The love story we discovered when Hurricane Ida invaded our basement
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They met at Tamiment, a hotel for singles in the Poconos, on Memorial Day weekend, 1953. He was an orthodontist, bringing a roommate from dental school who had just returned from the Korean War. She was working at Seventeen Magazine, and took the bus with three friends from Hunter College.
He slipped the maitré d’ $2 and asked to be seated “at the table with the prettiest girls in the hotel.” They had their first kiss that very first night, right there on the hotel’s dance floor.
“I said, ‘I don’t dance very well,’” she’d recall decades later.
“Right, which is true,” he laughed. “Because I’m very rhythmic, and she’s half a beat off on the music.”
“He said I had beautiful blue eyes,” she remembered. Asked what happened next, she quipped, “censored!” The grandkids were listening.
This is the story of how the husband’s parents met, married and built a life together. It is also a story about documenting memory and intergenerational connection, and maybe a bit about the miracle of modern technology. It is a love story in multiple dimensions.
Devoted readers of this space will recall that, a month ago, Hurricane Ida filled our basement in Montclair, N.J., with six inches of water.
We were spared the severity of the storm, which killed 50 people in the Northeast. And, as we rushed to rescue soggy boxes of memorabilia, we found a precious mini-DV tape we had thought we’d lost, of a 55-minute conversation with Arlene and Howard Ruderman on their 50th wedding anniversary.
The first task was to find a friend who still had a mini-DV player. But the tape wouldn’t play, because it had gotten damp in the flood, so we put it in a tub of rice, like you do when your mobile phone falls in the toilet. Then we brought it to Ira Goodman of Video Data Services in Union, N.J., and one week and $88 later, we had a digital version on all our devices — Grandma and Grandpa, who died in 2014 and 2016, in full color, good health and good humor.
“I offered to drive Grandma home,” Howard recalled of that first weekend at Tamiment. “And then I met Grandma’s mother and dad.”
“You know what your great-grandmother said when she met him at the door?” Arlene chimed in. “Well, Grandpa had maybe a little bit more hair at that time, just a little bit more hair. My mother, we closed the door and all that, my mother said, ‘Oh what a nice looking young man. Doesn’t have too much hair,’ she said, ‘but grass doesn’t grow on a busy street.’”
Theirs is not an extraordinary story, not the stuff of romance novels or Lifetime original movies — though it’s certainly extraordinary, these days, that it lasted, strong and true, a full six decades, ‘til death parted them. And it’s extraordinary that we now have this living record of the two telling their story, in all its ordinary detail, to the next generations.
“This is wonderful!” Arlene and Howard’s oldest granddaughter, Danielle — who just gave birth to her second son — wrote in an email after she watched the video. “Brought many smiles during the middle-of-the-night feedings.
Grandma’s mind was always on grandkids. In the very beginning she even mentioned being around for great-grandkids. She would have loved these two.”
Danielle was a college student when we did the taped interview, back in 2004, and asked what Arlene and Howard’s parents had done for work. Arlene said her father worked in a furniture store and her mother was a milliner — she made the headpiece for their wedding. Howard’s parents were born in Russia.
“He came over when he was very young, and he sold newspapers on the streets of New York first, and then he saved up enough money to go to Columbia University, and he became a pharmacist,” Howard began.
“He opened a drugstore in an area of Manhattan called Harlem, on 134th Street and Lenox Avenue. And while the drugstore was good, and he enjoyed it, he always wanted to become an optometrist. So he went back to school and he became an optometrist. And when I was about 14 years old, I used to work for him almost every Saturday, fixing glasses and helping in the store.
“And my mother, she was the first in New York State, she was the first what we call ophthalmic dispenser. That was her occupation.”
And so it went. The grandkids — then 19, 16, 11 and 8 — asked questions, and the stories spun out.
How she met Tony Bennett and Deborah Kerr and Eleanor Roosevelt while working at Seventeen. How he won dance contests — with trophies! — at the old hotels in the Catskills. How they loved to watch Sid Caesar on Saturday nights.
How their third child came as a surprise, conceived on a rare getaway weekend to Las Vegas. How they discovered, on a vacation to the Thousand Islands on the Canadian border, a tiny one that carried the family name, Ruderman.
(My husband and I combined our surnames after we married, but that’s a whole other story).
Turns out that Memorial Day weekend when Howard drove Arlene home from Tamiment was the very first time he’d driven at all, having grown up in the Bronx riding buses and subways. They both remembered the car: a Chevy Impala, light blue with a white top.
And when did they realize they were in love?
“In those days, I used to take out several different girls each week,” Howard said. “I had a date with a beautiful girl from Far Rockaway, who was in a symphony orchestra. She played the flute and she was just lovely.
