Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Docent for a Day

Docent: College teacher or lecturer.

Well, that didn’t quite describe our role when we were hosting a home tour in our neighborhood as a part of Modernism Week here in Palm Springs.


Modernism Week is a signature event held every February in Palm Springs. It attracts thousands of modern architecture lovers from all over the country and the world. There are a host of events to showcase and highlight the very best of modernism designs and trends. There are art fairs, a modernism yard sale, vintage car show, lectures and films on historical Palm Springs architecture, as well as many events at the convention center. Every year one of the highlights of the event are the neighborhood home tours.

Beginning in the mid-40s, architects originated a design movement specific to the greater Palm Springs area. It became known as Desert Modern. Their buildings featured ground-breaking techniques such as post-and-beam supports, floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a wide array of colors to match the surrounding mountains and desert. Now famous architects such as William Krisel, E. Stewart Williams, Albert Frey, William F. Cody, Richard Neutra and Donald Wexler were among the masters of this design.

For the first time this year, our neighborhood was included in the home tours. Sharon and I volunteered to be docents at one of the homes. It was a great opportunity to meet more of our neighbors and peek in on the lives of the design-conscious, artsy-types who created these one-of-a-kind homes.

It was fascinating to see what had been done to these retro houses and how the other half lives. Most of the homes were owned by interior designers…no surprise there. Each was a designer’s delight. Stunning is not too strong a word to describe some of those settings.

Here are some examples of the homes on the tour:

We were docents at a home designed by William ‘Bill’ Krisel in the Kings Point complex of condominium homes. It was one of the last projects designed by Bill Krisel in the late 6o’s. Our home featured an open floor plan highlighted by clerestory windows, original terrazzo floors and walls of glass which extended the living area to an outdoor patio and pool.

The homeowners divided their time between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Like so many of our other neighbors (The CommonClass) these folks were friendly, gracious and welcoming of the curious picture-taking hordes descending on their home for the tour. It was fun to watch the expression of the visitors when they first stepped inside this designers heaven.

Near the end of our tour duties, a little old lady approached me.  Her grandmotherly attire and slow gait assured me of a simple question I could probably answer.

Little old lady:            “Excuse me, young man.” (I love her already)
Myself:                        “Yes, Ma’am. How may I help?”
Little old lady:            “I have one question.”
Myself:                        “I’ll certainly try to help. What is your question?” (Of course I’m imaging                                     ‘How big is this house?’ ‘Do they have children?’ ‘What does something                                      like this cost?’
Little old lady:            “Well, I’ve been to all of the homes on this tour. But something bothered                                      me about everyplace I’ve been.”
Myself:                        “What was it that bothered you?”
Little old lady:            “Where do they put all their crap!”
Myself:                        speechless
Little old lady:            Every home is perfect. There’s not one thing out of place. They’re                                     spotless.
                                    Do people really live like that around here?
Myself:                        “Ma’am. I’m guessing if you were to look in their closets and drawers                                     they’ve probably stuffed them full of ‘stuff’ they didn’t want out in the                                     open.”
Little old lady:            “Oh, thank you. That makes me feel better. I can’t imagine anyone could                                     live in such a perfect home.”
Myself:                       “No Ma’am. None of us are perfect even these home owners.”

I wanted to assure her that while clean and tidy is nice, this level of perfection is pure Modernism Week. The rest of us live like ordinary people.

But as Sharon is quick to attest: “Thanks heavens Denis has an office where he can hide his ‘stuff’ and I just close the door.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Name was LaTulippe

I’ve never been a big fan of Genealogy or family trees. I tend to dismiss those infamous tall tales handed down through the ranks about the ‘good old days.’ The past is the past and can’t be changed. Or so I thought.

My mother with Marlene and I

Perhaps this laissez-faire attitude comes from my own upbringing. Being raised in a single parent household we never recognized the absence of my father. So it was hardly an incentive for me to care about my own ancestry. Today we’d probably categorize ours as a dysfunctional family. But it didn’t seem that way to my sister and me at the time. We were poor (maybe lower middle class is a better moniker) but so were most of our friends. We had a place to call home and went to a good grade school so little else mattered.

So it was with only mild interest that I watched my wife begin her search for our respective family trees through Ancestry.com. Sharon very quickly became immersed in the search and began tabulating ancestors on both sides of our family. Thus far she has researched more than 152 individuals. She was able to go back to the 1600s in Germany. The oldest person she’s found was Pierre Helle who was born in 1676. France, Germany and Canada seem to be the favorite countries of origin.

