Painting of Orange Elephants

Painting of elephantsPainting of Elephants by my Uncle.

My uncle and my daddy were roommates in college; they married sisters, were both architects, and designed and built their family’s homes. Whereas my daddy did photography (see one of his photos here), Uncle Dean was a painter.

As long as he was working, his art interests were curtailed — a matter of time I’d assume — and his projects seemed to be mostly for his family. One Christmas he made a complete set of felt decorations for their tree. I remember them as fantastic, with touches of sequin, but I can no longer describe them.

After he retired, he took up painting full-time, taking classes and joining the Colorado Watercolor Society and having work accepted for their exhibitions. He knew I was interested in art, so when I visited, he’d take me down to the basement where he had his canvases stacked against the wall. One by one he’d take the new ones out, turn them around and we’d talk about the pictures. This one was one of his favorites. The assignment in his class had been to use the color orange. He told me that orange was a very difficult color to integrate into a picture, but he felt he’d done it.

He also taught me about acrylic paints – how they can be used thick, like oil, or thinned and used like watercolor. And he made me see how difficult watercolor is: if the artist wants white in the painting, he must leave blank paper. To have the whole picture in your mind’s eye and to control the paint around white space seems to me impossible.

After Uncle Dean died, my cousin had prints of some of his paintings made. I asked for this one and have always loved it. It hangs in my living room, reminding me of a kind and talented man.

Glass Christmas Garland

A garland of glass beads for the Christmas tree given to us by my Grand- mother.

It being the season, I want to write about Christmases past. I suspect the story is going to sound a little like Ozzie and Harriet – all light and happiness. Well, yes, that’s the way I remember it…I was a child lucky in my family. I suspect my sisters will remember it much the same way.

Christmas really began when my grandparents arrived from Kansas. Inside their suitcases were wrapped packages for us (yippee) and boxes of cookies. She baked date rolls (tedious to make – I make them now), sugar cookies with sprinkles and flavored with anise, round powder-sugar balls, something called “rocks”. Some years there was fudge or meringue candy. My grandfather usually took us downtown to look at the windows in the department stores. There would be moving figures and trains – a fantasy to look at. Then he’d take us to the dime store, shopping. We saved his present till last; because it has to be surprise, he’d go to the counter for coffee and we’d pick out something for him. (At that time, no one worried about kids being stolen. How times change.)

For many years we had a real tree. One year the best tree, the only full one on the lot, was crooked. We bought it anyway and after many failed attempts to make it look straight in its holder, Daddy had to hang it from the ceiling. It was also was his job to put on the lights, which took forever because the red, green, yellow, blue colors had to be well separated. Finally it was our turn to hang on the other decorations. Traditionally we played excerpts from Handel’s Messiah when we decorated and I still can sing many of the lyrics. There were the usual glass balls and garlands, but also some unusual decorations from during the war. I particularly loved the one made of maraborou feathers and tinsel.

We had a plaster creche that was many times arranged around a little cardboard stable with an angel hung on the rafter. I particularly loved the donkey and the sheep. Just last week my sister dug it up – it’s missing some noses, having been well loved – but she’s going to take it to the doll hospital to be fixed. Then she’ll pass it onto the next generation.

Christmas Eve had its own evolving ritual. We started with a meal of homemade chili, but later that became pizza (easier on the cooks.) Then, church. One year I had both chicken pox and measles at the same time and couldn’t go. I made my mother promise to bring home one of the little candy sacks that were handed out to the children. When I was older, I once ran out of gas driving home from church by myself and had to walk home through the snow. Oh yes, we often had snow. (Not as often as we had it on Halloween, but that’s another story…)

On Christmas Eve, we opened our presents. I always thought it was because we were of German extraction; however, we were told that one of my cousins was too sleepy in the morning to enjoy her gifts. Hmmm, I always found that hard to believe. After gifts, we went to church again, the midnight candle service, carrying our new dolls or, when we were older, wearing new finery. I loved the cold church, the sleepy feeling, the carols. There was a wonderful soprano in one of our churches and when she sang O Holy Night, the real meaning of the celebration came through to me.

Sometime on Christmas eve, we’d find time to visit our next-door-neighbors, my parents’ best friends. Their house was always as packed with people as ours. Mrs. B. made the tree skirt for my mother and I inherited it.

Christmas morning was spent at home, opening the little gifts in our stockings from Santa. Then everyone gathered again for a traditional meal. My mother and her sister took turns; one hosted Christmas eve, the other Christmas day. The next year it alternated. The crowd was always big; grandparents, cousins, whoever was in town. And noisy. One year my husband took videos of our celebrations — the pictures are wonderful, but there is so much talking chaos, you can’t hear a word.

