents. I opened it up and found this:

And these:

All together I have over two dozen bulbs. Now they are on our tree:

I think they look great, especially since to go along with the snowball lights, we have these behind our regular lights:

That make this:

I had bought a huge box of old Christmas stuff over 20 years ago at an auction, and 15 of these were in there. I’m embarrassed to admit it took me three Christmases to figure out what they were.

In an age where we are buying incredibly expensive, but reputedly long lasting compact florescent lights, why are these lights all working nearly 50 years later?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 1)

I don’t know why I started in the north corner of the attic when I began cleaning it out in December of 2004, shortly after Helen’s death. Perhaps it seemed the least daunting. There were a set of wooden shelves built into the eaves, and one of the very first things I found there, as I started going through, was a wooden block that had been carved to show the front of the house:

It was in a box with printer’s ink and rollers. I saved the wood block away and thought it was cool. I knew that Helen was a very accomplished artist, and knew it was her work.

Three months later, while STILL working to clear out the attic I found a hand printed Christmas card/booklet. It was tied together with a fancy green, red and gold string. The front looked familiar:

At the bottom of the card is printed:

This is the house our jack built

“Jack” being a slang term for money

This was page two of the card:

This is the Cat that lives in the house our jack built

Page three:

These are the people who care for the Cat who lives in the house our jack built

Page four:

This is the greeting card sent by the people who care for the Cat that lives in the house our jack built “A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to each of you”

And in the manner of Bess' and Helen's verse, I humbly add the following:

And this is the story made by the people who lovingly cherish the greeting card sent by the people who care for the Cat that lives in the house their jack built

2008 Update: “This post was written for as part of a sweepstakes sponsored by SC Johnson’s Right At Home contest:

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Amatuer Archivist

I decided to take a two and half hour break from shoveling ice yesterday and pulled down a box from above the bookcases in the library. Stored above the bookcases are about a dozen boxes with memorabilia from the builders of our home. These all came from upstairs when we cleared out second floor, and took the 1200 sq ft attic and finished it into three bedrooms and a bath. The cousin who inherited the contents of the house asked me to keep whatever papers and photos I wanted, hence the dozen boxes stacked above the bookcases..

Our house was built in 1928 by Bess Fox, a widow and her 18 year old daughter Helen. We moved into the house six months after Helen’s death at age 92, in late 2004. We owned the house for a year before Helen died and I got to know some of her family’s story.

What I need to mention is that over at the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections Department is a collection called “Papers of the Fox Family” that were donated by Helen Fox Angell in 1985. This collection includes letters written by Bess Fox to her husband while he was serving in France before his death during World War I, and his letters to her. Also in the collection are letters from Bess to her daughter, Helen, while she served overseas in the American Red Cross during World War II. When we first bought the house I looked at this collection, but only to find pictures of the house. The photos that are in the blog banner are from that collection.

A brief synopsis of the family history that will help in look at the information below: Helen was a French major and started at the UI in the fall of 1928. In the summer of 1929 she made her first trip to Europe as part of a student language group. She returned to Europe in the summer of 1931. She taught French and English in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, from 1937 to 1943. She then enlisted in the American Red Cross and since she was fluent in French was sent overseas following the Normandy invasion. After the war Helen decided to stay in the Red Cross and was posted to the Panama Canal Zone to serve as the recreation director at a rehabilitation hospital for head wound patients. It was there she met and married Mick Angell, who was ten years her junior, and recovering from a sniper bullet to the head he received in France two weeks after the Normandy invasion.

In starting to document a single box, I am trying to imitate the information in the special collections catalog. Here is a listing of the box I went through:


1. Large portrait picture of ladies in kimonos on a porch (Bess not in picture)
2. Large portrait picture, back reads: “Helen Fox, John Fox, Mary Jane Cummins Fox, (Annette) Mrs. Carl Fox, Carl Fox. In front of 200 Jefferson St. West Union Iowa. About 1918 I suppose”
3. Large baggie of diaries: Helen’s

  • Five Year Diary 1975-79
  • Five Year Diary 1980-84
  • Five Year Diary 1985-87 (says in front cover: (too dilapidated to use more)
  • Five Year Diary 1988-92
  • Five Year Diary 1993-97
  • One Year Diary 1998?
  • One Year Diary 1999
  • Memorandum book with entries Jan 2-8, 1999 which were transferred to diary

4. Bundles of Letters all tied together and marked:

  • Box Ville de Paris B.H. Dyas Co handwritten: “Summer of 1929" Letters from Helen to Bess during trip to Europe. Letters all numbered in pencil in the following order: 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 27, 28, 30

  • Bundle Labeled “Templar Park Summer 1930.” Letters from Helen to Bess from Templar Park in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Letters postmarked from June 19, 1930 to August 26, 1930. Numbered in pencil 1-27
  • Unlabeled bundle. 34 letters most are from Bess to Helen (numbered in pencil 1-21) some others to Helen some from Bess to others, all seem to be from Helen’s 2nd trip to France and postmarked June to August 1931
  • Bundle labeled “Helen Bliss Lake 1935 Mrs. Eastman.” 3 letters and 5 postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked August 1935
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1937-38.” 56 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 4, 1937- June 9, 1938
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1939.” 52 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 6, 1938- June 6, 1939
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1940.” 34 letters and cards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept. 15, 1940- June 15, 1941
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1941-42.” 49 letters and postcards from Sept. 2, 1941 to June 3, 1942
  • Loose pile of letters. 41 letters from Bess to Helen postmarked Sept. 11, 1942 to May 22, 1943. One from Grandma to Helen and one from Mother to Bess.
  • Bundle labeled “Milwaukee 1943.” 56 letters and postcards from Helen to Bess postmarked Sept 7, 1942 to June 7, 1943
  • Bundle labeled “Mick in Germany 1949-50.”37 letters and 4 telegrams most from Mick or Helen to Bess from military bases in Germany or U.S.
  • Bundle labeled “1950 Going to San Antonio.” 17 letters and postcards (numbered in pencil) to Bess from Helen
  • Bundle labeled “Colorado Springs 1951” Letters and postcards (numbered in pencil 1-83) from Helen to Bess
  • Bundle labeled “MP School Augusta GA May 1951.” 7 letters from Mick to Bess
    15. Bundle labeled “Colorado Springs 1953.” Letters and postcards (numbered in pencil 1-22) from Helen to Bess
  • Bundle labeled “Wis Trip 1956.” 11 postcards from Mick and Helen to Bess

By my count this is 566 letters and cards in this ONE BOX! (and it isn't all that full) Remember there are eleven more, plus other boxes that I've taken to my office, including the one that documents building the house!

I sat down last night an read the bundle from Bess to Helen when she was in Paris, summer of 1931. It took nearly two hours. I'm grateful Bess typed her letters. Bess mentions that SHE numbered her envelopes so that Helen would know if she was getting them in order(!) They are chatty and newsys and have a lot of information about everyday life and how the Cubs were doing (She listened to every game on the radio)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dec. 5th, 1933

I really should have put up posts about salvaging paving stones from the neighbors to make a walk, or the new dining room rug, or removing the rest of the vinyl floor from the kitchen, but I haven't.

Instead I present a post from Helen's diary. I have previously posted samples from her mother, Bess, who also kept daily journals:

Bess' Diary

70 Years ago Today

Here is December 5th 1933:


Started 4th Expo. Mrs. Koser over for tea + Mr. also for oyster stew. Resumed reading Arabian Nights: volume 4.6
Zebra fish arrived.

Prohibition formally repealed