The second episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “One For The Angels,” tells the story of a salesman who outwits Death and saves a child by delivering the sales pitch of a lifetime.
It’s not the most incisive half-hour Rod Serling ever scripted, but it’s fondly remembered, largely due to Ed Wynn’s charming performance in the main role.
This week’s installment of Hope Street — starring my dad — makes me think of that long-ago episode. (There’s a Rod Serling connection in this tale, too, which we’ll get back to in a few hundred words.)
My father is not a salesman by trade, and I don’t expect he could tie up the Grim Reaper in knots of argument.
But 30 years ago, he dedicated himself to the biggest sales pitch of his life — convincing his elderly parents and grandmother to leave their home of 40-plus years and move to a wintry, unfamiliar region in a different state.
Damned if he didn’t pull it off.
Because my grandfather saved much of the correspondence, the story can be retold in detail. (It says something that my grandpa saved these letters. He must have been impressed. Touched, even.)
This week, then, we’ll open the envelope and revisit the sales pitch we’ll call the Rochester Letters.
By the early ’80s, my grandparents’ home at 1107 Hope Street in Stamford, Connecticut, was showing its age. Bringing it up to date would have required more money than my grandparents could spend.
The residents of 1107 Hope were also starting to show their age. My grandpa was in his 70s and had had two heart attacks, while my great-grandmother was almost 100 and still climbing a steep flight of stairs to and from her room each day.
It couldn’t last as a living arrangement. And finally, the time came when it didn’t.
In the fall of 1984, my grandparents signed a sales agreement with a developer that had plans to demolish old single-family homes and build condos in their place.
In return for a good payout, they agreed to be out of the house by April 15 of the following year, so the builders could begin their work.
(A curious coincidence: April 15, 1985, was my family’s deadline to leave the house on Hope Street. As previously announced, the last post on the Hope Street blog will be the week of April 15, 2015 — exactly 30 years later. I had no idea about that when I picked the date. Cue the Twilight Zone music…)
But as weeks passed, they didn’t seem to be coming to any decisions or taking any firm action. That concerned my dad.
Starting in November, his letters began to reflect a common thread: Move to Rochester, and we’ll find you a nice house and take care of you.
Consider these excerpts dated Nov. 16, 1984. My dad acknowledges my grandparents’ concerns, like weather, taxes and distance from friends and family …
… and then tries to rebut them.
That last theme — you cared for me; I’ll care for you — shows up a few times in the Rochester Letters. This angle was sentimental enough to hook my grandma, but logical enough to appeal to my grandpa’s German-American ideals of fair play and obligation.
I don’t know if my dad really felt that deeply in debt for his upbringing, but — speaking as a communications professional — I find it an effective piece of messaging.
And, to set the wheels in motion, my parents began working with a realtor to identify homes that might appeal to my grandparents. The Rochester area has a respectable stock of affordable small ranches and Capes, so it wasn’t hard to find suitable places.
Christmas ’84 was a pivotal point in the Rochester Letters. My grandparents still hadn’t been swayed to Rochester, but weren’t moving in any other direction either. Apparently, they were even starting to think that they might use my grandmother’s injury as an excuse to buy more time.
Some of the strongest-worded and most affecting messages of the Rochester Letters date to the final days of that year.
My dad recapped his earlier statements that western New York is not the Arctic wasteland it’s sometimes thought to be …
… and also repeated the notion that he and his family were ready to help in case of any emergency:
Health care was a major part of my dad’s argument — and it might have been around this time that he made a spoken faux pas that could have derailed all the work of the Rochester Letters.
During a phone call, my dad was reiterating the point that Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital has a well-regarded cardiac care department. Trying to bolster his argument, he cited a famous son of western New York who had come to Strong in his hour of greatest need.
“Oh, yeah, they’re famous for their heart care,” my dad said. “Rod Serling died there.”
I can still hear my mom’s appalled gasp at that one. But thankfully, one misstep didn’t quash the entire effort.
From my grandparents’ perspective, the fact that famous people went to Strong for heart care seems to have outweighed the fact that not all of them walked out afterward.
That might have helped the breakthrough in January, when my dad finally got my grandmother to fly to Rochester and see some houses. (It might have been her only plane trip. My grandfather, who stayed behind with my great-grandma, was never known to have flown.)
And, building on that breakthrough, my dad poured on the family messaging:
By my dad’s recollection, my grandma saw only a few houses during her quick trip to New York. It only took one to win her over — a small yellow house on Lynnwood Drive in the suburban town of Brighton.
She liked it enough to convince my grandpa to buy the place sight unseen. I was press-ganged into action, along with family and friends, to make all manner of improvements to the place in a hurry, from laying new insulation in the crawlspace to repainting the big central room.
In the spring of 1985, the sales pitch of the Rochester Letters came to a triumphant conclusion as my grandparents and great-grandma moved into a new home in a new town.
My grandparents’ life in Brighton went just about as well as my dad predicted it would.
My grandparents were a regular presence in the lives of my brother and I as we were growing up. My folks’ social network welcomed them, giving them connections and opportunities to get out and mingle when they wanted to.
My family handled heavy lifting and home maintenance, while my grandpa got to plant his garden and do tinkering chores that kept him content.
I don’t know whether my grandpa was ever treated at Strong Memorial Hospital, or whether he benefited from the heart specialists there. But I think that being relieved of major housework, and knowing he had family nearby to help with any need, did his heart a lot of good.
The Rochester Letters did not beat the Reaper, then, but perhaps they bought a few years of his absence.
As sales pitches go, they don’t come much better than that … not outside the Twilight Zone, anyway.