As she clicked along, some fascinating facts began to emerge.

For example, there has always been a ‘George’ Schumacher for at least eight generations back on her side of the family. Her descendants came from a small village in Germany, no surprise there. One distant relative served in the Illinois Infantry Regiment, Company E, Unit 31.

My mother, Hildegarde Noll, with her parents and brother

My mother’s roots followed a much similar lineage. Her grandparents also go back to another part of Germany. There was a grandfather who fought in the Civil War. He went in as a private and came out the same. But he did survive. Our assumption is that he probably got his farmland in Sterns County from the government for his time in the service. That seemed to happen to a lot of returning veterans. Most of my distant relatives come from Sterns County or nearby.

Another relative was rumored to have had thirty kids although that hasn’t been confirmed. Now that’s a shame because it would have been a reality TV series, guaranteed.

My Father, Arthur LaComb, and I - circa 1944

My Father and I

My Mother and I

The real mystery begins with my father; no surprise there. As far back as I can remember there was never any mention of his ever being alive. Growing up, there were no pictures of him in our home nor any references to him at extended family gatherings. It was as if he never existed.

I was too young to understand the significance of his absence in my life. The only comment I ever got from my Aunts was that it was OK not having a father and (hint hint) I was probably better off that way. My Uncles had nothing to say…about anything.

Growing up, I always sensed a kind of animosity on my aunt’s part toward my sister and me. I could never figure that one out. Now with age and this research it’s become a little clearer. Doesn’t hurt any less but it’s more explainable. As time passed I became aware of real families with a father and a mother…just like in the chapter books at school.

Our Home on Randolph Ave

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman

Photo courtesy of Jerry Hoffman
Back in the early fifties on Randolph Avenue, it was just the three of us; my mother, my sister and I. We were each dealing with life on different levels. My sister has a lot of memories of that period growing up in Saint Paul. I have practically none. I’m not sure what that says or means but it remains a fact.

I vaguely remembered that my father’s lineage was French Canadian. Beyond that… little else. He had been married once before. There was a lot of confusion about whether or not there had been a divorce or annulment with his first marriage. He married my mother but we’re not sure when. The reasons for their separation and subsequent divorce had been clouded by denial, mis-statements and confusion. About the time my Mother decided to come clean, the fog of aging and miles traveled made any clear recollection of times past just a guessing game on her part.

Now, thirteen years after my mother’s death, Sharon is finally making some headway on unwrapping the mystery of my father. It’s been one long and arduous journey fraught with poor records, incorrect dates, family lies and purposeful misstatements to protect the innocent…or so they thought.

Stumbling back in time, we found out that the core of my ancestors settled in Quebec, Canada. Their descendants came from France. It’s probably too late to look for that French Chateau or three-story Paris walkup in my name.

One of my grandfathers was a ‘wagon loader.’ Laugh as you might, today he’d probably be working for UPS in logistics and making a nice income. Back in my college years, I used to load and unload trucks in the dead of winter. Now I know where those deft skills came from.

St. Louis Grade School Graduation circa 1957

The French nuns at the little French school in downtown Saint Paul had a huge impact on my life even if I didn’t know it at the time. When the school was built back in the 1873 it was meant for the children of second and third generation French settlers.

By the time my sister and I started school there, it was a cosmopolitan smorgasbord of ethnic groups. There were Irish, Italian, German, Spanish and oriental students. Almost all of them lived along the fringe of the downtown loop. Unlike all of our white counterparts where we lived in Highland Park, it made for some interesting playground banter.

Turns out, I love Cajun music and French cinema; especially romantic comedies. I love the gentility and flow of the French language. I loved Paris last summer and want to return there soon. Something French must have rubbed off on me. I tried to explain that in a past blog entitled ACatholic Education.

It turns out there was a critical junction or fork in my ancestral road. The road split and one branch was named Lacombe and the other LaTulippe. The plot of flowers was on my grand-mother’s side. I never knew her but she must have been a wise woman to have chosen Lacombe. At least I didn’t have to defend myself in grade school from some bully mocking my name.

Another interesting fact was the evolution of the name LaComb. If you go far enough back there used to be an ‘e’ at the end of Lacombe. At another point, the ‘c’ became capitalized.

I was surprised to see on my birth certificate that my name was spelled: Dennis. When I asked my mother why it had been changed she had a simple explanation. She said that in first grade, the French nuns informed her that the proper spelling of my name was Denis. Mom knew better than to mess with the French nuns.

Marlene and I

That’s OK; I’ve grown quite accustomed to Denis…and besides it’s not too flowery.