Friday, March 8, 2013

Fearless Females March 8 - Letters from the Foreign Service

Lisa Alzo of TheAccidental Genealogist is having the fourth annual "Fearless Females: 31 Blogging Prompts" for the month of March to Celebrate Women's History Month. There is a topic for each day of the month of March to commemorate the "Fearless Females" in our families. The topic for March 8 is, "Did one of your female ancestors leave a diary, journal, or collection of letters?" 

I was telling my mom about this topic, and she said, "What about all of my sister's letters that your dad saved." I said, "Great suggestion!" My aunt reads my blog, so I decided I would let it be a surprise. (After my aunt read this post, she gave me a few corrections that I've added in bold)

The whole 28 years that my aunt, Catherine Redles, was in the Foreign Service, she wrote to my parents. My dad saved every letter. His plan was to make copies for all five of us children, have them bound, and then give them to us. He never finished this project, so I've added it to my list of things to do.

Catherine Redles

Aunt Catherine joined the foreign service in 1956 after she graduated from the Katharine Gibbs School in New York. She retired in 1984 [she thinks it was 1985] after 28 years of living around the world, working in the American embassies and consolates. My mom and I visited her while she was in Rome, Italy. My brother Andy visited her in Rio de Janeiro, and my sister Helen visited her in Brussels, Belgium, which was Aunt Catherine's last assignment.

While looking in the file that I set up for her letters and papers, I came across a list of her assignments which made me happy--I knew I wouldn't remember every country. Where the heck was Catherine? Well, here's where:

Department of State, Washington, D.C., 1956-1957
American Embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1957-1959
Department of State, Washington, D.C., 1960-1961
American Consolate General, Deusseldorf, Germany, 1962-1964
American Embassy, Algiers, Algiers, 1965
American Embassy, Bangui, Central African Republic, 1965-1966
American Embassy, Rome, Italy, 1966-1970
American Consolate General, Jerusalem, 1970-1974
American Consolate General, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1974-1977
American Embassy, Oslo, Norway, 1978-1981
American Embassy, Brussels, Belgium, 1982-1985

That's a lot of languages to learn. I remember when we visited her in Washington, D.C., in 1966 that she was taking a class to learn Italian. When she was living in Italy, she was complimented by an Italian on how well she spoke the language! I would ask her sometimes on her visits to Valdosta, "Say something in ___" whatever language she could speak.

The heading for the December 3, 1958, Phnom Penh Post newsletter.

 I couldn't find a postmark on this envelope from Jerusalem, but it was mailed sometime between 1970 and 1974. My dad took all of Aunt Catherine's letters out of their envelopes, so the letter is somewhere in the stack.

While digging around in the file, I found a questionnaire that someone (probably my dad) compiled about places Aunt Catherine lived. Here are a few of them. My answers are in parentheses. She'll have to tell me when she's sees this if I'm right:

Where did a military coup overthrow the government while she was attending an embassy function? (Central African Republic) Here's what my aunt says: "A military coup occurred in Algeria soon after I left. Then in Bangui, Central African Republic, the military coup occurred while I was stationed there. We evacuated to the Ambassador's residence."

Where did she find accommodations for 3,000 Americans evacuated from Israel during the war? (Jerusalem) My aunt said, "Soon after my arrival at Rome, the 1966 Israeli war occurred. So that is where the Embassy facilitated 3,000 evacuees from the war zone."

Where did she speed around town with a Christmas tree sticking out of the back seat of her convertible? (Rome) My aunt said, "The Christmas tree was perched in my Fiat 1500 on a drive through Rio de Janeiro, December, summer time." 
Where did she get...pinched while touring with Lonie and little Catherine? (the catacombs under the Vatican, of all places. I was warned about the possibility of getting pinched in Rome.) (I got this one right because I was there.)
Where was she known as Katarina Headless? (Rio de Janeiro.) My aunt explains, "That's the Portuguese pronunciation (Brazil). Phonetically it's Hioo di Janeiroo" [for Rio de Janeiro]

When I knew Aunt Catherine was coming to Valdosta for a visit, I would get so excited! She seemed so exotic to me, living in foreign countries and speaking foreign languages. She gave me a doll dressed in native dress from every county she lived in or visited. I still have most of my dolls, but they're in storage at the moment. I wasn't supposed to play with them, but I did play with some of them. Those are the ones that didn't last.

Aunt Catherine's letters give us a window into what her life was like in all of the countries in which she lived and visited from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s. They also let us take a peek into our own lives back in Valdosta, as she would mention things that my dad (he was the letter writer in my family) told her about us in his letters to her. I'm so glad that my dad thought to save her letters!



  1. Your Aunt Catherine seems exotic to me, too. She was a world traveler, sophisticated and multilingual. What a life! In the picture she looks like a typical (plus lovely and smart) high school girl from the 50s or 60s, but she also led an extraordinary life full of adventure.

    I wonder what she will say to this post. Come to think of it, you are probably named after her!

  2. Smadar Belkind GersonMarch 8, 2013 at 6:36 PM

    What a great tribute to your aunt! She looks like a beautiful woman and sounds like she lead a fascinating life! It looks like the envelope postmark is obstructed by the dar stamp but I think the 10-16 must stand for Oct 16th, so maybe you can find an october letter in your pile and you might be able to date the envelope as well!

  3. Catherine PendletonMarch 8, 2013 at 7:48 PM

    Thanks Smadar! She certainly has some stories to tell about the foreign service and the people she crossed paths with. Thanks for the info about the date. That'll help me narrow down which letter goes with that envelope.

  4. Catherine PendletonMarch 8, 2013 at 7:51 PM

    Thanks Mariann! You're right. I'm named after her :) Although, I'm not as adventuresome as she is. She's the first person I thought of to ask to accompany me when I decided to drive from Alaska to Georgia. I figured after the life she's led that she'd be up for another adventure.

  5. I know your Aunt Catherine quite well. We sing together in a church choir and sang Haydn's Creation together this past Saturday night!

  6. Catherine PendletonMarch 13, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    I meant to email you that I saw your name in the program and ask if you knew her (which I thought was probably a silly question since you're both in the choir). I really enjoyed Haydn's Creation Saturday night! It was wonderful :)