In my show, Rainbows & Ribbons, there is a vignette about my African-American grandmother, Rachel. Through Ancestry.com, I learned that she was named after her grandmother, who was the daughter of a runaway slave named Lucy in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. She was my paternal grandmother. She lived in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on Walnut Street, in the middle of an African-American neighborhood in that small city, known for being the home of the Little League World Series.
The fact that I have an African-American father and paternal grandparents surprises most people because I appear Caucasian. My mother is Caucasian. My father was light in skin tone for an African-American and sometimes passed as white in the 1950s when it was advantageous to do so. He passed away in 2001. According to Ancestry.com's DNA test, 16% of my major DNA markers are from West African countries, no doubt remnants of the history slavery in my family tree.
Grandma Rachel was especially important to me because I did not know my maternal grandparents growing up. They could not accept my mother's interracial marriage, even though it was legal in 1958 in New York State.
My father loved his mother and father very much and made sure they were an active part of our lives. We regularly made the 4 hour car trip from New York City on holidays, such as Easter weekend. They were light-skinned in tone -- that was an important asset back in the first half of the twentieth century.
My mother took me as a toddler to visit her parents in the early 1960s, hoping that a face-to-face meeting would encourage them to be accepting of her new family. I am currently writing a full length play about that weekend entitled "April Showers." Stay tuned for more information about that as it develops.
Grandma Rachel worked as a cook at the Williamsport Country Club. Because of this, she would often bring home roasts and other high quality food that were leftover from their special functions. Her generosity is pictured in the black and white photo above, which depicts her passing food freely from her kitchen nook across an opening into the dining room. Everyone would stop by for some good advice and a free meal. She was an excellent cook. That lesson always stayed with me -- I consider feeding someone else one of the simplest acts of kindness a person can do.
She was the 10th of 13 siblings. Even though she was diminutive, she raised five sons, my father being the third one. She used to smoke Virginia Slims cigarettes. I have many memories of her talking while dangling a cigarette between her lips -- she was very adept at it! She lived to the age of 79. She remained fervently in love with my grandfather, Ross, whom I am named after. My father helped organize their 50th wedding anniversary celebration. They were so in love that my grandfather died within a year after she did -- he died of a broken heart.
Her bedroom, which she would let my sister and I spend some time in, was beautifully feminine, with a gorgeous vanity complete with loads of costume jewelry and makeup. She had long wavy hair -- I can't remember her ever wearing a wig. I used to watch her brush it, fascinated by her skill at doing it. She had quite a fashion sense as well. My grandfather had a separate room, I presumed because he came home much later than she did -- he was a waiter at the country club. He might have snored a little too. I visited their graves with my sister Rachele (who was named after her), my cousin Keith and many other cousins a few years ago during a mini-family reunion.
My grandma attended my high school graduation, coming in from Williamsport -- my father made sure of it. That meant so much to me. She and her sisters closest to her in age would come to NYC to board cruise ships at the Hudson River piers. No doubt she enjoyed someone else doing the cooking for a change!
Grandma, you are missed. It's my privilege to reminisce about you during Rainbows & Ribbons!