About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
I am a native of Illinois and grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. After dropping out of college, I moved to California in 1973 with my first husband. I married my present husband, Butch, in 1977 and got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me a grandmother 25 times over and a great-grandmother of 19. Three years after I married Butch I returned to school. I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication and was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 to return to school and get my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore and genealogy - and add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play a number of folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega with Genealogy Journeys where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that can be found at http://genaandjean.blogspot.com and more about my own business projects is on my Circlemending website.

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Guardian Angel Worked Overtime: Emptying an Old House is No Picnic - by Virginia Johnson Wilcox

As promised, I am posting here the transcription of my mother's unpublished story about clearing out the old family home in Milwaukee. Some names have been changed (by her). This was originally written as a "homework" assignment for the Off Campus Writer's Workshop (est. 1946) in Winnetka, Illinois and was reviewed by author Len Hilts.
We were eating dinner the night of Saturday, January 9, 1960 when the long dreaded phone call came.

"Aunt May is acting strangely," my mother said. "She sings, laughs, and piles blankets on herself. I think it's mental."

"Have you call the doctor?" I asked.

"You know she doesn't like doctors."

"I'll be there tomorrow morning."

As I packed my bag for the trip to Milwaukee, I wondered how I'd proceed. I had worried about such a situation long before mother and my maiden aunt reached their 80s. Now I had to travel the unknown road alone – without a map. And there was no room for sentiment.

So the next morning I bade goodbye to my husband and two children. "It's just possible I may be bringing Grandma home with me," I said, as I boarded the early train.

When I arrived at the old family home, Aunt May grabbed me and hung on like a frightened child. I didn't want to cause her unhappiness, but I knew there was no choice. I called the doctor.

He arrived a short time later, examined Aunt May, and said to me, "get her to the hospital right away. I'll make arrangements to get her into a nursing home later. And you," he turned to Mother, "go home with your daughter."

I said a little prayer of thanks: my aunt's hospitalization insurance, that I had insisted upon her taking out, had been in effect for one month to the day.

With the help of a relative, we got Mother's and Aunt May's bags packed, Aunt May to the hospital, and Mother and me to the railroad station for our trip home, in a Chicago suburb.

Mother quickly adapted to her new surroundings and was made welcome by family and friends. She was very happy. Now I could to get going on the nitty-gritty.

Word from the doctor indicated that Aunt May would have to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. Therefore I would, of course, have to sell the Milwaukee house and almost everything in it. But I had no authority to sell anything. The house and most of its furnishings belonged to Aunt May.

First item on the agenda: get  guardianship of Aunt May. This I did through the help of my attorney-cousin, Bob. "I'll do my best to speed it through," he said.

On my next trip to Milwaukee I consulted a real estate agent mother knew and asked him to handle the sale of the house for me. "Do you want to dream or be a realistic?" He asked after he had looked it over.

"I can't afford to dream," I replied. "I need the money to pay medical and nursing home bills for my aunt."

So he quoted a price – 'way below what I could have got for such a house on the North Shore – and I agreed to it. Since I had no idea how much insurance Aunt May carried on the house I told him to buy enough to cover, and to include theft and vandalism, as the place was going to remain vacant for a while.

There were numerous things I had to do before anything could be sold. Such details as mail and newspaper deliveries, arrangements for snow shoveling, changing of bank accounts, and endless minutia required hours of concerted effort. Some things I could do from home, but most had to be done in Milwaukee.

Then came the contents. I had tried taking Mother up with me to make decisions regarding her personal property, but she became too emotional to be of any help, and I realized I'd have to handle things all alone.

Well, not quite alone, as a friend from Chicago went up with me on two occasions. I don't know what I would have done without Dotty. She helped me take things down from the attic, cleaned the silverware, washed dishes, prepared things for sale. Much that I would have thrown away she eagerly took for a resale shop she was interested in.

For her endless work that relieved me of so much I thank both her and my Guardian Angel.

There wasn't a box, bag, envelope, or any other container that did not require opening and a decision made as to its contents. Money I found in many places, including an old sock in Aunt May's dresser drawer. In the attic was a box of about 400 pennies. (After taking out the Eagles and Indian-heads I sold the rest to an interested neighbor.) What in the world Aunt May was doing with a pistol I'm sure I don't know, but I found it on the top shelf of her closet. (Bob took that off my hands; he said it was frozen beyond repair.) Her diamond ring was in a little envelope in a dresser drawer.

