Jay - 'A Defining Day'

by Jay Steinberg

Jay - 'A Defining Day'

Jay (second from the left), with brother Chuck, mother Ida, father Sam and brother Harvey.

June 25th, 1960. John F. Kennedy had not yet entered the consciousness of the American people, Elvis rained supreme on the pop charts, 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, "I'm 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 14 and 20. 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 Mount Airy. School was over and summer had begun in earnest.

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, headed off to work at the family moving and storage business. My other brother, Chuck, was attending summer school and needed a ride. 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. We dropped my brother off and headed home. On the way home, I asked my father to drop me off at a friend's house. I popped out of the car and hurriedly said goodbye. As I ran off to see my friend, I didn't know it would be the last time I would see my father alive.

I spent the next few hours playing like a normal eight year old. We played baseball and pretended to be our favorite ballplayers making spectacular catches and hitting gargantuan home runs. 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 mother's cold roast beef on white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. I plopped myself in front of the nine-inch black and white Philco, devouring my lunch as I watched one of my favorite TV shows: "Sky King," a Saturday morning staple starring Kirby Grant.

After a while I started wondering where my father had gone. I went out the back door and lifted the garage door until it opened. I was amazed to see the Corvair in the garage still running. I went over to the driver's 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 my mother got a call that informed us that her sister's husband had died. I remember vividly hearing something about his teeth being out. I put two and two together and realized that my father was dead.


Over time I have been able to forgive him, but I can't forget that he not only abandoned me, but was so unthinking that he allowed metoexperience the trauma of discovering his body at such an impressionable time of my life.


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 he'll never answer.

I walked back in the house and placed a call to the family business. My brother wasn't 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.

My mind was running in a million directions, but you couldn't 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 father's brother and his son appeared like an apparition before me. I could hear their voices, but I couldn't 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 wasn't 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 relative's house and I was spared the torment of my mother's arrival to our house of mourning.

I didn't 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. 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 didn't 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. I'm 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 wasn't 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. 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 don't 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 can't forget that he not only abandoned me, but was so unthinking that he allowed me to experience the trauma of discovering his body at such an 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 fall out of the day to a corner of the cellar in my mind.

Forty-eight years later the world has changed. John F. Kennedy has left his impact on the country in a much too short a life; Elvis despite being gone for over 30 years is still an icon in American pop culture; Arnold Palmer has abdicated his throne to Tiger Woods; and the Phillies, well, let's just say that not much has changed in the last four decades. But the imprint of my father's 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.

Over the years Jay has talked about his experience but until recently did not put it in writing. He has gone through a great deal of formal and informal contemplation from hypnotic regression to experiential group therapy. He is grateful for his two children, Molly and Mandy, and cherishes their lives.