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Posts Tagged ‘grandparents’

Time to get in the car. Grab a seat by the window, and settle in. This is going to be a long, long blog post.

The good news? You don’t have to buckle up if you want. This is 1975, you see.

Specifically, it’s Friday, May 23, 1975. My grandparents and great-grandma are about to spend (almost) 10 hours (mostly) in a car, driving from the southwestern edge of Connecticut to (almost) the shores of Lake Ontario.

And we’re all going to ride with them, as I re-create the sights and sounds of an all-day interstate car trip with the Blumenau family elders as faithfully as I can.

Don’t worry — you’ll get a chance to pee.

May 23, 1975.

May 23, 1975. Yanks and Mets win.

Your vehicle for the trip will be a 1969 Ford Fairlane 500, somewhere between cream and pale green in color. It was extensively described in this earlier post, if you want to go have a look at it. It’s reliable and well-kept, though the vinyl upholstery might get a little squirmworthy after seven or eight hours on a sunny day. There is, of course, no air conditioning.

(My grandpa — he’ll do all the driving — has one of those plastic seat inserts that cab drivers use to get just the tiniest bit of airspace between one’s arse and the vinyl. Being The Man has its perks.)

Your fellow passengers will be my grandmother, Corine, in the front seat and my great-grandma, Pauline (known in the family as Grossee, short for the German Grossmutter) in the back. There’s plenty of room; you can stretch your legs.

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step on the gas pedal.

And this journey starts on the back roads — specifically, on Long Ridge Road (a.k.a. Connecticut Route 104), which my grandfather takes across the Rippowam and Mianus rivers and over the state line, roughly 13 miles to the little town of Bedford, New York.

Once in wealthy Westchester County, the roads gradually start to get bigger. State Route 172 westbound from Bedford feeds into Route 684 northbound, which connects in turn to Interstate 84.

I-84 wends westbound through the quiet southern chunk of New York state between Westchester County and Woodstock, occasionally watched over by wary staties in ungainly yellow-and-blue Dodge Monacos. The Fairlane does nothing to attract their attention, and they take no notice of it.

Doing a responsible 60 mph or so, the Fairlane crosses the north-south Taconic Parkway in the company of Ramblers and Mercurys, then sits in a bottleneck until it finally gets a chance to  soar over the Hudson River on the 12-year-old but already overcrowded Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.

Around this time, you start to notice that the ride lacks for interpersonal stimulation.

My grandfather is largely content to focus on his duties as driver. My great-grandma — while ordinarily affable — clams up during car trips, reluctant to do anything that might distract the driver. And my grandmother’s bursts of chattiness are hindered by her deafness and the engine noise, which conspire to turn any conversation into an adventure.

For a time, the putative conversation turns to the Blumenaus’ beloved grandchildren — one four-and-a-half, the other not yet two — who are waiting for them in western New York. The kids are still at ages when life consists of one big discovery after another, and the members of the traveling party look forward to hearing about the latest.

At the otherwise unremarkable downstate town of Middletown, N.Y., my grandpa turns onto New York State Route 17.

Route 17 carries the big cream-colored car north through Catskills towns like Wurtsboro, Monticello and Liberty. Even at this late date, it is possible to see both billboards for Borscht Belt resorts and the fading resorts themselves from the highway. Billboards for Monticello Raceway are also frequent, some of which feature neon horses waiting for nightfall to come out and trot.

Route 17 flirts with the Pennsylvania state line in the towns of Hancock and Deposit, where my father was stranded for a night in April 1972 by an unseasonally heavy storm en route to Stamford to play organ at my Uncle T.J.’s wedding. No doubt that story comes up among the travelers.

Route 17 meets Route 81 North near the city of Binghamton, and my grandpa turns onto still another major interstate. Traffic is again heavy in spots: It’s Memorial Day weekend, and even in the early afternoon, people are trying to get somewhere else.

By this time, you and your fellow occupants of the Fairlane are hungry and need a break. Once back on a big highway, you start looking for an opportunity to get off the road. (Being frugal Yankees, my grandparents and great-grandmother have packed their own lunches, so the enticements of McDonald’s hold no appeal to them.)