About the glass garland. So light and fragile. My grandmother produced many strands of it from her suitcase one year. She’s dead now, as is my mother. Many of the beads have been broken, but I cherish the strand that I have. Symbol of happy times. I still have those happy times, but, of course, they are different.

I think I’ll close with a quote from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:
“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

Bone Dish from Antietam – Guest Post

Simple white bone dish, designed to sit next to a plate and hold bones once the meat was eaten. No marking on the bottom.

This dish comes from Don and his daughter, Denise. Don begins the story:

My mother had a great-uncle who had been a child during the Civil War. He told stories of sitting up on a hill, watching the battle of Antietam. [ed: Fought on September 17, 1862, it was the first major battle on Union soil and the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with casualties totalling about 23,000.] Obviously this made a big impression on him because when he grew up, he made a living scouring the battle site for souvenirs and selling them in a little shop.

We went to visit him when I was young and he gave this dish to Mother. He said that it had been left behind on the battlefield. Not much use for a bone dish in battle, so the family speculates that it was used in blood-letting, still a medical practice at that time. Or held under the chin for shaving.

Now the story takes a slight detour. Evidently this uncle had a near brush with death by lightning. A ball of fire came in through an open window and rushed through a room where he was standing. Denise remembers her grandmother always insisted that the windows be closed if there was a storm, allegedly because of this uncle’s experience.

The dish came to Denise as a memento when her grandmother died. It now has a place of honor in her master bath. Its curve fits right along the sink where it makes a fine soap dish.

Restored Pie Cabinet – Guest Post

Pie Cabinet brought back to life. Richard writes: My great grandmother’s pie cabinet, used to store paint and chemicals by my grandmother in her basement. Repaired and restored in my garage for our china cabinet. One of the shelves had to be replaced because it was ruined.

[ED: Research says the pie cabinet was likely introduced to the United States by the German people who immigrated to Pennsylvania, better known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. This makes sense because Richard’s ancestors were German. The pie safe was generally kept away from the wood stove so that the food could remain as cool as possible. This one has lost the usual punched tin that would have been in the doors. The narrow slits on the side were probably screened. That way the pies and other food stayed ventilated but pests (except for children) couldn’t get in.]

A Lost Son – Guest Post

Pencil drawing of Margaret Rolston, nee Logan. Our guest poster is Denise and this woman is a distant ancestor of of her husband, Jim.

As you can see by this inscription, which is on the back of the picture, she married on March 29, 1785.

[ed: I found further information in a book published by the New Jersey Historical Society: Documents relating to the colonial, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary history of the State of New Jersey. John Ralston came to Mendham, NJ, from Ireland in 1785. Margaret and John’s March 28th marriage license was listed, and it was stated that the year after he married, he went into a partnership and operated the Ralston General Store until he died in 1819. He also built a cotton and woolen factory, but his fortunes were depleted by the War of 1812.]

The silhouette below is of Margaret’s youngest son, Daniel Stuart Rolston, born May 3, 1801. [ed: almost 20 years of childbearing!] According to the inscription on the back of the picture, he went to South America and was never heard from again. His family supposed he died there.

The lost young man and the mother who never learned what happened touched Denise. She has hung the two pictures together: mother and son visually reunited.

Bullet Casing Jewelry

Necklace and ring made of shells and bullet casing. These were my mother’s. A gift from my father, made for her when he was in the South Pacific, at war.

I don’t ever remember Mother actually wearing these, but I loved to look at them. My father designed our house and among other touches just for Mother (the kitchen was a wonder), he built a jewelry case into their master bedroom. The case was made of teak, modern and unadorned, set into the countertop. Lift the lid and there were the treasures, nestled in little compartments. I think that reveal, from the plain wood to the opals and myriad earrings, made magic.

I’m going to digress for a moment. We lived in a subdivision called “Paramont Heights, Homes with a View.” Daddy, architect that he was, cared deeply about how the house looked from the outside as well as inside. I often heard him comment on ugly houses with windows stuck here and there, no thought to outside appearance, just to inside expediency. For us, he designed a long low rancher framed in steel (at the time heating was cheap.) The steel was unusual; when it started to go up, the neighbors thought it was going to be a filling station. In any case, architectural beauty demanded two floor to ceiling windows in the front, connected by a long wall painted a lovely green. One window looked into the entry and livingroom, as might be expected. The other peered into the master bedroom. Houses with a view, indeed!

Back to the jewelry. Mother simply told us that Daddy made them when he was stationed on a ship in the Navy. After she died, I was going through the piles of cards and pictures (she kept everything) and I came across a thank you letter she had sent him. The necklace was a first year anniversary present. You can imagine how I treasure them.