Sleuth or Snoop?

I sat down at a table in the Archives office with a mix of excitement and trepidation. There were three files in front of me: two thick (folded) files each labelled “Robert Marshall” and one flat, fairly thin file labelled “Laurence Christie.”

I opened the thick file and immediately could tell that it contained the will and probate records of my grandfather. I didn’t expect an actual will, but there it was, a thin piece of paper covered in type, signed and witnessed. Its contents was unremarkable: He assigned his wife executrix of his estate and bequeathed unto her all the property, real and personal, and effects….” It was dated 16 March 1922.

Although it begins includes the customary phrase “considering the uncertainty of this frail and transitory life,” I’m sure he had no idea it would be needed just three years later.

In August, my grandmother testified in open court verifying his death, her relationship to him, and the birth of his children. The will was proved in September and Janet Bitcon Marshall was was named executrix.

In October, she gave birth to David Marshall, my dad. On November 24, Laurence Christie testified as “just a friend” to amend the heirship to include “David, his posthumous son” as an heir.

Initially Robert Marshall’s estate included $4,000 cash in the bank and a claim against the Pennsylvania Railroad for $10,000 for wrongful death. No other property or assets. By the next summer, it was clear that “it would be almost impossible to recover a case of a suit brought against the Railroad company.” Instead, a settlement of $750 was offered and accepted.

The rest of the files included the Final Account, dated 26 December 1926 and several additional files in the ensuing years to allow my grandmother to use money for the care and support of her children. In November 1930, her twelve year old son died so she had to petition the court for the $70.85 remaining in his account. In 1937, when son Edward reached his majority, there was another file releasing funds to him. Even as late as 1941, Janet had to request funds from the court for care and support of David.

Five years later, Janet was back in court with a handwritten will from Laurence Christie. I found a copy of it in my dad’s dresser after he died. I thought it was the original, but when I opened the files in the archive office, I saw that what I had was a copy. On the back of my copy was a stamp saying it was denied. Laurence Christie wrote the will in 1933, long before he convinced my grandmother to marry him*. It was signed, witnessed and dated, but apparently the court denied it because he married her after the will was executed.

An interview in open court by my grandmother, 9 October 1946, established possible heirs: his widow, two brothers (both in Scotland) and a nephew (in Chicago.) Letters were sent to these individuals by the court with apparently no claims made. Eventually my grandmother received two lots (valued at $100), 75 shares of Stock from Armour & Co. His entire estate was valued at $1500.

I read through all these documents, one by one, and took pictures of most of them with my cell phone (as instructed by the archivist.) It felt strange to handle these documents that ranged in age from 75-90 years and probably hadn’t been touched or viewed for well over 60 years. I don’t imagine anyone will ever look at them again. But they are stored somewhere in the archives and will remain so.

I spent the rest of the day in the Tract Office, looking at records for the house at 8221 S. Ridgeland in Chicago. My grandmother lived in it from 1933 until 1940 and again, in 1946 after Laurence died. I hoped that my grandfather’s business built the house, but I’m guessing that is not true. The owner at the time of building was Buchanan & Norton. In 1928 it was quit claimed to Laurence Christie and then sold to Robert Stewart. In 1929, Laurence quit claimed it to my grandmother and in 1934, Robert Stewart quit claimed it to her. (Anyone want to explain that?) In 1935, my grandmother took out a mortgage on the home. In 1948, Janet quit claimed it to a friend and he quit claimed it back to her the same day. Someone in the office told me that was probably an easy way to have her name changed on the record. She gave it to the friend as Janet Marshall and accepted it back as Janet Christie.

My parents lived in the house from 1947 until 1952, while my grandmother was in California caring for her sister, Martha (for 6-1/2 years.)

In August 1951, my mother gave her 54-year old Ridgeland neighbor a ride to LaGrange to visit her mother. They must have picked up the woman’s mother and were heading elsewhere when my mom ran a stop sign at the intersection of 55th and Wolf. The neighbor and her mother were both killed; my mother (expecting my brother Larry) and David (2) were taken to Wesley Hospital in the city. The other car carried two women and five children, all taken to MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn.

