Thursday, January 31, 2008

A very long treatment of my maternal roots

My mother’s side of the family. This is complex. I don’t know where to start.

My mom was the youngest of nine children. Her mother also had three miscarriages, so she must have spent a lot of her life pregnant. There were five girls and four boys. The oldest was my Aunt Ruth. Her name was Ruth Johanna Carolina. Grandpa was so thrilled and overcome when his first baby was born, he added the name of the midwife, Carolina, to their already chosen name, Ruth Johanna, or so the story goes. I will list the nine in order to get it over with early: Ruth, Paul, Jonathan (a.k.a. “Donny”), Lois (a.k.a. “Loie”), John El Nathan (don’t ask, but thank goodness he was a.k.a. “Nate”), Eunice (a.k.a. “Nunie”), Priscilla (a.k.a. “Teda”), Dave and my mother, Miriam (a.k.a. “Bonnie”—her middle name). Of the boys, Donny died in a flight training accident right after he got back from fighting in WWII. Paul moved to Washington State and taught broadcast journalism in a college. Nate moved to Louisiana. I only really knew Uncle Dave. The Herbold sisters were a famous group, though, tight-knit and close to their mama all their lives (well, Aunt Nunie was a missionary to Africa for thirty years, but when she came home, she moved in with Grandma forever after to make up for it).

My mom’s mom, Grandma Herbold, born “Esther Mechel” was the seamstress daughter of a German minister. I already wrote about how people used to ask me if I was the nanny to my beautiful children. A similar thing happened to Grandma when she was a young girl in her early teens. She was out pushing her baby brother, Benjamin, in his perambulator one day, and he was so beautiful and so beautifully dressed (gifted seamstresses ran in that family) that some well dressed high society ladies were completely taken with him. “What a beautiful baby!” they said to Esther Mechel. “Whose baby is he?” And my grandma blushed and said, “He’s our baby.”

Grandma traveled to the homes of rich people and lived with them while she sewed their wardrobes. She was self supporting by age 17. Grandpa, whose name was George Herbold, was a traveling evangelist who noticed her and was struck by her humility and diligent work ethic. He was 34. She was 18.

Incidentally, Grandma did not know one single thing about the birds and the bees before she got married. She was almost frightened to death on her wedding night. I think she thought she was going to be a murder victim, and her husband a minister, no less.

If you looked at pictures of my grandparents, you would not say that they were good looking people. Grandma looked faintly like Eleanor Roosevelt, only with a more demure expression, smaller teeth and big, serious eyes. Grandpa looked a little like a mini version of Frankenstein. But somehow they had the most beautiful children.

Aunt Ruth and Aunt Teda were both crowned beauty queens in their day. Ruth was dark and sophisticated, and Teda was blond, blue eyed, looked like a movie star and sang like a bird. My mom could have been a beauty queen, too (I know you would never guess from looking at me), but she didn’t have the personality—she scorned beauty queens (which you might have been able to guess if you knew me). Funny, I never knew that Ruth and Teda were beauty queens until much, much later in life, but even then I didn’t connect my mother’s predisposition to dismiss beauty queens with any quirky relationships she might have had with her sisters until, oh, a few years ago.

I forgot to mention, they were a German family. Grandma’s parents came to America shortly before or after they were married, and Grandpa’s family came over when he was four years old. Although Grandma and Grandpa had both spoken German in their homes growing up, the two world wars caused them to be very ashamed of their heritage and they only ever spoke English in their own home. I have wondered if this were also an occasion when they changed the spelling of their name from Herboldt to Herbold, or if it has always been that way.

The George Herbold family was poor. Whereas my father’s father always had a job throughout the Depression, no matter how bad it was, or how insufficient to feed a family of seven children, at least Grandpa Rainbow always had a job. Grandpa Herbold was a stubborn German preacher with a maverick theology, and he was without a church more than he was with one. The family survived because of the industriousness and ingenuity of Esther. Grandpa did keep a big garden, but Grandma worked hard in it. She weeded and harvested and cooked and canned and sewed and churned butter… oh, yes, they had a cow, there on the edge of town in the old barn next to their big garden. Mom says they would not have survived the depression were it not for that cow. Mom doesn’t care for milk, butter or custard pie to this day. She doesn’t mind ice cream too much, though.

The Herbold children grew up poor but proud. Grandpa would not accept “charity” which is what he called government aide. George Herbold hated FDR and everything related to what he called “his welfare state.” My mom picked up on that. To this day, someone only has to mention the name of FDR in passing and she will burst out, “Oh that FDR. He rolled into office on a beer barrel.” This is a scathing reference to his termination of the Prohibition.

Grandma sewed her children beautiful clothes. She talked about how Aunt Ruth wanted a fancy dress for a party one year, and how she (Ruth) insisted it be cut on the bias. Grandma tried and tried to talk her into a different dress, but Aunt Ruth had to have that one, and it just killed Grandma how much fabric was wasted when you cut things that way. It turned out great, though. Ruth had quite the sense of style. Grandma was very good at sewing, and cooking, and fixing little girls’ hair. She was just plain one amazing woman, and that was all there was to that. She was awfully busy, as you may imagine, and basically worn out by the time the last two, Dave and Bonnie, came along fifteen months apart. Dave was very naughty, so the upshot was that my mom just got forgotten. I asked Grandma once what my mom was like when she was a little girl, and Grandma said, “Oh Bonnie, she was so good. She just sat on the porch and sewed clothes for her dolls and never gave me any trouble at all.”

