Posts made in May, 2011

Love Letters, Chapter 9

The final chapter…

I apologize… it’s been a long time since my last post about the set of love letters I purchased on ebay. (New here? Start from the beginning.) Today, I plan to wrap up all the loose ends so I can start the first installment of my own “White Charley and Over-the-Wall-Fred” saga. I decided after all the time I’ve spent digging into other people’s family histories, it was probably time to share a little of my own. I think you’ll enjoy it.

But first… a few final words about my ebay love letters. In Chapter 8, I introduced you to the Leavenworth Mansion of Syracuse, New York. This is where Dr. John Van Duyn and his first wife, Janet, lived with John’s parents (Dr. Edward and Lucy Van Duyn), and his younger sister, Constance. It was also where they raised their three children.

Back in February, I managed to track down John and Janet’s youngest daughter, Barbara. I emailed her and told her about the love letters that had been addressed to her father, and asked if she would mind answering some questions so I could wrap up my story. She very graciously agreed.

First of all, I told Barbara how much I enjoyed her mother’s book, I Married Them. It’s a fictional account of the very funny and eccentric Maclean (Van Duyn) family, as told by the newest member of the fold, John’s wife Janet (the author herself). The men were second and third-generation physicians who were brilliant surgeons, but had little time for bedside manner. Carrie (Lucy) was the matriarch of the household and my favorite of all the characters. She reminded me a lot of my own mother, and I can easily picture her with a snow brush in her hand, fending off would-be parking lot hooligans (see my previous post, “Happy Mother’s Day.”)

In Janet Dunning’s book, I Married Them, the entire cast of characters enjoyed gathering for cocktails each evening in Doctor Mac and Carrie’s (Dr. Edward and Lucy’s) boudoir. It was here where the story really started to come to life.

“The Boudoir was the most lived-in room of the Maclean mansion. It occupied the sunniest corner of the house, across the hall from the bedroom of Carrie and Mac, who used it as a combination dressing room and living room. Nobody ever sat around in any of the downstairs rooms, which were cold and forbidding, definitely unsuited to the Maclean way of life. Visitors were always brought immediately to the Boudoir, and refreshments were served here daily at five. Those refreshments might range anywhere from tea and sandwiches on a silver tray, to lukewarm highballs made from another bottle of Bourbon hidden behind Doctor Mac’s dresser, tap water from an adjoining bathroom, and mixed in a bathroom glass which was cloudy and tasted of toothpaste. No one ever complained about the highballs though, except when they were not available.”

The Boudoir also contained the most unique and important piece of furniture in the house… a chaise lounge that the Van Duyn’s lovingly referred to as their “shay-ZEE.”

“The Shazey, as a matter of fact, was so comfortable it was always in demand. Aunt Grace who was technically an outsider [she was the family’s resident artist and semi-permanent boarder], and therefore had a certain perspective on the life of the family, said that if you drew a diagonal line across the Boudoir, all the people in the house would be found in the Shazey corner, like cattle keeping each other warm in a blizzard. With careful arranging, the Shazey had been known to accommodate five people, the best seats awarded to the first comers. Late arrivals had to content themselves with drawing up chairs and getting as close to it as possible.

After finishing her mother’s book, I was curious whether Barbara Van Duyn had grown up in the mansion, and if so, what it had been like to live there.

Q. Did you grow up in the Leavenworth Mansion?

A. Yes, I lived there until I was seven. After that, we moved to Westport, Connecticut to live with my mother. She wrote the book to make money after my parents divorced. Nana was a lot of fun. She got bored easily and was the type to swing from the chandelier at every Christmas party. Often times, because we lived close to the railroad track, bums would show up on our doorstop asking for food. Once, a bum showed up during a party and shoved his way into the house, begging for a cup of coffee and something to eat. It turns out it was Nana, dressed up like a bum! Another thing I remember is the story of “old man Harold.” He was there at the house every morning by 5am. We all thought it was so wonderful that he would arrive so early every day to stoke the fire so everyone would have warm showers and heat by the time we woke up. As it turns out, he had found a little place to live within the mansion… a hole in the wall with his own little cot. No one even knew he was there! I also remember the lions along the front walk. I used to play on the left lion and would put food in a crack in its base, just in case he came alive.

Q. Why was your father, John Van Duyn, living and practicing in Duluth, Minnesota in 1949? How did he end up here?

A. My father was trying to find a situation to pay alimony to my mother. He had a practice in Syracuse with his father, but after the divorce, he needed to make more money, rather than trying to build up a practice. So, by 1949 he had decided to switch to plastic surgery, and was working for a clinic in Duluth.

Q. Did you know Ruth Ives? Did she and your father ever end up getting married?

A. We loved Ruthie Ives, and we wanted our father to marry her. She was so sweet! As it turns out, my father ended up marrying another woman he met while living in Duluth. They had another child together… a girl named Patti. She was in my life long ago, but we lived so far apart and our lives were so different that we never stayed connected.

Q. I noticed that Paramount bought the rights to your mother’s book, I Married Them. Was it ever made into a movie?

A. No. Paramount paid $500 for the movie rights, but it never went anywhere. Apparently the Irish servants in the community didn’t like how the character Cleary was depicted in the book, so my mother was disappointed and didn’t write anything more until the 1970s. Then, she wrote a series of books for young people about the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.

