A Defining Day
June 25th, 1960. John F. Kennedy had not yet entered the consciousness of the American people, Elvis rained supreme on the pop chart, Arnold Palmer was the king of the golf world, and my beloved Phillies had prompted manager Eddie Sawyer to say, upon his sudden retirement two months before, " Im 49 and I want to live to be 50." It was a pretty normal day in history. For me it was a day that changed my life and defined my being.
I had turned eight in March and was the youngest son of Sam and Ida Steinberg. My two older brothers were fourteen and twenty. Up to that point it had been a fairly ordinary middle class existence. We lived in a row home in a section of Philadelphia called Mt. Airy. School was over and summer had begun in earnest. I remember lying in my parents bed the night before, listening to the neighbors congregating on the step below the window, laughing and enjoying the warmth of both the evening and the friendship that enveloped the close knit community. In a week, I was going to summer camp for the first time. I was excited yet wary about spending eight weeks away from home. Unbeknownst to everyone but my father, that was all about to change.
The morning began with a flurry of activity. My mother left early for New York to attend a family party. My father was entrusted with the care of my brothers and me. Harvey, my oldest brother, who was about to enter his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania headed off to work at the family moving & storage business. My other brother, Chuck was attending summer school and needed a ride to school. I was free for the day having escaped the rigors of second grade the week before. My father, brother and I headed off to school in our new gray Chevrolet Corvair, the newest and most radical car in the company's history. Inspired perhaps by the VWBeetle, it was an extremely unusual design for an American car - and somewhat complex for such a low-cost model. As we traveled the 15 minutes between our home and the high school, I talked incessantly as was my nature. My brother and father, who were not as loquacious as I, spent the time engrossed in their own thoughts. We dropped my brother off and headed home. As we approached the house, I asked my father to drop me off at a friends. When we reached our street, I popped out of the car and hurriedly said good-bye. As I ran off to see my friend, I didnt know it would be the last time I would see my father alive.
I spent the next few hours playing like a normal 8 year old. We played baseball and pretended to be our favorite ballplayers making spectacular catches and hitting gargantuan home runs. Finally, I headed home to grab something to eat and watch TV. When I got home, I noticed that my father was nowhere around, nor was his car parked in its usual spot in front of the house. I let myself in and prepared my favorite sandwich, my mothers cold roast beef on white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. I plopped myself in front of the 9" black and white Philco as I devoured my lunch. I turned the TV on to a rerun of one of my favorite shows "Sky King," a Saturday morning staple that starred Kirby Grant as Sky King, a former WWII naval aviator, who along with his niece Penny, lived on their Arizona ranch, The Flying Crown.
It was most unusual for an 8 year old to be left alone in 1960. At first I didnt give it much thought but after a while I started wondering where my father had gone. For some reason, I felt this curious need to go into the garage. I walked the short distance from the basement to the garage in a trance. I went out the back door and lifted the garage door that my brothers and I had damaged with our stick ball games until it opened. I was amazed to see the Corvair in the garage still running. I went over to the drivers door and looked inside. I saw my father lying on the seat with his mouth open. My father had false teeth and they were not in his mouth. I realized immediately something was terribly wrong. A few months before I had been lying in my parents bed one morning, when my mother got a call that informed us that her sisters husband had died. I remember vividly hearing something about his teeth being out, and I put two and two together and realized that my father was dead.
Thinking back to earlier in the week, I remembered sitting at the kitchen table during dinner as I talked about what to expect in camp. My father had used the office address-a-graph machine to print labels, so that my daily postcards home would be pre-addressed. As he gave them to my mother, I remember my mother looking at the cards that were addressed to her alone and shouting, "What am I, a widow?" It is obvious to me now that his decision was not a spur-of-the-moment choice. What were his thoughts? Was life so painful that it needed to be terminated? These are just a few of the questions that hell never answer.
The first thing that came to my mind as I drifted up and down our street was straightforward. Every Friday on his way home from work, my father would religiously buy me a pack of my treasured baseball cards. "Who was going to buy my cards for me now?" I wondered aloud. I looked for any of my neighbors but my street resembled a ghost town in the old cowboy movies I loved. Barefoot, I walked back in the house and placed a call to the family business. My brother wasnt available so I spoke to my uncle who was there that day. The last week in June is one of the two busiest weeks on the moving calendar, so the office was buzzing. I told him in a very calm manner that my father was dead. He asked how I knew, and I said with self-assurance that his teeth were missing and he was lying in the car, which was idling in the garage.
