Sunday, March 28, 2010

Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye: Jim Steinhardt’s Eulogy

Today, Sunday March 28th, we held a memorial service for my father, Jim Steinhardt, who died two weeks ago.  We celebrated his life of nearly 93 years, and we said goodbye. Family members gathered, some who hadn’t seen each other in eons, since childhood or a landmark event long ago, when we were all younger and skinnier.

My many mommy friends came to offer support, bear witness; and so did my Mother’s last few remaining ones: tough old birds and goats who, like my folks, had lived long and had the white hair and softly leathered faces to prove it.  Anyone who wished to share a memory of Jim was invited to speak.  First I read an abbreviated version of my blog post, "Nearly Finished Business" written in early March, when it was clear it was near the end of Dad's life.  And then I read this eulogy:

Well, Dad, you broke your word: you always told us that you were going to live forever.  You had too much to do, no time for this dying stuff.  Like Woody Allen you preferred to achieve immortality through not dying, but barring that, you certainly wanted to do it through your work living on. And it will.

What a body of work it is.  My father had quite an eye, and wasn’t afraid to use it.  He thought his taste was better than anyone else’s and he was usually right.  He was an artist through and through: a painter, a sculptor, but most of all a photographer; he used his camera to show us the world we looked at every day, but never saw.  

My father was a loving and generous, though not perfect man. I know that the father of my childhood was a very different one than my sister Lois and my brother Bruce had, and then the father of my adult years was different still: more present, more connected.  In the same way, he was a very different husband to my mother than to his first wife, Janet, those many years ago.

My parents had a love match that lasted fifty one years. I can only hope to be so lucky.  They met in summer, at a resort in the Berkshires called The Music Inn, each having recently come out of a relationship; my Dad a marriage, my Mom… not quite a marriage (they were shacking up).

They liked each other fierce and found out they lived mere blocks away in Greenwich Village.  Vowing to play it cool and go slow, they then proceeded to see each other every day, becoming inseparable as soon as they got home to the city. 

My father knew that my mother’s previous boyfriend had asked her to marry him many, many times, and she had held off, knowing he just wasn’t quite the right one.  Hopelessly smitten and hoping that he WAS the right one, my father soon proposed, saying  “I’m only going to ask you to marry me three times, and this is the first.”  She said yes, of course, (who could resist such a handsome and charming man) and the rest, as they say, is history.

One thing my parents had in common, was that they had both spent many years in and out of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.  A therapist Dad went to late in life spoke to me with amazement that a man in his 80’s was looking to change and grow, become a better self.  And that was my Dad: wanting to do more, go further, an explorer to the end, his openness to transformation one of his most admirable qualities.

My father struggled with feelings of worthlessness, mixed, of course, with an overblown sense of entitlement, a not uncommon brew.  As a child, he had felt inferior to other boys who had present fathers, when he did not. His own father was barely there, sporadically coming and mostly going, leaving Dad a lost boy, fatherless.  At 92 he still felt the sting, still cried at the memories. 

He told me the exception to this was at camp where all the boys were temporarily fatherless, like him.  Shy and receding at school, at camp he excelled, becoming captain of the basketball team, a lead actor in plays -- directed by the camp’s drama counselor Julie Garfinkel, known to the world as John Garfield.   Later in life Dad grew more and more into this, his camp self, and that was more the man I knew, confident in his decisions; a man who knew what he wanted and made things happen.

So, Dad was not one of those silent, cipher type fathers.  He was a great story teller, self reflexive; the stories he told - of childhood, his first marriage, his working life - were not just descriptions of who, what, where.  He told his stories from the inside, sharing thoughts and feelings, analyzing the ways past events had cascaded down through his life shaping and shading the present.

So I can say that I truly knew my father. And while nothing makes the pain of his loss disappear, it does lessen it, because I have all these stories living on fully inside me. 

One of the stories he told me was of a pivotal moment, one of those junctures which mark a sharp “before” and “after” forever on our personal timelines.  This moment came to him while folk dancing.  And Dad came to dance through my mother.  She had been an International Folk Dancer in her youth, and was she ever graceful, (still is).

After I had left home for college, and my parents had their evenings once again to themselves, my mother found a regular folk dance group nearby, and since they were that kind of couple, she took Dad with her.  Not a natural joiner, he came along a little reluctantly at first, and then with blooming enthusiasm. 

Dad told me that back in his earlier days, he had always felt very separate from other people, more of an observer than a participant.  He confessed that he had in fact, been somewhat of a snob.  Considering himself an intellectual, he felt different, superior to the common folk of middle America (his passion for football notwithstanding).   He would resist engaging in conversation with strangers, thinking, “what could I possibly have to say to them, or they to me that would be of interest”. 

Then one day when he was beginning to dance regularly with my mother, he stepped into the circle to begin a dance.  As he took the hands of his fellow dancers on either side and began to follow the steps, he felt something new: he felt himself move out beyond the borders of his skin, to flow into the person on his right and his left and then he felt them all becoming one circle; the dancers becoming the dance.

It felt like community, that thing he had never known: a joining with others vastly different, yet the differences not mattering as he danced in step with these other humans.  He suddenly knew that what connected him to other people was larger than what separated him from them. This was a visceral and completely spontaneous moment of revelation for him.  And he said it changed him forever.

This wonderfully coincided with the beginning of my parents’ period of grand travels.  For twenty years, they explored the world together. Mom and Dad took trips to Greece, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, Alaska, Mexico, Trinidad, and Israel, to name a few places on their expansive itinerary.

And these were not your standard touristy tours of national monuments.  Because my father was a photographer and because my parents were now both people-engagers, which my mother had ever been, they went deep into the hearts of these places, seeking out the spots the locals frequented, letting themselves enter into the “is-ness” of a place.

