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.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thanks to the Seegers for reminding us that music is a natural way to approach life



My dear brother clipped and sent me an article from the Chicago Sun Times from 17 March 2014 (sometimes it takes my bro a bit of time to send me the things he believes I’ll be interested in . . . but I’m equally as guilty, having just sent him a gift I purchased for him back in about that same year and month). The article on pages 28 and 29 is titled “Love between a Brother and Sister.” Maybe he saw it and thought of us, clipping it to remind me of the relationship we’ve shared for over 66 years. He’s a good guy to think of me in that way (if that’s not what caught his eye, I’ll just pretend it is). Maybe the most impressive part of this “gift” is that my brother obviously read the article before sending it to me, which I know because he marked a section he thought was particularly interesting and would be of similar interest to me. He was right.

The article is about Peggy Seeger, who was to be a performer at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago about the time the article was published. The author, Mark Guarino, interviewed her about her familial connection to Pete Seeger and the music world, in general. Peggy lives in New Zealand now, but has long been part of the “folk scene” in America. I have seen Peggy in concert a few times over the years from the mid-1960s on and have always enjoyed her performances. Peggy and Pete were half-siblings, Pete being the elder (he passed away at age 94 in 2014). I cannot count the number of times I have enjoyed Pete in concert, even, once, having the opportunity to him with his sister in a joint performance. So many years and so many songs ago.

I’ve been making music with friends and family just about since I could talk. My father got me singing when I was three or four years old and I memorized the songs that I was too young to read. He’d play piano while I’d sing. When I visited my paternal grandparents, my grandmother got me singing the “Jesus songs” and my grandfather would teach me songs from his southern roots (decidedly not about Jesus and completely politically incorrect today). Then as I got older I started playing instruments (Dad tried to teach me the piano, but it was an exercise in futility – no fault of his; we didn’t know then about dyslexia and it’s negative effect on my ability to read notes). I first played my grandfather’s harpeleik – a Swedish zither, which he eventually gave to me, and then I graduated to ukulele and harmonica and, finally, guitar. But I also picked up the banjo about the same time, learning with some “instruction” from a public television program of Pete’s. In fact, it was Pete’s book on learning to read music that has aided me in some of my understanding of theory (I also took a couple of college courses in the subject, many years later). So I guess my brother’s kindness in sending me that article has brought me back to my childhood – at least in memory.

And what I just wrote connects to one of Peggy’s responses to the interviewer’s questions. Quoting her from that article about music in general and folk music in particular, she says: “We’re all unique and we have our own potential. And there’s music in essentially every child that’s born. But it’s snuffed out by becoming a consumer instead of a producer. Because our educational system teaches us to be a consumer; it does not teach us, on the whole, to produce . . . What Pete said was, ‘You can do this, you can make up music, you can sing music.’ How simple it is to make a song yourself. And the act of creation is intensely important to human beings. It really is. Intensely. You feel better, you walk more tall, you get along better with other people, you feel that life is your own unique thing as well as a community thing. Pete brought out this individualism, he also brought out the community singing together. So it’s global and local, it’s large and small, it’s personal and general.”
 Peggy Seeger, 2011, Salford, England. Photo from Wikipedia.


(If you aren't familiar with Peggy and her music, here is a recording of her, singing the song her husband, Ewan MacColl, who died in 1989, wrote for here: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." To read about Peggy's amazing life, check out her memoir book: First Time Ever, available in Kindle format from Amazon.)

I’ve been writing songs since high school (my first efforts were in Math class, since I did each lesson the night before with my father as the teacher – nothing our instructor said was new to me, so I wrote songs). I’ve been adding verses to songs already written by others to make them more personal or connect them to my topic, in the case of using music in my genealogy presentations. Back in the 1960s, Pete encouraged his readers (of “Johnny Appleseed, Jr.,” his column in Sing Out! magazine) to add verses to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” I tried my hand at that and sent the result to Pete (see blog post from 11 August 2011) and he kept it and printed it in a book dealing with the history of folk music (giving me appropriate credit, of course).

Pete Seeger, 1955. Photo from Wikipedia

When we were kids, my brother (who is six years my senior) would make up songs to tunes we already knew, then teach them to me. We sang about our stuffed animals and their adventures. We sang commercial jingles together. And, I’m pleased to say, my father recorded us, so those early attempts at being budding composers and performers would not be lost. Of course, neither of us will play those recordings for anyone, but we had fun and the music filled the gap of the half dozen years that separated us in most everything else (we did not even attend the same school except for two years of our lives, and that was only because I went to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten at his elementary school . . . but we were on different floors and had different start and dismissal times, so we really didn’t even notice each other unless Mom drove us both to school, which she rarely did). Even “all-school” activities and assemblies omitted the little kindergarteners, which I’m sure was met with approval by all those bigger kids from upstairs.

Speaking of school, my favorite time in school was music. The music teacher would come in, often with some marvelous item we could use to make music. Or our art teacher would instruct us in making such an item – I remember most vividly the “sand blocks,” but I know there was an oatmeal container that miraculously became a drum. Sometimes the music teacher let us choose the songs. Sometimes we’d learn something new and I’d share those with my Dad (who, of course, already knew the songs) and we’d “do” them together.

My point here is that music is, as Peggy said, personal, and it becomes a panacea for some of the stressful events that we must endure in various arenas in our lives. When I sing a song, I find myself forgetting the nitty gritty for a moment (I know it will still be there when my music time comes to an end, but an escape, even for just a few minutes, can make the inevitable “crap” much less “crappy”). It’s just my opinion, but it’s been working for over 60 years of my life.


Sing on and stay in tune! 

Looking for more information on the Seegers? Check the Library of Congress.

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

FOLLOW YOUR PAST Premieres

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