And old clothes! The attic was full of them. I hated to throw them out, but I didn't know what else to do. Then I remembered: before I was married I had been involved in dramatic activities and got to know the local costumer quite well. I called him, and he came over and looked at everything I had to offer. In the attic he discovered other items he could use. He was delighted and paid me well for everything he took.

My Guardian Angel was still at work.

The Yellow Pages of the phone directory revealed several used book dealers. I called them and found one who was interested in Civil War books. He came over and brought several; my grandfather had been a Union Army volunteer. Others came and took a few books here, a few there. Then one man bought all the rest for a ridiculously low sum. But I had to get rid of them.

I almost wept when the little girl from next-door came in and bought my grandmother's marvelous old treadle Singer sewing machine, in many ways far superior to new machines of the day. And she paid only five dollars for it.

I am eternally grateful to the many friends who entertained me at dinner and helped me in various ways. "Why don't you get to Mr. Dobson, the antique dealer, to take over for you?" One of them asked me. "He sells households of furnishings all the time."

So I called him. After he had looked through the entire house he said he wasn't interested. But Gertrude, his assistant, upon learning of his refusal, came over the next day and went through the house including the full – and I do mean FULL – attic and basement. She shook her head sadly and said, "You need help. And I'm going to help you."

I thanked my Guardian Angel again.

Perhaps she and I could put on a house sale, Gertrude suggested. I dreaded the prospect of that, but agreed to it. I felt I had a no alternative. It turned out in the end that she found a man, Mr. Edwards, who was willing to manage the whole affair for me.

He came and looked over what I had to offer. He bought a number of items on the spot. Then he said, "There are two ways of handling this. Either I'll take one third of what we get, and you clean up the house, or we split it down in the middle, and I'll take care of everything." Needless to say, I chose the latter arrangement. "But first," he added, "you take whatever you want for yourself and sell things as you can. You will be able to get more for them than I can. Then let me know when you're ready and I'll take over."

This time I really thanked my Guardian Angel.

Weeks turned to months, and I was still making biweekly trips to Milwaukee. And the snow fell whenever it had a mind to. On one occasion it was coming down so thick and fast that, even though I shoveled off the porch at seven in the morning, two hours later, when I wanted to leave for home, I had to do it all over again. To protect myself from the weather I decided to forgo normal dress for the trip, found an old pair of Dad's trousers, put them on over my dress, and, looking like a tramp, walked a block to the bus line. I saw some buses moving, but not in my direction; they never seemed to come back. I spotted a cab and, with several other people, hailed it. We were well packed in by the time we got downtown. I went farther than any of the others, but I'm sure we all paid the same fair. (That driver must have made a bundle that day.)

In spite of the drawbacks of the weather, I swear my guardian angel was looking out for me.

The time came and when I was satisfied that I had taken care of everything I could; I left of the rest in the hands of Mr. Edwards. Finally, on May 12, along with my attorney cousin, I went to the closing of the sale of the property. It had been four months since that nightmare began.

My guardian angel could do now rest for a while.

(This is how the Milwaukee Journal recorded the final sale information - many irreplaceable family relics left the hands of the generations of Johnsons, Hollanders, and Trapschuhs; but as the story related by my mother indicates: the hard decisions had to be made.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


The Travel Channel has finally set their schedule for the genealogy/travel program called Follow Your Past. 
As many are aware, I have been working on a television program but have not been able to share much about it (part of that is because I didn't even know what they were going to call it until recently). I know that this is not much notice, but here are the dates as they are set to be shown. There are 13 in all. I can guess which ones I worked on (about 99% certain numbers 101 and 102 are in that list), but won't tell you here about the others because it would be just a guess . . . they had other genealogists also doing research (only three of which I knew about). So check your cable or satellite provider to schedule your recorder as my guess is, most folks won't be home to watch at these times. These are Eastern Times so you need to adjust that, as well (here on the west coast, I presume those 9:00am showings are 6:00am . . . when all the genealogists are up and watching TV). But that is just a guess as my satellite provider (DirecTV) does not yet display this program. Hopefully they will be rerun a number of times and/or offered for viewing on the Internet. Do spread the word as we would like the program to be successful and that is likely only if there are viewers!