“And I decided I’d bring her to Forest Hills, to a nightclub. This was on a Friday night — mom and I, grandma and I had a date the following night, Saturday. Here I’m with this girl the night before. I brought her to the restaurant —”
“The Carlton Terrace, on Queens Boulevard,” Arlene interjected.
“The Carlton Terrace was the restaurant, and she was there with a date,” Howard continued. “And I have never been — I’m not a jealous guy at all — but it so bothered me to see her with another guy, that I deliberately drove my date home.
“And when I drove from Far Rockaway back to my house, I said, ‘Howard, something is going on here that has never occurred with me before.’ I was really upset that I saw mom with another guy, or grandma with another guy.
“So that Saturday night, the next night, when I picked her up at her house,” he went on, “she gets into the car and she goes mmm hmm hmm hmm and she starts dusting off the blond hair from the passenger seat. And I saw that she was equally upset seeing me with someone, and it was that night that we started going steady.”
“Then you still weren’t sure,” Arlene noted.
He proposed on her birthday, March 1, 1954, and they married at the Essex House on June 26. “At 10 o’clock at night, it was 98 degrees,” she recalled.
They remember everything. The kids asked how many people were there: 160, they said in unison. How much did the whole wedding cost? “Four thousand, four hundred and 92 dollars,” she said. “Which included everything,” he added. “The flowers, the orchestra, liquor, the food. That was fairly expensive in those days.”
Gary and I were planning our own wedding as they talked. He had proposed the night before my birthday in November, as a kind of homage, and we were in town for our engagement party. So as the grandchildren ran out of questions, I asked mine: “How have you managed to stay together and so happy for all these years?”
“Patience,” she said. “Understanding.”
“A lot of communication,” he said. “A lot of openness. A lot of affection — physical affection, expressed. Expressed physical affection.”
“It’s not easy to change someone — sometimes you want them to be different,” Arlene said. “I really love daddy so much that I will accept all of the things that I don’t agree with. His eating habits are not the same as mine, his interests are not the same in certain areas as mine.
“But then we come together on so many other things, so what’s the difference? A little here, a little there, — it doesn’t matter.”
Howard, who died on his 91st birthday — five years ago yesterday — was a punster and a lover of aphorisms. He placed Post-Its with inspirational quotes all over his home and office, and had a go-to line for every occasion — including weddings.
“It’s that sentence that I have that I repeat to people who are going to be married,” he said that day. “About the word ‘WEDDING’ — that the ‘we’ comes before ‘I.’ That’s really the secret.”
Their memories are a blessing.
Update: That bike in our driveway
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the conundrum of a bike that someone seemed to have parked against the mural that runs alongside our driveway. Several readers suggested it might have been a stolen bike, perhaps dumped after the thief snatched a better model.
Having had not one but two locked bicycles stolen from train stations in Montclair before the pandemic, I was very excited at the prospect of reuniting such a bike with its proper owner.
I called the local police to see if they had a report of this bike, a purplish gray Giant Sedona model — nope. I called the bike store whose sticker was on the bike’s shaft, and read the serial number to a guy named Vinnie, but he had no record of it either.
I also posted it on the Montclair Mommies and Daddies Facebook group. Late that night, a woman I don’t know messaged me: “Jodi, I can’t believe it! That’s my parents’ bike! Down to the seat.”
The next morning, I was on the phone with her mom, Angela Crawford, who said she’d bought the bike in 2002 — her husband has a matching one — and that it had disappeared from their unlocked garage six months before.
Now in detective mode, I asked Angela for the serial number — she didn’t have it. I asked Vinnie, at the bike shop, if they had any record of her bringing in a bike to be serviced — nope.
Then I decided to think a little more broadly, inspired by the movie “Pay it Forward.” Days had passed with the bike sitting in the open, so it was clearly abandoned. Angela’s bike had clearly been stolen. Did it really matter if this was actually the same bike? She was thrilled — and brought begonias and tomatoes from her garden to thank me.
Shabbat Shalom! Send me your questions/feedback: [email protected]
Your Weekend Reads
Len Berk published his first column in the Forward in April 2020. It was about being laid off from Zabar’s because of the pandemic. He was 90 years old.
Since then, with the graceful stewardship of our senior editor, Adam Langer, Len has written more than two dozen essays — about lox, about Chinese food, about Itzhak Perlman and Freud and Mario Cuomo. And he’s won awards, the latest from the Society for Features Journalism, whose judges called him “the Anthony Bourdain of lox — a keen observer of humanity, a shrewd insider and a compassionate storyteller.” We’ve pulled together some highlights.
Download the printable PDF here.