I first heard this story when I was in my late teens. When I was researching at the Chicago History Museum a few weeks ago, an article popped on the screen with the name Eldora Marshall in the middle of it. I freaked a bit–that is not exactly a common name. And then read the article about my mother’s accident.

Apparently the neighbor who lost his wife was less-than-gracious in the months that followed. Larry was born in December and in May my folks moved away and Gramma sold the house. When she returned home from California in 1953 (my birth year) she moved into an English basement apartment at 89th and Bishop, the only “Gramma’s house” any of us remember. She lived there until 1970, when she went to live with Aunt Jean & Uncle Kas.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, my apologies. My friend always says “long story short” and I think this was a short story made long. I love the details, but I understand if others don’t. I’m also not sure how my grandmother would feel about this. She was a very private person so I don’t think she would necessarily applaud my curiosity. In fact, I think I may get a scolding when I meet her in heaven!








* Laurence’s will used a lot of similar phrases but added “In consideration of love and affection” just prior to bequeathing Gramma with all his possessions. He also seemed to be writing all others out of his will, allowing at most that anyone claiming heirship be given no more than one dollar.


Every November I put myself through the paces of writing 50,000 words for National Novel Writers’ Month (on the website, 750 Words.)

I write a minimum of 750 words a day to qualify and anywhere from 1500-2500 words to keep up the necessary pace. I usually pick a line of my genealogy research to explore so my writing is a combination of fact and fiction.

This year I focused on my grandmother, Janet Bitcon, and her two husbands, Robert Marshall and Laurence Christie. I’ve written about them before, putting together a series of vignettes.

Since I last wrote about them, I’ve learned a few things:

1) My grandparents bought the cottage in Cedar Lake just seven days before his death. I found the title, dated June 23, notarized by Laurence Christie. He died on June 30. My grandmother sold the cottage to Laurence Christie before the month was over.

2) A story circulated around the church was that the man sitting in the car stopped at the railroad crossing was a friend. He and Robert had been racing to see who could get to the lake first. The story was that Robert saw this as his chance to slip through and get ahead while his more cautious friend waited for the train to pass.

3) We always wondered how Robert Marshall (husband number 1) and Laurence Chrstie (husband number 2) met. Looking at their respective Ship Passenger Lists from 1908 and 1907, I noticed that both men listed John Halcrow as their contact in Chicago. That seemed like an impossible coincidence until I noticed that Robert’s sister-in-law listed her birthplace as Shetland. It’s very likely that they met through this mutual friend.

4) I found the building permit for a home my Gramma lived in from 1933 until at least 1951. I’m hoping that it might lead me to information about the side business of building spec houses that my grandfather helped organize. It’s possible that his business built the house. (He died a year before the real estate bust of 1926, which decimated  the “fortune” Robert had left her and ruined Laurence Christie’s real estate business.)

5) I also visited Cook County Archives and ordered the files from Probate Court for both men, which I should be able to view next week. Laurence actually made a handwritten will  giving all he had to my grandmother–five years before she agreed to marry him. The will is stamped “Denied” and therefore would have gone to Probate. I’m assuming that Robert Marshall, aged 34, did not even have a will. “All the more reason for probate,” is what the archivist told me.

A friend recently advised me to write and write and write. He also told me my story needed a beginning and an end, so I spent time working out a good ending (I already had a beginning) and an outline. These last few days, I wrote and wrote and wrote. My tendency is to focus on research and procrastinate on the actual writing. I decided that I would be happy with writing a story for my family. He told me even they still shouldn’t have to read something boring!

So, 53,130 words later, I am claiming my NaNo “prize.” I hope to keep writing, but the pace will definitely slow down. Christmas is coming and then, in January, a five-week trip to New Zealand. I think I have a few things to do.

Persistence Pays

I know you’ve all been on pins and needles wondering whether we liked our paint colors. (Haha)

We (drum roll) love it!!!!!!!

The grey walls of the living room, kitchen and hallway were completed this weekend and I was very happy with the results. I still hadn’t decided on the accent wall.

I narrowed down the accent wall colors to two samples: “NightFlight” (a dark navy) and the “Newburyport Blue” which was definitely more purple than blue. I asked everyone for an opinion and almost every time they would choose the purple one. Every time they did, I had this contrary sense that I really wanted the alternative.

