Saturday, April 14, 2007


My stepmother Joanne’s mother, Grandmom Connie Rue, had decided she wanted to go into assisted living. She could no longer make it living on her own in the tiny, two-story Cape Cod house. Her husband, Grandpop Joe Rue, had died ten years earlier, and she was all alone.
Joseph Rue was the only grandfather I ever really knew. My mother’s father had died during World War Two, my stepfather’s father had died after my only meeting him once, and my father’s father, Phil, had died when I was five.

Joe Rue was a machinist with Monsanto almost his whole life, not including the years before the war. I had known he had been in the war, and that he had fought under Patton almost the entire time. He never spoke to me about the war, though I was fascinated by it. It was not until he died, when we went to put his coffin in the ground, when a military attachment showed up, to give him a proper military sendoff that I realized he had won three of the medals including two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star.

He loved animals and kept two dogs fastidiously. He was the nicest man I ever knew. And he could do everything. Paint. Plumbing. Electrical. Carpentry. He loved to read Popular Mechanics, and spent hours shopping at hardware stores and at Sears. He showed me how to use tools in his extensive and meticulously kept tool shop. When he and Grandmom Connie fought, he’d take out a Piels or Shaeffer, and go down into his basement workshop, close the door, smoke a cigarette, sip his beer, and mumble. While I truly appreciated Grandmom Rue, I felt sad visiting afterwards, without the conspiratorial old man, in his Jimmy Stewart-like way, showing me his latest gadget or his newest project or appliance. I missed him.

The Rue household held deep memories for me. Numerous Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves had been held there. I can still remember the TV room jam-packed with a combination of kids and adults, happily watching Laurence Welk, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or a thousand bad television shows from the 1970s. These were the members of the Greatest Generation. These were the people who had weathered the Great Depression and World War II, who had invented Levittown and televsion, and made this country great.

And I remember the basement, which was finished, complete with paneled walls and linoleum floors, lined down the middle with a series of mismatched tables, covered with two or three tablecloths. Twenty-five to thirty people were nothing for one of those events. Kids screaming, mothers chatting, husbands laughing and talking sports.

As I walked through the house, I soon felt odd. My aunt Dolores and my cousins Tressa and Renee had already gone through the house, or declined altogether. Anything now left was destined for a tag sale or the dumpster. I took a deep breath, and began my walk through.

The kitchen, a model of 1970s comfort, with bright sparkly Formica countertop, and metal base kitchen table, and picture of Jesus, was just as I remembered it, as were all the other rooms. It was just as I had seen it in my memories.

Small things, among which were a stack of DVDs or an out of place new appliance, shamed me for not visiting nearly often enough in the intervening years I had spent in New York, or raising my own family.

There were two urges within me. One was to leave immediately, as I felt guilty touching my grandmother’s things. The other was glee, at seeing all the small necessities we needed to stock a new house. This was, to us, a windfall. The prospect of filling a house with furniture from our guest rooms to the living room was a daunting one. And our budget was very lean in this regard. Here was a chance to get a head start.

With the truck backed into the driveway, we collected our memorabilia and booty. A bed, three bureaus, end tables, an antique chair, pots and pans, and glasses, and tools, and curtains, and extra towels. Everything was immaculately kept. Clean and folded. We got lamps, utensils, tableware, etc. You name it, she had accumulated tons of it. We loaded and packed up the station wagon and the old, loud, grumbling truck whose exhaust was still unfixed. It idled in the driveway, sounding like something sinking in a swamp—glug, glug, glug, glug. . . .

The truck took it all. We piled it high and deep. And wound it all up with string and twine, my father Phil and I arguing if it was secure or not. With the chair tied on top, this teetering pile of remnants took on a look of nomadic Oakies in The Grapes of Wrath, as the truck lurched out of the driveway, rocking back and forth, as it swayed with this newfound treasure.

I remember when it pulled into the driveway of our home, how the old truck and its cargo contrasted with the black-and-white striped awnings and trickling water fountains of our pristine Victorian neighborhood. I stepped back to see the sight, and laughed. We were nothing so noble as those resilient old Oakies, we were the Clampetts, pure and simple. It wasn’t comical—it was laugh out loud funny.

A week later, the truck’s raucous engine roared to life again. I revved the engine on a Friday night, and prepared to leave. I had returned from working in the city, and having enjoyed a rich dinner of cereal, I was now ready to schlep the Clampett-mobile up the Garden State Parkway and the New York State Thruway in the dead of night, hoping to avoid detection by police, who would surely either give me a ticket for disturbing the peace with a malfunctioning exhaust system, or a summons for piling up on an undersized vehicle.
Dawson came with me. Dominique and Dylan had left before us. The deafening roar of the engine at sixty miles per hour was excruciating, and was so loud that it actually prohibited us from talking, reducing us to shouting, or turning any attempt at soundless communication into some game of charades played by two village idiots, as we nodded extravagantly yes, or no, or pointed to sodas, potato chips, and traffic signs. Whenever we had to stop at a toll, the toll-taker’s eyes would invariably widen like the victim’s in an old drive-in thriller.

We trudged our way up. Dawson, much to his credit, eventually fell asleep. When the highway lay behind us, now late at night, I tapped the gas ever so gently, trying to keep the loud engine to a gentle chugging. We inched through the sleepy neighborhoods of Hudson, and then rumbled down the road to our home. When I finally turned into the driveway, the truck swayed as we hit the ditch and the curb of our driveway. I put the truck in park and cut the engine. The truck wheezed and died. The door made a loud creaking sound when I opened and closed it. And then I stopped. It was deadly quiet. There was no light—it was pitch black. And the only sound I could hear was the gravel underneath my feet. The truck had made it.

The next day, we unloaded the furniture, and brought it into the house. These pieces made a huge difference, and I felt great pride in unloading Connie’s utensils into our kitchen. The kitchen is all clapboard and beadboard. A real country kitchen. And these were no new retro-utensils. They were my grandmother’s—and they fit beautifully.


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