Unfortunately, the nearest rest stop on northbound I-81 is several miles behind you, just north of the New York-Pennsylvania line. You have to wait 30-odd miles until the town of Homer, near the colleges-and-farms burg of Cortland, for a proper rest area.

Once there, you hit the bathroom, claim a shady picnic table and settle down to your delayed repast — ham sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise, apples, and a thermos full of lemonade. The family chats and eats without hurry, oblivious to the cars and trucks grinding past to their own destinations. You make a note to pack some sriracha for the return trip, to lend your sammich something resembling flavor.

At some length, everyone bundles themselves back into the waiting Fairlane. The windows have been closed, and the air has become hot and thick inside, and scented with vinyl. Fighting the urge to drowse, the family sets off again.

But only for a short time. This is 1975, after all, and you’re riding in an American car with at least a V6 engine in stop-start traffic. So my grandfather grabs the first opportunity to pull off the highway again and refill his tank at some small-town gas station, perhaps in a town like Homer, Tully or Preble. He pays cash.

The Fairlane creeps north gradually toward Syracuse. It is roughly 5:15 p.m. by the time you reach the Salt City, and Memorial Day traffic combines with the regular Friday-afternoon drive-time exodus to choke the roads.

The worst of it is leaving the city — not coming into it, as the Fairlane is — but as my grandpa hangs his final left turn onto the New York State Thruway westbound, the pace of traffic slows a bit.

From Syracuse it is a straight shot westbound to Rochester, the last real leg of the trip, roughly an hour-and-a-half in regular traffic. My grandfather, his right foot perhaps getting heavier, manages to make it in more or less that time. (Perhaps there is another bathroom break, quicker this time, somewhere along the Thruway.)

At 7 p.m. or so, as the skies hint at their eventual darkening, you get off at Thruway Exit 45, Route 490, Rochester.

And about 15 minutes later, my grandpa’s Fairlane  is in the driveway of his son’s suburban home at 50 Timberbrook Lane, Penfield. A late dinner and family comforts await. The trip is over.

Get out. Stretch your legs. Relax and enjoy.

In three days or so, you’ll be doing it again, the other way.

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Last week, I told you about one of the loves of my grandfather’s life circa 1969 — his brand-new, eagerly anticipated Ford Fairlane 500.

This week, we follow him as he grits his teeth, swallows hard, and thinks about handing the keys over to the other love of his life — my grandmother.

May 6, 1969.

May 6, 1969. (With special bonus content: May 5 and 7.)

I’ve been writing this blog for a good 20 months now … and my total failure to define, describe or otherwise flesh out my grandmother in this space has been an ongoing source of frustration for me.

Corine Mae Blumenau, nee Wambolt, was kindly, good-humored, a skilled baker, deaf as a stone post, and prone to occasional periods of depression.

As a child, I witnessed all of these qualities but the last; and all except the deafness have manifested themselves in me as an adult. (Classifying myself as “kindly” may be giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I suppose.)

Genealogy was her chosen habit. And it is her family’s lineage that connects a 21st-century salaryman to the earliest days of colonial America, through distant ancestors like William Keeney (born 1601, Leicestershire, England; died 1675, New London, Conn.) and Levi Beebe (born 1743, East Haddam, Conn.; died 1817, Richmond, Mass.; served as a corporal in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.)

Corine Blumenau and her adorable grandchildren. Stamford, Connecticut, 1975.

Corine Blumenau and her adorable grandchildren. Stamford, Connecticut, 1975.

My grandma worked until she got married. It was a point of pride to my grandfather that he make enough money to support them, and they dated for several years until he felt comfortable that he could do so.

I am not entirely sure he did her a solid. I think my grandma’s worldview in her homemaker years was somewhat limited, and she would have benefited from engaging a little more with the larger world.

She was the only one of my grandparents who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in her final years; and while social interaction and intellectual challenge have not been scientifically proven to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, more of both might have helped her.

(In fairness, millions of other women of her generation chose the same path — homemaking, not Alzheimer’s. I have no evidence to indicate she was anything but agreeable with her switch from working woman to homemaker.)

As far as I know, my grandma never had a driver’s license. I know I never saw her drive, and I do not think she was ever legally able to.

This suited her personality — though I find it difficult to find the exact words to describe why.