Q. Are your parents still alive?

A. No. My father died in 1986, and my mother died in 2003.

After a bit more research, I was able to determine that Ruth Ives died at the age of 57, while living in Maine. I’m not sure that she ever married, because she’s listed under her maiden name in the Social Security Death Index. At any rate, I do know that she had a loving brother named Edward (“Sandy”) Ives who lived in Bangor, Maine. Like Ruth, he was a talented musician and a college instructor. He especially loved the folklore and songs of Maine’s north woods, and eventually this became his lifelong work. In 1971, Sandy founded the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History (now known as the Maine Folklife Center) where he served as its director for 22 years.

At the beginning of this story, my goal was to track down the people mentioned in these ebay love letters and return them to their rightful owners. I have now done that, and the letters have been mailed to John Van Duyn’s daughter, Barbara. My secondary goal was to find a mystery that would result in a happy ending. Unfortunately this story doesn’t have the happy ending I had originally hoped for, but you may be interested to hear that I have since tracked down Barbara’s half-sister, Patti, who still lives in Minnesota, and perhaps they can get together and make their own happy ending.

Here’s hoping.

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Happy Mother’s Day

A tribute to my mom…

It’s been a long time since my last post. The truth is, I’ve been working on a book I hope to finish by the time our Almendinger Family Reunion rolls around this August. It’s our family history – the story of White Charley, my paternal great-grandfather, who was a German immigrant, a U.S. Infantry soldier who served during the Indian Wars, a blacksmith during the corruption-filled days of early Minneapolis, and finally, a pioneer in the deep woods of northern Minnesota. It’s a story of tragedy and triumph that took me on all kinds of crazy adventures, and I plan to share the story here on my blog… right after I wrap up my Love Letters story this week.

But first… on this special day… I wanted to share a bit about my mom.

Joy and Kathy, Quebec 2010

Joy and Kathy, Quebec 2010

Her name is Kathy, and I love her to pieces. She’s not your typical homey-bakey mother… not by any stretch of the imagination. She was never the head of the P.T.A., a bake sale organizer, nor a Brownie troop leader. She is… in the best possible way… a complete and utter goonball.

I think it was my Aunt Carol who coined the nickname Goonball, and it’s what my cousin Lisa has called her ever since she was old enough to talk. It’s entirely appropriate.

My mom does not like rules. In fact, she hates limitations or boundaries of any kind. Those of us who know her well shudder from fright whenever we hear her say, “How hard can it be?” I’m sure it will be a fitting epithet for her headstone one day: “Here lies Kathy. Apparently it was harder than she thought.”

If my mother hadn’t been such a good legal secretary back in the day, I’m sure she would have been doing stand-up comedy instead. She is a gifted storyteller who loves to “work the crowd.” She knows how to make people laugh, and considers it her duty to do so. In fact, when riding an elevator, I’m sure it would kill her to stay silent for the entire time it takes to reach her floor. She would consider it a personal defeat if she didn’t have everyone laughing by the time the doors opened.

This is her gift… her sense of humor… and she uses it to her advantage whenever possible.

In 1988, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. My twin brother and I were college seniors at the time, with no means to throw them any kind of fancy party. They knew this, and instead, made their own plans. They rented a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis and invited us to join them for dinner at Murray’s Steakhouse – “home of the silver butterknife steak.” If you’ve never been to Murray’s, it’s an upscale Minneapolis landmark – a swanky place with lots of red velvet and waitresses who look like they started sometime during the Nixon administration. And man, do they serve a mean steak.

We enjoyed an amazing, luxurious dinner and were treated like royalty by the attentive wait staff. It was a perfect, magical evening. After we finished our dessert and my dad finished his snifter of Drambuie, we headed back out to the car. They drove a full size conversion van at the time, and my mom offered to sit in back with me so my brother could sit up front with my dad. We were still ooh-ing and aah-ing about the amazing dinner and didn’t seem to notice at first how long it was taking the car ahead of us to pay for their parking fee. It appeared to be a heated discussion between the driver and the parking attendant, and I could tell my dad was losing patience. He got out of the car to go check on the situation.

From the back seat, I could now see that my dad had gotten involved in the heated discussion as well. There was a lot of fast talking and finger pointing, and I was starting to get nervous. My brother got out of the car to see what was going on. I witnessed more fast talking, and then suddenly, the two men got out of their car and started taking their jackets off. Not a good sign.

Without thinking, I jumped out of the van and ran into the middle of the melee, determined to be the voice of reason. I have no idea what the problem was, except that the two men refused to pay their parking fee, and the poor parking attendant was noticeably shook. The situation was escalating from bad to worse when, out of nowhere, we turned to see my mother coming toward us with a snow brush in her hand yelling, “I… am… a MOTHER!”

And just like that, it was over. We were silent a moment, staring at her in complete bewilderment, and then each of us quietly retreated to our respective corners. The men in front of us paid their parking fee, and drove off. And that was that.

There are many lessons my mother has taught me over the years. Good life lessons… about being honest, having integrity, and doing the right thing. “Remember who you are,” she used to tell me. I didn’t really understand what it meant until I got older, but it’s something I now tell my own boys. It’s a phrase that grows with you along life’s bumpy journey.

So, thanks Goonball. For all the fun and crazy times… the adventures and misadventures. Thanks for being my proudest supporter, my loudest cheerleader, and my most loyal fan. Thanks for grounding me when I deserved grounding, and for picking me up when I was broken in pieces. Thanks for believing in me and always telling me I could do whatever I wanted. (And thanks for not allowing me to wear that pair of boxer shorts to school in 7th grade when it was all the rage. You were right about that.)

And the two life lessons I will remember the most? First, remember who you are. And for God’s sake… carry a big snow brush the next time you run into the middle of a rumble.

Got it. Thanks Mom.

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