Violet Muhlenbeck: “Gene brought a cedar chest with a big, red ribbon” for Christmas

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  Violet Muhlenbeck’s earliest memories of Christmas involve listening intently.

“In an old house, you always had the pipe that went to the chimney from the stove. My sisters and I would lay there, and my mother and dad would put the Christmas tree up. We would lay there and listen to them putting up the tree, and that was the biggest thrill,” Violet recalled.

Violet had seven sisters and three brothers.

She and her husband, Eugene, are residents at the Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center.

They recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary and lived all of their married lives in Union Grove. The couple recently moved to CHRC to be closer to their son, Tom, who works for Mayo Clinic.

On the day of the interview with the Colfax Messenger, Violet’s husband was resting in the next room, and she did not want to disturb him.

“My husband isn’t well. But I’m happy to be here. We were living with my son and his wife. One of them always stayed home with us, and I thought that wasn’t fair,” Violet said.

In addition to listening to the sounds of Christmas decorating, church was a big part of Christmas when Violet was growing up.

“When we got up on Christmas morning, we all had to go to Mass. And then when we came home, we opened up our presents,” Violet said.

“It was a Christmas I can’t describe to anybody else because it was so nice. There were three boys in the family and eight girls. My mother was the best cook. She made strudel. She made everything. She made homemade bread. She canned everything from the garden,” she said.

Violet said when she was very little, they lived on a farm, and then when she was eight years old, they moved to Union Grove, a town located between Racine and Milwaukee.

Shoebox

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Union Grove always had a Christmas bazaar.

“My sister won a little tiny dog (at the bazaar), and it was in a shoebox. She won it as a prize. He was the cutest little dog. He always hunted out in our woods,” Violet said.

Unfortunately, she continued, “one day, somebody shot him.”

Violet says she remembers Christmas programs at school, too.

“In those days, they used to give you a box of candy with a string on it. Mother would come. She had to walk in the snow. In those days, my dad worked, and she didn’t drive. She never did,” Violet said.

After they had moved to Union Grove, her father bought a second-hand toboggan, and there was a big hill for sledding.

“We had more fun. We never sat at home in the winter time. We bundled up, and there was a hill. And we went ice skating,” she said.

“My mother made most of our Christmas stuff. I remember the dolls that we got. We all got a doll at Christmas. My dad had made a white picket fence that went around the Christmas tree. And we couldn’t go (close to the tree) because Mother had a nativity set up in there,” Violet said.

“And I remember the Victrola that we played Christmas songs on,” she said.

Violet’s favorite Christmas song is “Silent Night.”

“I remember washing dishes for the neighbor women, and washing their floors, to get money to buy shoes because I wanted a pair of saddle shoes for Easter. They were $1.98. And I got 25 cents for doing the dishes,” Violet said.

Brother Joe

“We lived on the farm, and I’ll never forget when my brother Joe was born. Trixie, her name was Theresa, she took me outside. And I said I didn’t want to go outside, I wanted to stay by Mother,” Violet said.

“Then I saw the doctor come to the house, and I thought, ‘oh, Mother is sick. I’ve got to get back to the house.’ My sister said, ‘no, let’s go for a walk.’ So we walked up around the field. And I said, ‘I want to go home and see what’s happened.’ I walked into the house, and there laid this little baby right next to my mother. I cried,” she recalled.

Lay-away

Violet also remembers a particularly wonderful wool coat that she bought for herself that cost $69.

“I ran down to the store every week and paid $5 down on that winter coat. I got the coat and came home with it. My sister was shopping in Burlington. She got an appendicitis attack, and they had to take her to the hospital. And I had just gotten my coat, and it snowed that night in October, and I wore it, and I was so happy I had it,” she said.

The coat was beige and had a zip-in lining that you could take out so you could wear it in the spring, too.

“It had a belt. I saw it in the window. It was an expensive store. We’d go downtown Racine on Fridays and cash our checks. I had a sister who worked there and a girlfriend. We rode the bus,” Violet said.

“Now I have a sister who lives in California, and I have a sister who lives in Racine, and there’s me. There’s the three of us left out of eight. All of my three brothers have passed away too,” she said.

Cedar Chest

Gene also lived in Union Grove.

“My sister worked at the IGA store, and he always came in with his mother. She brought him to the house one night, and I met him. We dated then until we got married,” Violet said.

One year, “Gene brought down for me a cedar chest (for Christmas). He brought it down in the snow, and he had a big red ribbon on it. I just went crazy for it,” she said.

By the time Lent arrived, Violet thought she had found the perfect use for her cedar chest.

“During Lent, Mother said, ‘you don’t eat any candy.’ I was going with Gene, and he gave me a box of candy, and I put the box of candy in the cedar chest. When Easter came, I was so happy because I had this box of candy saved,” she said.

Well.

“They all tasted like cedar chest. I had to throw them all away. Isn’t it funny things you remember?” Violet said.

“What a horrible thing. They all tasted like cedar chest,” she said.

Violet and Gene had three children: Jim, Kathy and Tom.

Kathy now lives in Minnesota. She went to school at UW-Stout, and she and her friends would go to Minnesota.

“She liked it there, so she stayed. She lives right outside Minneapolis, and she has three kids,” Violet said.

Doll clothes

Violet remembers making doll clothes for Christmas.

“Kathy had Barbie dolls, and I sewed beautiful clothes for her Barbie dolls. The boys got the Tonka toys, the trucks,” she said.

When it came time to decorate for Christmas, Violet said she had started out decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, “but later on, we decorated a little before Christmas, about a week before.”

With eight girls in the family and three boys, you can imagine the size of family gatherings.

“On Christmas Day, we always went to the Legion hall. There were 11 of us, and we were all married and had kids. That was really nice. We all exchanged presents there,” Violet said.

“One year, I counted 42 of us, with my sisters and brothers and their husbands and wives and kids,” she recalled.

“We always had a good time,” she said.

“I did a lot of Christmas baking. I made a lot of Christmas cookies. I never made strudel. I made regular Christmas cookies,” Violet said.

Besides strudel, Violet’s mother also made fruitcakes for Christmas.

“She’d wrap it up real tight in wax paper and put it in a box and put it under her bed,” she said.

This year, Violet has been busy making dishcloths. She made 42 of them for the Colfax Health and Rehab craft sale at the end of November.

“I like to be busy. I watch a little television at night, but I’m not a person to be sitting here watching the television all day. That’s not my cup of tea,” Violet said.

When asked how long it takes to make a dishcloth, Violet said it takes about a day.

“If I start one in the morning, I finish it by night. It takes a day, and you kind of have to stick to it,” she said.

“I think (CHRC) is a very good home,” Violet said.

“I have a lot of good memories. I had a good life. And I had a good husband,” she said.