Aunt Ruth cashed in on her good looks early and married a rich (fairly old) man when she was nineteen (my mom was three). He built her a beautiful home on the banks of the Mississippi River, and when her sisters got old enough, she hired them to clean it for her. She was fussy, too. My mom grew up hyper-fussy and critical about cleaning, and I don’t think it came from Grandma Herbold. The sisters took a strong sense of decency from pristine cleanliness. I didn’t know that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” was not in the Bible until I myself had been married for a number of years. Was it ever a relief to me to learn that God would still love me if there was a hair in my sink one day!

I think Aunt Loie probably had the happiest life of any of the Herbold sisters. She married a gentle Swedish man and they raised four children, three daughters and a son. Their oldest daughter and her husband were Wycliff missionaries to Peru for many years. Loie and her husband, Les, went down to Peru a number of times to join their daughter (Carol) and her husband, and to spend time with their grandchildren. David, Loie's only boy and youngest child, became involved in this missionary work, too. But when he was eighteen, he was flying within Peru and his plane crashed in the jungle and he died. I suppose it’s strange that I think of this family as the happiest one, but they are so close to the Lord that He has carried them on eagles’ wings.

Around the time my mom started high school, there was a day when Jack Rainbow (my dad’s big brother) caught sight of my Aunt Teda, and that very day he went home and told his family that he had seen the most beautiful girl in the world and that he was going to marry her. Well, he got to work on that, and it was going quite well, and somewhere along the way somebody got the idea that his little brother, Jim Rainbow, my dad, ought to marry Teda’s little sister Bonnie, my mom. It might have been my mom’s brother Dave; he was in my dad’s grade. The problem was that both my mom and my dad were the most reserved members of their respective families. Dad was too shy to talk to my mom, and Mom was much too modest and proper ever to open a conversation with him. So one day Dave offered to give the two of them a ride home from somewhere in his car (how he had a car I cannot explain, but he did—he was quite an athlete, so maybe it came from some sort of athletic scholarship money or something?), anyhow, Dave offered to give them a ride, but he stopped his car on the opposite side of the Anoka golf course from wherever it was that they were trying to go (presumably Mom’s house), and kicked them out. They had to walk all the way across the golf course together on a bitter cold Minnesota winter night. Reserved as she is, my mom can make small talk when she needs to, so she did, filling up the silent night with reassuring chatter. My dad liked the way she could keep a conversation going, and a romance was born.

Mom didn’t talk to me much about her childhood. I think it was a combination of being the last of nine during the Depression, having a naturally melancholy and somewhat pessimistic personality, and growing up in the shadow of Teda, whose entrance into a room was like brilliant fireworks. Teda could sing and play the piano by ear and mimic people in the most hilarious way (which wasn’t always very nice, but it sure was amusing—in her day, Grandma Esther could do shamefully funny imitations herself—what was really funny were the takes on the die hard German relatives with their crazy German accents).

Jack and Teda moved to California long before I was born, but when they came back to Minnesota for family reunions, they usually stayed with our family—probably the brother-brother, sister-sister thing. I don’t know if I ever had as much fun as I had during Teda and Jack’s visits. Teda and my mom looked very much alike, except that Teda had blond hair and blue eyes and my mom had dark hair and eyes. During the late 60’s, when I was just a wee tot, they had wigs, and one night they traded—Mom wore Teda’s blond wig, and Teda wore Mom’s black one. I was completely confused; I couldn’t tell who my mom was. But it was OK, because I loved both of them and I wasn’t scared. Everybody laughed until they cried that night.

Families are so weird, the love-hate things that go on. In the Herbold family, there was always a lot more love than hate, but there were plenty of jealousy and competitiveness and hurt feelings, too. I guess that’s just the way life is.

Grandpa died at the age of 91 in 1970, the year I was in kindergarten. He was hit by a car while riding his bicycle down Main Street of Anoka. I was very frightened of his dead body in the coffin.

Grandma died at the age of 93 in 1989, shortly before Shannon was born. We had moved to Syracuse NY by then, and Shawn was getting his master’s degree. We had no spare change, and I was sick with the pregnancy, so I was unable to attend the funeral, but my cousin Laura told me that there was a huge bouquet of pink roses, one for each of Grandma’s grandchildren and great-grand-children (about 60 or so), and they stuck in a little white rosebud for my unborn baby. Grandma knit a white blanket for Shannon before she died. It was when it arrived in a box from Aunt Nunie that I broke down and wept, clutching Aunt Nunie's letter about the funeral against my pregnant belly, bending down on my knees on the oak floor of the baby nursery we had just painted yellow.

Grandma and Nunie were prayer warriors with files of relatives and friends and people from the mission field, files they prayed through regularly and with an organized method. When I read Nunie’s letter and it hit me that Grandma was truly gone, I cried out to the Lord, “Who will pray for me now?”

Prayers, yeasty coffee cake cut into bunnies at Easter, lilacs off the porch, sparrows in the birdhouse, the cellar of canned goods, the screen porch, the old pump in the back yard, suitcases in the closet upstairs, pork chops cooked with sauerkraut and served over mashed potatoes, lemon meringue pie, a ruffled dress of navy blue dotted swiss, the treadle sewing machine… making me doll clothes, the old fashioned crank washing machine, homemade anise candy, strict discipline, fear of the Lord, sparkling clean everything, white dishes with bumps around the edges, the red chair in the living room where Grandma sat next to her cane with a blanket on her lap and Lawrence Welk on TV.

That’s my mom’s side of the family.

1 comment:

tj said...

I am more blessed today than I was yesterday.....