There are those who long for a fairy godmother. As I’ve mentioned before, I had a fey aunt, Marie Louise Duerrstein, and tagged after her in fascination with how her mind and imagination worked. It wasn’t until a few months before she could no longer speak clearly from a stroke that I realized that whenever she told me her ideas, I saw them exactly as she created them in her mind.
As a girl, it never occurred to me not to do what Aunt Marie said. There were some chores I didn’t like doing, but then there were the times when she told me to audition for a play. The thought of saying no or that I couldn’t do it never entered my head. I was her living mannequin for newspapers, magazines, and in first grade, a documentary I’d forgotten about until my sister, Sarah, saw it in a history class.
Aunt Marie put together parades and pageants, reenactments and Santa Claus Houses. She’d hand me a paint brush and tell me to paint a horse because she wasn’t good at that. She once told me to make an elephant after she erected its frame, which got stuffed with newspaper, covered in burlap, and painted gray. Later, she told me to make a much larger one for a Republican Party event.
She amassed her own museum, The Old General Store, what she called: A Step into the past. And it was, and so convincing Jan Troell used it in his film, The Emigrants. Until becoming a curator, she made a living as a seamstress and selling bits of this and that of her artwork. She got artifacts for the museum with her wily sense of acquiring what she needed for nothing or next to nothing. Her motto was: Never pay for advertising. She didn’t, and yet her museum was known all over the world and in major magazines from National Geographic to Good Housekeeping.
Galena, Illinois was one of the first boomtowns of the West. In the 1820’s, Illinois was considered the edge of the world. By the 1840s, Galena’s Main Street was lined with four and five story brick and stone buildings (still intact) that survived spring floods from the Mississippi backing up the Galena River, filling the first floors with muddy water. Businesses moved merchandise to the top floors. And forgot about a lot of it. Aunt Marie didn’t. She knew the town’s history and went to store owners in the early 1950s. She said she’d clean out their attics if she could keep what she found. The items ended up in her museum, like-new boxes never opened, some from prior to the civil war.
When she opened her museum in 1957, she dressed me in a costume she’d sewn and in high- button shoes seventy years old. I worked in the museum, as did most of my family, after learning local history from Aunt Marie, who learned it directly from old timers. One was a woman in her nineties, who remembered sitting perched on her father’s shoulder to listen to Lincoln speaking from a Desoto Hotel balcony.
To this day, the 1800’s seem more comfortable to me than the present. Nine of my formative years had been spent surrounded by the past. That’s how it became easy to write in the time period. I know how to trim lamp wicks, fill them with kerosene, and clean the chimneys. I still use a coffee mill from that time. My home has antiques from her collection and the maternal side of my family. I know I will never taste anything as exquisite as the crispy lightness of a waffle made on the range with a waffle maker of cast iron. And that’s how I could write a story about a woman moving from Chicago in 1891 to a cabin in Colorado. So maybe there is something to the adage about writing about what you know.
Avenue to Heaven was released 11/01/17. It’s the first book in the Westward Bound series, stories about women who make new lives for themselves on the other side of the Mississippi, women of courage and determination. The ones who actually accomplished this are our past and our heritage.
Below is one of the ”living mannequin” moments. I was twelve at the time and can’t remember what it was for, magazine or newspaper. The background is the museum and mannequins she made to “dress” the store.
And Aunt Marie as a stand-in for the movie Gaily, Gaily
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
Follow on Twitter @RigdonML
Judi Lynn said:
Loved this! No wonder you revere your aunt so much. And she definitely stirred your love of history.
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You must keep this post as a lovely tribute to your heritage. I so enjoyed reading it. I have been to Galena, and it is a place every good American should visit!
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