Last night, pondering it once again, I went back to look up the color online and realized that the paint sample I’d been given couldn’t be right. I decided to have a new sample made up from a store that normally works with Benjamin Moore paints. As soon as we opened the can, we knew that THIS was the color intended, not the purple hue. It is just the right balance of color and warmth needed for my accent wall. Perfect!

5 samples of grey and 5 samples for the accent wall. Persistence (and a patient husband) really does pay off.

P.S. I’m figuring out that this wishy washy angst over decorating decisions might be a function of age. I asked a few of my friends and we all admit to finding such decisions difficult now, when in the past we started projects and chose colors a lot more easily. We still haven’t figured out why that might be–just that we share the experience. Any ideas?

Color Confusion

Our entire house was painted in a light cream color, walls and ceilings. (The basement, refinished later, was painted mostly a soft yellow.) It’s time to add color.

Who knew that color could be so confusing?

For the first time, we asked for help from a decorator. She made suggestions that surprised us, but we agreed: a dark accent wall in the living room and gray on the walls. (So trendy!)

I picked out paint chips (with her) and came home to try some samples. Three greys, starting with the darker one she favored, two that I thought were gradient lighter tones,and two dark blues.

This was all happening while a painter did all the ceilings in the living room, kitchen and hallway: ceiling white. We made a snap decision that morning to paint the kitchen because at both entrances, there are no natural divides where one paint could end and another start. This complicated our color choices.

I was really shocked when I painted the samples. It was a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One color was too dark, one was too light (with strong purple tints), and so on. The accent paints were a deep purple and a too-bright blue.

We waited a day, living with the color and waiting for sunshine, and then went back to the paint store for more samples. Lighter, warm greys and two more dark navies.





I also bought samples for our master bathroom: a light spring green. Again, the first sample I rolled was surprisingly light; the second dark. When I bought another sample, I was shocked by the blue tint. What was going on?

As a quilter, I consider myself to be good with color. Choosing fabric might be my favoritie part of quilting: There’s nothing like walking through a quilt store with bolts of fabric in your arms, placing them side by side to get the right color. I once took a color class and was the star pupil. One of my blog categories is color.

But this? I felt like someone was doing a bait and switch with every sample!

We’re ready to plunge, which is exactly how it feels. We still don’t know if we will like, love or hate the end result.

P.S. We’ve only chosen the color for the main walls. Want to vote on the accent wall? (Even though the picture doesn’t really tell an accurate story either. The one on the top right is actually a dark purple/blue. The other three are closer to reality.)

Sew Organized!

We are continuing to settle into our new home–and getting ourselves organized.

I started with my sewing area in the basement. I bought an Ikea Kallax 8-bin unit to define my space and set up a boundary with the kids’ play area. Bins organized toys and fabric and an attached table made a nice home for my new sewing machine. I returned to Ikea for another table for my serger and a cutting board, and an even bigger–16 bin–unit to store my fabric. A re-covered design board, a new ironing board cover, and a table skirt to hide more bins of stuff, completed my sewing room by mid-July.


With Lizi moving back home, I organized the closet in her room to compactly hold–and organiez–her clothes and my (non-sewing) hobbies.


I needed to cram a lot of books and files into a small space. Back to Ikea (several times) to pick up pieces of the Algot system and figure out how to use the space well. I finished our new, organized closet by the end of August.






Last, but certainly not least, we were able to get our garage organized by the end of September. Another Kallax system and more bins, a massive workbench and pegboard, and numerous shelves. Our bikes are stored up high on pulleys for easy access and sports bins hold the balls, discs, and skates. A rail system holds gardening tools, etc. Plus we either stored (garage attic) or threw out the rest of our junk.

Best of all, we are able to park two cars in the garage for the first time since we left our Bellwood home in 1980! We are so excited to be able to pull in and out of the garage,
away from the elements. And yes, I have ball hanging from a rope to guide me into my space 🙂


One more thing: My threads for weaving are finally “organized” after what seems like months of stops and starts. Before we left Elmhurst I laid out 400+ threads on the warping board and tied them neatly. In August, I managed to get all the threads onto the loom, but didn’t finish dressing it until this week. For me, that means going over and over it to get it right: the pattern, the threading of the heddles, the sleying of the reed and then, the tension. I love how it looks when it is all done, though I have to say the process of getting to this point is more than tedious. Now I’m ready for the fun of weaving 🙂







Really, sew organized!