I didnt know what to do with myself, so I went out the front door and sat on the same front steps that the night before had been the neighborhood-gathering place. My mind was running in a million directions, but you couldnt tell by the somber look on my young face. My face was connected to my knees by hands and elbows. The innocence of my youth had been stolen from me in a most unlikely manner. Within what seemed both seconds and an eternity, the street was abuzz. Neighbors, who minutes before had been invisible, suddenly appeared. I overheard two neighborhood men make the unofficial pronouncement of death. Soon my fathers brother and his son appeared like an apparition before me. I could hear their voices, but I couldnt understand what they were saying. It was as if life around me had been muted. In rapid succession other family members appeared. Like a robot, I calmly informed them that my father was dead. I sat in the middle of a cyclone of activity, oblivious to what was happening. It wasnt until I saw my brother Chuck walking back from the bus stop that I was jolted from my stupor. I ran to him and told him the grim news. He went pale and bolted into the house as anguished cries trailed behind him. I returned dutifully to my post in front of the house and listened in as he continued to wail. Thankfully soon after, I was whisked away to a relatives house and I was spared the torment of my mothers arrival to our house of mourning.
I didnt attend the funeral, and spent the next week in exile as the family mourned my father. I was not part of the traditional Jewish shiva process and although I was with my cousins, I was alone. My mind wandered back and forth between the events of the previous Saturday and looking ahead to summer camp. I felt guilty thinking about playing ball and swimming all summer long. I wondered how my mother and brothers were and asked for them daily. I felt abandoned. Not only had my father left me but also the rest of my family was living life without me. I realize now that they were trying to protect me. But for an eight year old who had just been stripped of paternal influence, the lack of familial contact was something I longed for, not needed protection from. Finally the week was over and I was off to camp.
I didnt see my mother again until visiting day five weeks later. She looked tired and beaten down. That summer at camp was a blur. I spent the first week crying that I wanted to go home. Im not sure if it was the loss of my father or being away from my mother for the first time but I know that I was miserable. I slowly began to enjoy camp. The constant activities, especially sports that I excelled in, eased the pain I was feeling. As visiting day approached and all my bunkmates started talking about the arrival of their parents, I made up excuses as to why my father wasnt coming. By the end of the summer my experience had evolved from the tormented beginning to being named the "Most Improved Camper" in the Junior Division. I spent the next nine summers at camp and they were arguably the best times of my young life.
Eventually, when our life returned to a semblance of normalcy, I was praised for my handling of the situation. "You were such a big boy, you never cried," I was frequently told by aunts and uncles. Little did they know of the footprint they were leaving on me with those comments? As I got older, while I could cry at a Hallmark commercial, major events, sad or happy, would leave me emotionless. After all, I was a big boy now and big boys dont cry. I remember when my children were born, unquestionably the happiest days of my life, I remained detached from the process almost as if I had returned to the day I sat on the front step of my house and watched as everything around me happened in slow motion.
My feelings toward my father have evolved over the years. The anger I feel towards him still lingers. Over time I have been able to forgive him, but
I cant forget that he not only abandoned me by choice, but was so unthinking that he allowed me to experience the trauma of discovering his body at such a impressionable time of my life. For many years his memory and the events of that day inhabited my brain relentlessly. It was as if the thoughts resided in every nook and cranny of my head. With time, I was able to restrict the recollection and fallout of the day to a corner of the cellar in my mind.
Forty-six years later the world has changed. John Kennedy has left his impact on the our country in a much too short life; Elvis despite being gone for almost thirty years is still an icon in American pop culture; Arnold Palmer has abdicated his throne to Tiger Woods; and the Phillies "well, lets just say that not much has changed in the last four decades. The imprint of my fathers death is with me all the time. It has impacted much of how I look at and react to important moments in my life, and it continues to live in the recesses of my soul. But most importantly, I am still here. I have survived the pain and sorrow, and have emerged from the experience a whole being. I am not defined by his death; more accurately, surviving it and making my life something to be proud of has defined me.
About the Author
Jay Steinberg is a 46 year survivor of his father's
suicide. Over the years
I have easily talked about my experience but until this past summer did not
put it in writing. I have gone through a great deal of formal and informal
contemplation on my father's death from hypnotic regression to experiential
group therapy. Recently I went through a program that enabled me to forgive
but not forget. While I've never formally been involved in a survivor's
group, I look forward to hearing from people who have had similar
experiences. I am grateful for my two children Molly and Mandy and cherish
You can reach Jay Steinberg via amail here [email protected]
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