My mother was half-Scottish, a member of the Robb clan that claims the MacFarlane tartan. The family roots go back to Kilmarnock and Paisley, Scotland, where James Robb and Margaret Morton were born about 1830. My sister has the paisley shawl Margaret wore during her travel alone from Scotland to her intended’s side. Our great-aunt Marion recounted it as “eight weeks in a sailing vessel” followed by arduous travel by land to the Mississippi to meet James in Fountain City, a place she would certainly have imagined differently from the small, dark town on a bluff from which James’ swinging lantern told her she’d made it.
The Robb side of our family is smaller and quieter than the Amerson side. My mother and her brother, Jim, and his wife, Beth, are gone, leaving my sister and me and our four Robb cousins — Ricka, Becky, and Molly in Minnesota, and Eve in Kansas — to the job of connecting. Facebook helps.
So I was happy to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from Becky saying, in part, this:
Could you tell me if Grandpa Robb was related to Gordon Robb from Winona? I ran into a vendor today who’s name is Sean Robb and he is the grandson of Gordon.
The name didn’t ring a bell and I thought the answers might lie in the eight binders of correspondence and related family papers I sent to the Winona County Historical Society this past year. However, there was one file still on the bookshelf, and it contained a hint.
Our grandfather’s grandparents, James Robb and Margaret Morton, had 12 children, including William John Robb (1860-1946) who had a son, William Gordon Robb (1923 -). The trail runs out there. I’ve attached two pages from Mom’s binders.
And, guess what, the hint did the job. Here’s part of the email Becky got from Sean.
William Gordon Robb is my grandfather on my dad’s side. Getting super emotional now. God bless you for following up on this. It seems you and I share the same blood!
As I told Becky, this connection would have made my mother very glad indeed. In fact, I thought I heard her dancing up there. Knowing where she was from, and transmitting that knowledge to me and my sister as we grew up abroad, mattered a great deal to our mother. This was why. Now, if someone wants to clarify how the “once removed” etc. definitions work, Sean, Becky, and I will formalize our newly discovered relationship!
When my father was stationed at the American Embassy in Rome, our family mail came to us via the Army Post Office (APO), which routes US Postal Office mail to military bases and diplomatic missions around the globe. [A note here: the Defense Department says that the APO mail service is available to only US Postal Service mail. You’ll understand why I say this in a minute.]
So, back to Rome. The Italian postal system was unreliable, so people living in Rome during my parent’s time at the Embassy (early ‘60s and, again, mid-‘70s) put their mail in post boxes in Vatican City, which has run its own postal system for the past century. I just ran across this informal 2017 poll that shows that Italy continues to be ranked poorly on its handling of the mail, with some 80 percent of the respondents to an informal poll rating it as “poor” or “fair”.
the US mail ranks 7th in the world
Look at the bar graph again. In this list of 35 countries, Japan leads in high points for its mail system, followed by South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Austria, and the USA. 7th in a list of 35 countries, a good system.
Americans depend on the US mail
Americans have long relied on our government delivery of the mail to keep in touch with family, order supplies, transport livestock, and even transport children, as my friend Karen Coody Cooper writes in this piece that recently ran in our local newspaper, The Palm Beach Post.
My dad grew up on a South Dakota farm, where the mail linked his mother to family and friends who had found a warmer, easier life out in California. My father’s memoir, From the Hidewood, includes a story about his mother writing her family and making a friend of Dad’s one-room schoolhouse teacher through conversations at the mailbox.
… by the time she’d put the letter and its three pennies inside the roadside mailbox and raised the flag, the familiar slender figure with the book bag in hand had almost arrived.
Robert Amerson, From the Hidewood
Current attempts to hamper service
Elsewhere in the same issue of The Palm Beach Post was an article about the Trump Administration efforts to hamper the US Postal Service’s ability to deliver the mail, — in order to ensure its demise and resurrection as a for-profit enterprise — resulting in the death of chicks in transit to poultry farmers who’ve relied on the mail for their inventory. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) has taken the issue to Washington. Look at her. I would do what she asks. She is one of us persistent, nasty women who wants answers. I don’t think she’s going to be okay with converting the US Postal Service into a private corporation. And, Americans serving our country abroad rely on the USPS to get their mail to the Army Post Office.
