Blended Families & Broken Refrigerators
Uncle Dave gave us our first lesson in integration. When I was a little boy growing up in the 1960s my Aunt Ruth’s husband one day up and vanished. He left behind a wife and four children. Uncle Bill should’ve blended easily into Dad’s side of the family. An uncle by marriage the man was of Irish ancestry entering into a tribe comprised of Gaels and Alsatians. Then suddenly he was gone. With no means of support and jobs tough to come by in a depressed small town in the northern Alleghenies Aunt Ruth was forced to move. She packed up my cousins and relocated to Rochester where my Aunt Jean had carved out a successful life as a registered nurse and could act as a guide for her next oldest sibling. Many years passed and then news came Aunt Ruth had met another man and remarried and they were coming home. All we knew about the guy was that he was an urbanite.
We had come to know some of his kind when people from Rochester, Buffalo or even New York City would decide they wanted to raise their children in a rural environment. They would show up, complain the sound of crickets kept them awake at night and the kids would whine there wasn’t a McDonald’s. In this manner I became acquainted while still young with people of Polish, Jewish and African ancestry. None of these came across as exotic. At school my two best friends came from families with roots in Hungary and Slovenia. Italians were another matter. This was before the release of a movie called the Godfather and Americans of Italian descent barely made a ripple in our local culture. Oh, there were plenty of them but without movie stereotypes they blended quietly into the mountain lifestyle.
Then we met Uncle Dave. I believe he came for Christmas in 1972. He didn’t say much. When he did speak it often was loud and directed at his new stepchildren, none of whom would be considered disciplinary problems. Mostly he sat in a corner and glowered. His skin wasn’t as light-colored as ours and he wore tinted glasses and you got the impression he wasn’t happy to be in a crowd.
He was an impeccable dresser and in summer wore white shoes and a white belt against dark shirts and light trousers. He drove a large Cadillac convertible. It also was white with a red interior. When he wasn’t glowering he had a volcanic temper. Aunt Jean had also found a husband. Uncle Chuck was a tall muscular man and appeared as broad across the shoulders as he was tall. He also liked large cars. Lincolns were his preference. He popped the hood one day for me and I saw the largest engine my eyes had ever beheld. These two uncles both drove large cars and came from Rochester and that’s where any similarities ended. At one holiday gathering the two apparently had a disagreement. Uncle Dave threatened he was going to his car to get his gun and claimed he was going to shoot Uncle Chuck. I’m happy to say it didn’t go beyond the bluster. Uncle Chuck believed in open carry. That is he openly carried his Bible. When my grandmother was hospitalized in the weeks before her passing I watched Uncle Chuck walk into the room and then get on his knees at the foot of her bed and offer silent prayer. His devotion moved me and helped re-awaken a long buried faith she had taught me when I was a little boy.
Finding a job in what is Northern Appalachia isn’t easy now and it wasn’t in the 1970s. For a time Uncle Dave worked making deliveries for my Uncle Louie. Televisions and appliances and often two men were needed to carry the loads. Driving to drop off a new refrigerator Uncle Dave and a friend of the family got into a heated discussion. As they were carrying the load up a long staircase the heat became fire. The two men came to blows. Even if you’ve never been in a fistfight I’m sure you know it’s difficult to throw punches when your hands are attached to a large kitchen appliance. As they were pounding on each other the refrigerator moaned, tipped over and rolled down the staircase. It came to rest battered and bruised on the sidewalk below. Uncle Louie wasn’t happy. He confided in his younger brother. Dad couldn’t stop laughing and it didn’t make matters any better.
I’m happy to note Uncle Dave eventually found a niche in a culture once alien to his urban upbringing. He was a skilled handyman and went into business on his own. He and Aunt Ruth bought a large home. Uncle Dave joined the volunteer fire department and eventually served as Chief. He also became a fixture in the American Legion. The man raised four children who weren’t biologically his own and they became successful and prosperous adults. I also recall the men in the family grew to enjoy his company. He was always in great physical condition and when telling jokes he would get very animated. I once watched him tell a story while pretending he was jumping up and down on a manhole cover. The old men and the young men were doubled over and snorting in laughter.
I sat with him at a table inside an airplane hangar at a family reunion in Wellsville, New York five years ago. He hasn’t aged much. A bit whiter around the temples but he told me how happy he was my radio talk show had a conservative bent. As I now approach my mid-50s I sometimes look back and realize my early impressions of people were wrong. The man and my aunt have been together now 45 years. In modern times any marriage lasting a decade looks remarkable. Aunt Ruth’s second marriage has outlasted the marriages of all her siblings and has now even surpassed the years my grandparents were together. She and Uncle Dave are testimony to patience and a willingness to endure.