Thursday, December 20, 2007


MP stands for maternal-paternal, meaning the paternal side of the maternal side, which is my father's family.

I am thinking about family and roots and heritage, because it is Christmas time and, after shopping, the economy and massive giftage, family is what the world focuses on in the midst of holiday festivities.

My dad's family is English. They have been in America just about since it began. I was always told that we are related to George Washington's mother. This always seemed strange to me until I grew up and read a book about George Washington, and in reading I learned that George Washington never had any children of his own. He married a young widow who had two children whom he adopted, but he never personally reproduced. So I guess being related to Washington's mother is about as close to being related to Washington as you can be.

The family name is Rainbow. I understand from the family lore that some of the English Rainbows were notorious. Of three Rainbow brothers, one was a criminal and was sent to Australia, one came to America, and one stayed in England.

There are actually some Rainbows of English heritage here in Syracuse, NY, but I have never been gutsy enough to contact them and ask if there is any connection.

My grandma and grandpa met in Iowa. Grandma's father was a schoolteacher. Grandpa's father was a gentleman farmer. They were quite well off... until the depression.

Living in New York, I get the sense that easterners were not as affected by the depression as midwesterners. The Great Depression was totally traumatic for my father's family. His dad was a hard worker and a responsible person, but there just wasn't enough. My dad grew up in a family of seven children, he had a sister and two brothers ahead of him, and a sister and two brothers after him. It went like this: Virginia, Jack (really John Corbin), Bud (really William Clark), my dad--Jim (James Robert), Marilyn, Douglas and Donald.

Dad has great stories about growing up, some happy and some sad. He used to tell me stories at night before I went to sleep, and then he would sing me hymns. He told me about how he and Jack and Bud and Marilyn would run around in the country in Iowa and try to jump over puddles without getting a "wet foot." He told me about how once when Marilyn was very little and just learning to use the toilet, she fell in.  He came along at the opportune moment and... flushed it.  I believe he got in pretty big trouble for trying to dispose of his little sister like that.  He told me about how his mother used to work in a grocery store in Iowa. This store was owned by a man who had an insane sister. She used to wear a dress and pantyhose into the store.  She would walk among the aisles and when nobody was looking she would lift up her dress and drop cans of food into her pantyhose until she was dragging heavy-laden stockings with cans hanging all around her ankles. The store owner had instructed my grandma just to leave her alone. My dad said my grandma wished she could have had some of that food to feed her family.

My dad says he and his siblings only got a half a glass of milk per day. He loved his milk and always wished for more. I think I heard a lot about this because I hated milk and refused to drink it at all. One of my dad's favorite childhood meals was lima beans, which his mother would cook and serve in a "gravy" over slices of bread. My mother surmises that he liked this meal so well because it was one of the only meals they ate that was plentiful enough to fill him up. My dad adored canned peaches, which were a rare treat. As a child, he promised himself that one day he would grow up and work hard and make so much money that he would be able to eat a bowl of canned peaches every day. For as long as I lived at home, my dad always ate the same breakfast: a tall glass of skim milk, a medium glass of orange juice, two slices of home baked white bread (toasted and buttered) and a bowl of canned peaches.  Now he eats Cheerios so he can stay off Lipitor; his cholesterol is under 200.  He still eats a bowl of fruit, and it usually has a base of peaches.

When my dad was about ten, he had a paper route. He says that Jack got the clothes when they were new, Bud got them when they were worn out, and by the time he got them, they were in shreds. I suppose he wanted the paper route largely so he could buy himself some clothes. Minnesota winters are cruelly cold. That is one thing I truly do not miss about living in Minnesota, even though we now live in Syracuse where winter is no stranger and we get record snowfalls. But unless you have lived in Minnesota, I don't think you can understand the depth of the cold, how it freezes down and doesn't thaw until spring, how the snow that falls in November doesn't melt until May, how minus 20 degrees feels on your eyeballs when you blink on an average winter morning, waiting for the schoolbus.

So anyway, my dad, at ten, was out trying to deliver newspapers in a coat that had been worn by Jack and worn out by Bud, and he was cold. One day he was walking downtown and saw the warm lights of Colburn-Hilliard's menswear store. He went in and smelled the rich scents of leather and wool, saw the racks of thick, warm, beautifully made men's clothing. He walked over to a rack of warm, woolen jackets and reached out to touch one, feeling the thick wool and heavy lining and dreaming about what it would be like to deliver papers in such a jacket.  It was 1942 and the coat cost $4. The store owner came over and said hello, and my dad had a thought. He said, "Sir, this is a very nice jacket. I would like to buy it from you, but I don't have the money yet. I have a paper route, though, and I will bring you a quarter every week when I get paid, if you will just keep this jacket for me and not sell it to anybody else until I can pay you for it." The man looked my dad over and sized up his worn out shoes and the holes in his elbows and the patches on his knees. "I'll tell you what, son," he said, "You just give me what you can right now, and you can take the jacket with you. I trust you to pay me every week."

My dad's family was an anomaly. They were poor, but they had class. They read poetry and spoke proper English. Manners and aesthetics were very important to them. They worked hard and dreamed big, and when the depression was over, they rose from the ashes. Grandma taught me to cut up apples and section oranges, then use the pieces to create circle designs on a plate, a beautiful visual fruit salad. At Grandma's house everything was special, everything had its own little ceremony. She read me poems and played records for me to listen to. She introduced art projects, cooking projects, even gardening projects, and she had a way of making each one so special and precious. She let me pop popcorn in her fireplace.  Of course, by the time I came around, they weren't poor anymore. But in plenty or in want, Grandma had a way of sitting down and looking at you and listening to you, asking you all the right questions to touch your heart and stimulate your creativity.

I was astonished to learn, much, much later, that Grandma had been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown when my dad was little. He remembers driving to the hospital, and how he and his siblings would sit out in the car and wait for their dad while he went in and visited her. My grandma was the most kind, gracious, amazing person I ever met, so learning that she was overwhelmed and overcome back in the days when all her kids were little gives me great hope for myself. I didn't learn about this until after my kids were past the most difficult stages, when I really thought I was losing my mind, and I kind of wish I had known earlier. But just the same, it gives me hope for my own future.

Rainbows are cheerful, generally. They are tender hearted and have a good sense of humor. Their eyes tend to twinkle, and they have a knack for catching beauty and laughter and priceless moments. One day I was visiting my Aunt Marilyn when Shannon, David and Laura were very small. Aunt Marilyn has lived in absolutely stunning homes, so I was a little nervous about the children and their behavior. David was about two, maybe three. As Aunt Marilyn and I chatted, she at one point gestured quietly toward David. I looked and saw that he was picking up a candlestick off her end table. I moved to stop him, but she silently motioned me to wait and watch. David set the candlestick on the floor, backed up, ran towards it and jumped. Marilyn burst into a huge grin, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick!” she reminded me.

Rainbows have a rare appreciation for beauty and for the unusual and eccentric, which is probably why two of them (Jack and my dad) married Herbold women. We’ll talk about that next time.

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