I will be sixty-four this week, so you know what song is going through my head.

Paul McCartney wrote the tune when he was sixteen and the Beatles recorded it in 1966, the year his father turned sixty-four. It was released in 1967 on their album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was thirteen.

And probably thought sixty-four was really old.

So, like most of my friends, I’m kind of surprised to find myself singing the song about a real birthday, wondering how we got so old, so quickly.

I’m going to spend my birthday working. Somehow that seems appropriate since I haven’t managed to completely retire yet. I’m taking it month-by-month and for now, it still seems like a good thing.

Will you still love me? Will you still need me?—I’m sixty-four!


P.S. I also shared a birthdate with John Lennon 🙂

Denali Finale

When we left Petersburg, we considered changing our tickets and going straight home-to deal with a crisis at home. We decided against it when we looked at the cost and were advised against coming home to “rescue.” We carried on.


We spent a rainy day in Juneau. We decided to rent a car, which allowed us to drive out to the Mendenhall glacier, shop, and stay relatively dry. That evening we boarded a flight to Anchorage, where we rented another car, drove to the mission guest house, and tucked ourselves in bed.

The next morning I had breakfast with my friend, Sharlane before she went to work. The weather didn’t look good for the trip towards Denali that I had planned, but we decided to go for it anyways. We packed for a possible overnight and headed north.

Six hours later, we arrived at Denali National Park and gleefully stamped our retirement Passport book. On the way, we stopped and took just a couple pictures of the great mountain. We could see most of the massive mountain, but the top was obscured by clouds. It’s hard to see but it is there in the center of the photo.


In 2010, during an 8 hour layover in Anchorage, Anne, a friend, and I had made a spontaneous trip towards Denali. We stopped more than 100 miles from the mountain but were still awed by its majesty. I wanted John to have that experience.

He (and I) had a completely different experience of Denali.

It turns out that one of the best places to see the mountain is from a distance. For one thing, the road that leads into Denali National Park is located on the east side of the mountain range that runs almost straight east and west. To cut down on the impact on the environment, travel within the park is limited a to a bus system that we didn’t have time to access. (The shortest tour was 4.5 hours; the full tour was 11 hours.) Cars were only allowed to the visitors center, the campgrounds, and a fifteen-mile stretch of road.

We took an evening and morning trip up the park road and a two-mile hike at Savage Creek, in wind and rain. Autumn was in full bloom in the park, with red brush, yellow aspens and green pines. Stunning. Our pictures can’t possibly do justice to the beauty we experienced. We really enjoyed the vast and beautiful landscape.






It was a fitting finale for our Alaska adventure.





*One of the things I love about Alaska is that there are three highways: 1, 2, 3, forming a triangle between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Tok, which is just east of Glennallen, our first home when we lived in Alaska. We have transversed Hwy 1 between Tok and Anchorage several times; part of Hwy 2 to the Sourdough Lodge; and now we’ve been more than halfway up Hwy 3 towards Fairbanks. My goal is to make the whole loop next time we come.


Petersburg Peeps

Late last night we said a reluctant goodbye to Petersburg, watching from the deck of the Malaspina as the lights of town slipped out of sight. It was a good week.

Three full-on rain days gradually turned into partly sunny days at the end. We donned our rain jackets and (in my case) garden shoes and carried on. I shopped, walked and visited the new library. We took trips out the road in both directions, nearly circumventing the island.


But mostly, Petersburg was about our people: We had two delightful evenings with good friends from the Bible church, reminiscing and catching up on our families. Both served us halibut–a special treat! We spent a lot of time with our friend “Clyde”, eating out and doing errands around town. (His real name is Harvey but he decided to use his middle name in light of the hurricane ravaging the South.) Anne and I had a wonderful lunch and caught up, chatting at the Pilot office, the newspaper she and her husband own. On Sunday we enjoyed fellowshipping at the Bible church and sharing in a Back-to-School BBQ.