Was she ditzy or airheaded? No. But, I could easily imagine her rear-ending somebody because she’d seen a good price for ground beef advertised in a store window, and had started thinking about how she might put it to use.

Was she nervous? Not in a chronic fingernail-biting sense. But, I can easily imagine her going 10 mph under the speed limit — on a street marked for 30 — just to be totally sure she didn’t hit anything.

My aunt and grandma, passengers, 1959.

My aunt and grandma, passengers, 1959.

While my grandma might not have been cut out for driving, she did make some attempts to learn.

My grandfather’s calendar headers for October 1968 and March 1969 both feature notations about my grandma taking, or signing up for, driving lessons.

And the calendar entry that started us off, 500 words or so ago, indicates she went so far as to get behind the wheel and give it her best.

October 1968.

October 1968.

I don’t know at what point the Corine Blumenau Driving Experiment failed. I’m not sure if she ever took a driver’s test, or whether the whole idea was abandoned after a few lessons.

I don’t think the topic was ever raised after 1969, though — or if it was, I don’t remember it ever showing up on the calendar.

My grandfather remained the sole operator of the family celery wagon for the remainder of his life, and they managed to get by with that. My grandma retained firm control over the cooking and cleaning, with help from my great-grandmother.

And that, in the Blumenau household, was the way of things.

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Maybe 15 years ago, I came to a curious realization about my visits to Stamford. This was years after my grandparents had moved out of town, and my regular trips to Connecticut were at an end.

Stamford is not tremendously far outside New York City, and serves as a bedroom community for many people who commute into the city every day. (Nine Stamford residents died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.)

Stamford gets New York TV and radio stations, and by and large, its residents read New York newspapers. The ties between the two cities are significant.

And yet, in a dozen years of visiting Stamford at least once a year, I’d never once been to New York City.

There were reasons for this. New York in the Seventies and Eighties was still trying to play down the ironic “Fun City” image it got in the John Lindsay years as a crime-ridden, threatening, fading metropolis.  Out-of-towners — including some who had been content to visit in the ’50s and early ’60s — turned their backs.

My own parents had a similar experience. I don’t know the details, but I know they went to New York in the late ’70s or early ’80s to see some old friends, and had a poor enough time that they had no interest in going back. And they didn’t.

I was a big Mets fan as a kid. And yet, it never occurred to anyone to suggest a trip to the city for a a big-league game — I think because there was a built-in family aversion to going to New York. (The Yankees were around too, of course … but a trip to the South Bronx? Nope.)

My grandparents, as I’ve said before, were stay-at-home types, not tremendously adventurous by nature. My grandpa took my young dad to ballgames at New York’s various stadia in the Fifties, and my grandparents went to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens. But beyond that, they tended to get their kicks close to home. And as New York’s reputation got hairier, they were probably content to steer clear.

It is kind of sad, I suppose, to have the City that Never Sleeps a short train ride away and never take advantage of it. But that’s how it went down at the time.

That’s not to say my grandparents never left their house, though. This week’s calendar entry finds them heading out on the town — or at least planning to:

May 4-6, 1967.

I always thought New Haven suffered from much the same urban woes that plagued New York, on a smaller scale.

But apparently, the chance to hear “Gee, Officer Krupke” performed by Ivy League undergrads was too good a chance for my grandparents to pass up. Or at least it was until the show got cancelled, for reasons I am unable to determine.

This would have been my grandparents’ anniversary weekend. (The mention of sauerbraten at Hugo’s would have been their yearly anniversary dinner.)

So perhaps my grandfather hit upon the idea of an exotic night out, and looked to New Haven as the nearest easily accessible big city in which entertainment might be found.

This is not the only record of their visiting New Haven: A previous blog post about football mentions a 1969 birthday dinner for my Aunt Elaine at the city’s long-gone Les Shaw’s restaurant.

I believe my aunt was going to school in New Haven at the time, at what was then Southern Connecticut State College, which would have added to my grandparents’ interest in visiting.

(New Haven is also reputed to be the birthplace of the hamburger and the home of the best pizza in America, though I doubt either of those would have lured my grandparents there.)

So, there you have it. A night out on the town.

Not The City; the town.

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