Private sector Mail failed me
This week, I had my own postal experience that sheds some light on the issue for me. After a decade of holding onto the written records of my mother’s family — a collection of letters, poetry, and other paper in annotated binders which she created and curated — I decided to finally get them to their proper home, the historical society in her hometown of Winona, Minnesota. Although I felt badly about not having done more with the materials while I had them, I knew that I was doing the right thing in putting these treasures closer to family. The Winona County Historical Society assured me that they’d accept the materials, redirecting any that might better belong in another historical collection — Mankato, in Blue Mound County, was where her mother’s Kelly family was from; other family came from Fountain City, across the Mississippi in Wisconsin.
I packed the binders into two sturdy boxes culled from Amazon deliveries. Given the delicacy of the task, and trying to limit my exposure to people — the Coronavirus has not been tamed here — I chose FedEx to deliver the two boxes to their permanent home.
Here is what happened one week later.
One box was delivered to the Winona County Historical Society. The other box was dumped at my front door, soaking wet, falling apart, and somehow still containing its precious cargo. The FedEx address label with the Minnesota address was gone, and the box made it back via my husband’s name and our home address on a new FedEx label. How this happened is a mystery. When I tracked the box, it shows that it is still enroute to the original destination, with a current address of Countryside, IL. The automated response line would not put a real person on the telephone. Because the box is still in transit. And the FedEx shipping center down the road, which I visited yesterday with the box and cargo in hand, will not issue me a refund and/or re-ship the cargo. I’ll try again today to reach a human being.
So much for the private sector.
The USPS will get my box this time. I’ve been out in the world enough to appreciate that social distancing precautions are in place to protect me, and 95 percent of the people we’ve seen are wearing masks. The Coronavirus numbers are in decline.
Of course, Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Corcoran are demanding that Florida schools re-open in-person. I’m betting we see those COVID-19 numbers shoot back up.
Most of the clothes in my closet have not been touched in more than a year, largely due to my illness last year. During my three-month hospitalization, I lost one-quarter of my weight, so my clothes hung on me when I was finally home. As I regained my strength, I slowly regained my weight, and am right back to where I was before my ruptured aneurysm. In theory, I can wear anything in my closet.
But I haven’t. Just about the time I felt like myself again, ready to enjoy a night on the town and maybe even doing a little traveling, the pandemic hit. I haven’t been inside a retail shop or a restaurant since mid-March. My bank is doing business only in the drive-through window. I’ve been to FedEx twice, feeling moved to share physical possessions with family and archival repositories — my mother’s collection of family letters, poetry and other paper ephemera is going to the Winona County Historical Society.
So, I’m home, laundering the same small pile of clothing over and over. Workout clothes for the morning, one of three pairs of shorts and a t-shirt for the afternoons, sweats or even pajamas by dinner time. Now and then, a pair of jeans. A suit and cover-up for a couple of careful beach visits. Sketchers. Running shoes. Flip flops.
Forget heels. Even in my professional 1990’s business days, the height of my heels was never more than 3 inches. I last wore a pair of pumps to read at the annual luncheon of a Boynton Beach book club a year and a half ago, and my daughter assured me that they had seen better days. Into the garbage they went.
The sales of dress shoes has plummeted 70 percent, Mallenbaum cites. Slippers and Crocs are the Coronavirus shoes-of-choice. Crocs were my go-to shoes in the hospital. About half-way through my three-month stay, one of my many roommates left behind a pair of worn pink Crocs and they became mine. Although it took a minute, I could get them on and off without ringing for assistance. The day I first walked, they were on my feet.
And socks. Mallenbaum tells us that socks are now qualifying as shoes.
Socks certainly make a statement. My gift of palm tree socks to the nurses and doctors who saved my life in Amsterdam was a huge, optimistic thank-you!
This pandemic has people wondering if dressing up is a thing of the past.
In April, clothing sales fell 79 percent in the United States, the largest dive on record. Purchases of sweatpants, though, were up 80 percent.
People are feeling that they are getting away with something. We’re conducting business and making money, but — ha ha! — we’re in our pajamas.
Polly McCall, psychotherapist
It is bad enough that everyone is dressing like a hospital patient, but now I’m realizing that it’s worse: the working cohort has stolen the retiree wardrobe.
No. You are supposed to earn loose-fitting lounge wear by suffering through years of tight waistbands and pantyhose and high heels. That’s why they call it work. Slob-chic has lowered the bar.
I worry that the lowering of the bar threatens retirees with losing our special status until I remember that there is still one thing that we can call our own: carping about change. “Why, when I was employed we wore slips and padded shoulders and heels…”
It’s good to know that you’ll still know us, not by our outfits but by our endearing whining.