We were sad to see the empty KRSA studio building, the still blinking towers (without a signal) and our house, the back porch littered with beer bottles. Sometime after our last visit (2010) the mission decided to pull out of radio ministry in Southeast Alaska. For awhile other groups attempted to run the station and then finally, just a few years ago, KRSA was completely shut down. Changes in radio and the accessibility of the Internet precipitated some of the changes, but a change in focus (to church planting) for the mission also contributed. We knew about these changes, of course, but seeing the empty building made it a lot more real.

Once again, it was the people–and their stories–that encouraged us. It was really fun to meet almost all of Brian & Carol’s family (including 7 grandchildren), to hear so many stories about other adults that were small children so many years ago. This generation of believers has built a beautiful new church building and carried on ministry to the community, growing strong in Christ. I don’t think we realized how new many of our friends had been to the faith back then, nor how recently the church had been established.


We dug our roots down deeply there–even though we were only in Petersburg for 18 months–so we were delighted to see how God has been working in their lives in the intervening years.




In the 35 years since we left Petersburg with our 8-month old firstborn, we’ve traveled back several times. We went back with our small children three years later (1985) and again when John2 graduated from high school (2000.) Chris visited with Ellen Ferris once, and John (once with John2) came back twice to help with engineering in the later years. In 2010, we sent Annie to Petersburg to “practice” being far from home before going to New Zealand for Bible school. After she left–and found that she loved Petersburg–Chris decided to go up and visit for the last week. This trip was our 6th and probably not our last.

We love our Petersburg Peeps.

Sunny. Or not.

Sunny days in Southeast Alaska are like gold. You don’t squander them. The blue skies and sun lasted all the way up our trip up the Inside Passage–and we spent as much of it as we could basking in the sunshine and warmth.

This is what we woke up to the next morning:







And this is the forecast for today:

100% chance of rain all day. At least an inch of rain is projected. In Ketchikan a sign measures “liquid sunshine,” so I guess that’s what we are getting now. We saw this sign on a store today:






We are settled into a B&B on the waterfront with a HOT TUB! This is my twice-a-day view of Petersburg:

So, sunny or not, we are having a good time.


I’m sitting on a plastic lounge chair atop the Matanuska, a mid-sized boat on the Alaska Marine Highway system. We are docked at Ketchikan waiting for our ferry to continue its journey north.

Amazingly, the sun is shining and it is warm.



Yesterday morning we left our house early to arrive at the airport by 8:30 a.m. We dropped Lizi off at the American Airlines gate for Denver and found our way to an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle. Four hours later we landed at Sea-Tac and got on another flight going north to Ketchikan. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon.

After settling in to our hotel, we walked around the town, looking at tourist shops and eating King Crab and halibut fish ’n chips. We walked up steep stairways to get a better view of the harbour (which at the time was dominated by the presence of two mammoth cruise ships.) By late afternoon we were exhausted so we went back to the room to power nap for a bit. While I slept, the cruise ships mercifully continued on their way so that when we went back out to enjoy the sunshine and sunset, our views were unobstructed. (Three more ships came in by daylight and the town was again teeming with cruisers.) We had dessert on a third-floor restaurant and then walked a couple miles trying to burn off the calories.

In the morning, I walked further into the historic district and meandered through art galleries. (I informed John that this is a “buying trip” for our Alaskan master suite 🙂 I even found a quilt store.

Sunshine in Southeast Alaska is a rare treat.


When I checked the weather app for Petersburg it listed clouds and rain for the entire week. When we got off the plane, someone told us that this was the 10th sunshiny day of the entire summer. In fact, they’ve had so much rain that they have experienced flooding for the first time she can remember in 40 years. We’re thrilled that we are getting to start our trip with sunshine and will have it for at least some of our trip up the Inside Passage.


Speaking of 40 years, this is the official celebration of our 40th Anniversary, actually occurring last April. We planned to meet James & Anne (and Charlee, of course) in Hawaii, but James has been busy preparing his Adventure Bible School for an audit, so it never worked out. We decided to revisit one of the most fun times of our life together by planning a ten-day trip to Alaska. We considered a cruise, but didn’t like the idea of the big boats (which we like even less now that we’ve seen them up close.) This ferry boat suits us just fine and will deliver us tonight to Petersburg, our home for 18 months (March 81-September 82.) For the next 9 hours, all we have to do is relax—and enjoy the sunshine.