Air Order is as follows:
March 21, 2016
9:00AM 104 – Vikings and Kings
9:30AM 107 – Crusaders to Castles

March 22, 2016
9:00AM 108 – Is There a Doctor in the House?
9:30AM 102 – In-Laws and Outlaws

March 23, 2016
9:00AM 112 – Grandpa and The Greatest Generation
9:30AM 113 – Writing History

March 24, 2016
9:00AM 103 – Haunted Family History
9:30AM 109 – The Frontiersmen

March 25, 2016
9:00AM 110 – Founding Fathers
9:30AM 105 – Queens and Castles

Wednesday, April 27, 2016
8:30AM 106 – Creators of Cool
9:00AM 111 – A Family of Explorers
9:30AM 101 – Road to Freedom

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Grand Rant

OK, I've been planning this post for a long time, and just delayed it. But it's time (mostly because I have a few minutes).

To begin: there is no such thing as a great-aunt or great-uncle, great-niece or great-nephew. Never has been, not likely ever to be so. This is not like "there is no such thing as Santa Claus" . . . because, well, of course there is! This has to do with basic logic. Some will say semantics. OK, I'll accept the latter; but aren't most arguments born of some semantic issue ("you say NEETHER, I say NI-THER")?

When I was about five or six I figured this out. You see, I have no aunts or uncles and, therefore, no first cousins. Sigh. I have been deprived. (Not really: I have amazing second, third, fourth, etc. cousins who more than make up for the deficit of first ones.) Anyway, I remember the conversation as though it was yesterday (instead of nearly 60 years ago). We were in my bedroom at the cottage, owned by my maternal grandmother.

Grandma - Emma Hollander Johnson

My maternal grandfather had passed away before I was born and my grandmother and her sister (my mother's "maiden aunt" - a nice way of saying "spinster") lived together in Milwaukee (in the aunt's house) and vacationed in the cottage on a lake near Hartland, Wisconsin (in grandma's house). My mother called her aunt "Aunt Mamie." I called her aunt "Aunt Mamie." This was fitting: her name was Mary Eva, but everyone called her Mamie. It worked. (FYI, she was nothing like "Auntie Mame" of Broadway fame . . . ah, would that she had been.) I never cared a great deal for her, but that is irrelevant to this story.

Mary Eva (Mamie) Hollander

OK, so there I was, with little education, but some general understanding of relationships. I knew that Grandma was my mother's mom. So I asked Mom why we both called Grandma's side-kick (I didn't use that word) "Aunt Mamie." I had friends who had aunts (something I knew I didn't have) and those people were called "Aunt So-and-so." I also had friends who called their parents' close friends "Aunt So-and-so" and "Uncle Whatshisname," even though they were not related. Was that the situation with Aunt Mamie? My mother assured me that Aunt Mamie was her bona fide (she didn't use that term) aunt, but that she was my "great-aunt." I was confused.

"Aunt Mamie is Grandma's sister, so she is MY aunt, but your great-aunt." I asked what that made me and she said I was Mamie's "grandniece."

Now, even at that young age I knew something wasn't right. My mother had told me stories of her grandfather, who was my great-grandfather, so I knew that "great-" took it to the next generation back, even if I couldn't explain that with my limited vocabulary. If Mamie was my grandmother's sister, wouldn't that make her my grandaunt?

The simple answer is: YES!

And that Mom said I was Aunt Mamie's grandniece while she was my great-aunt just felt very wrong. But it took a number of years to figure our something my 5- or 6-year-old mind couldn't grasp: Mom was wrong! (The horror of that discovery.) Indeed, I was Aunt Mamie's grandniece, and she was MY grandaunt.

As soon as we let the term "great-aunt" or "great-uncle" enter into our genealogy, we start to confuse the generations. This became exceedingly evident recently when I was doing background research for a television show. One of the producers wanted to use that term and it immediately created a generational misunderstanding for the living relative. It took me some doing (and un-teaching of an incorrect concept) to help them get the terminology accurate. I succeeded (well, I think I did; the show has yet to air, and probably won't, as it appears now). At least THAT person got it (but you know what happens next - she explains the relationship to person #2, who shares it with person #3, who explains it to person #4, who presents it to the target individual and it is anyone's guess what will actually be told. And, for some reason, people don't like the sound of grandaunt. They think great-aunt sounds better. Well, um, that is not what makes relationships.

A friend once told me that, when she was growing up, she was taught that 1st cousin once removed is the same thing as 2nd cousin. Ah . . . NO! Not even slightly. We are talking different generations there. And when people confuse "great" with "grand," we run the risk of losing (or gaining) a generation in that case, too.

So, pardon my GRAND rant, but it needed to be said. NOW I can go on to more important matters (such as "alright" is not a word . . . it's two: all right; same with a lot). Whew. 'Nough said.