Dad photographed seine hauling fishermen on a beach in Grenada bringing in the catch, and then grabbed the rope to help pull.  My parents wandered into a village, deep in the upcountry hills of Bali, where preparations for a wedding were taking place, and they stayed the day, joined the wedding party, and Dad spontaneously became their wedding photographer.

Even when they took tours, these were folk dance tours, and they involved going to small villages, learning the local dances from the people who lived there, then joining hands and joyously dancing together with them. 

What afforded them these wonderful trips was that the business Dad had owned since he quit advertising photography in 1963, the Steinhardt Gallery, had finally become an incredibly successful gallery, mostly of American and International Handcrafts (that international part allowing them to most conveniently - and truthfully - write off most of their trips as business expenses.)  My father and mother ran it together by then, and the 1975 move from Westbury to Huntington was perfectly timed to coincide with the resurgence of Huntington’s downtown.

While Dad had never set out to become a businessman, he ended up as a happily successful one.  And a big part of this is that he ran the business like a family, in a good way. Everyone who worked there, and all the artisans they dealt with were treated with fairness and respect, and, always, warmth and humor.

There was this feeling growing up that the gallery was another entity, the fourth member of our nuclear family.  I was in on it since the beginning, as a young girl spending Saturdays there with Mom and Dad, crayon coloring on matte board scraps.

By the time I went off to college I was a full time staff member: sales clerk, assistant buyer, gift wrap specialist (I was good with the odd shapes).  Working with my father brought a collegial familiarity that anyone who hasn’t grown up in a “mom and pop” shop doesn’t quite get.  And I’m so glad that I got to have that.

Some time after my parents sold the gallery and retired to Florida, a private collector of photography found my father and bought a body of his work, a big fan.  And this reawakened in Dad a burning desire to have his photographs not be forgotten.

My father often told me that he never became a famous photographer because of a nearly Shakespearean series of bad, unlucky breaks combined with a retiring personality.  He said “I wasn’t good at self promotion, something always held me back.” 

Anyone who has spent time with him in these last years of life knows he has now made up for that.  He became fond of telling anyone and everyone in earshot what a great photographer he was.  And he was not wrong, his best photographs are astonishing.

We who have lived with these images for many years have maybe developed an over familiarity with them and are used to their beauty and lyric vision, that amazing eye Dad had.  But looking over his work recently, preparing for this memorial, I was again stunned by their power.  He does belong in that pantheon with the “greats” and it is my one regret that I could not muster an all out campaign to bring him to an even larger audience in his lifetime. 

And in his later years he so enjoyed the recognition, basked in the spots of bright light that came his way as he was being rediscovered by the photography community.  B&W Magazine, a high end, high gloss, fine art photography magazine did a lovely four page “spotlight” feature on him.

His work now sits on the walls, and in the vaults of some major players: The Jewish Museum, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, The De Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Eastman House, The International Center for Photography, The Museum of the City of New York, and I could go on.

Just last year, The National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. acquired a body of his work for their permanent collection, and it made Dad very happy to be considered a national treasure.

In 2006, a photograph of his from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection was chosen to hang in the wonderful Susan Sontag tribute show “On Photography”, illustrating a paragraph of text about finding beauty in the mundane, the discarded.   We didn’t find out about this until the very end of the show’s run, as the curator had only my parents old Florida address and it took months for her letter to wend its way North to the senior residence on the Riverdale / Yonkers border where my folks were then living.  But as soon as we knew, I rushed my parents into the city to meet the curator and see the show, just in time.

Dad’s health was in a bit of a downturn at that moment, so he was frail and needed to use a loaner wheel chair to visit with his photograph in a gallery on an upper floor.  Still, seated in front of it, he had the singular pleasure of looking at a photograph of his hanging on the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As he sat there, some young European tourists approached him and asked if he were not indeed the photographer, Jim Steinhardt.  It turns out they were German photography students, had studied his work at University, and were thrilled and honored to meet him.   Dad glowed like the sun that day, in spite of his infirmity.

And throughout all the ups and downs the roller coaster of his health has taken in the years since, one thing has remained constant: whenever, however he could, Jim would work; planning books on his themes: children at play, men in the street, the abstract beauties of ordinary objects.

Looking over his photos, he was visiting with old friends: the cement worker, shirtless, sporting six pack abs – that always sells well in his San Francisco gallery; 4 year old Bruce enduring a haircut; Lois, a living doll far cuter than the windowful behind her; a man’s crooked arm, hand clutching cigar, dangling pearls; inside the protective embrace of a giant stone eagle, a woman reads a book, absorbed; a faded doyenne seated at a sidewalk café, contemplates the abyss; a bespectacled Santa reading the paper, sips a cup of java.

Dad went through his old negatives again, finding hidden gems, wondering ”why the hell didn’t I print this the first time?” 

And there was, of course, that other constant in my father’s life, my mother, Sylvia Heimer Steinhardt, whose love and support made all Dad’s work possible.  And then, at the end, when even the work had finally drifted away, there was still my mother, their love.

When he still had words, he would tell her over and over how glad he was to have her, how much her love meant to him. It was not easy to care for him in these last, plummeting, months, when he would senselessly rage, as well as praise. But Mom made sure to only curse him out when her back was turned to him so that, deaf, he would have no idea. 

At the very, very end, he hated to be parted from her for even a minute, knowing that she was all that he needed. And there was my mother, holding Dad’s hand, softly rubbing his back; his beacon against the coming darkness.

Through the magic time machine of Facebook, I have recently reconnected with a number of childhood friends that I had not spoken with for decades.  As I had posted a notice of my father’s passing, a number of these friends have reached out to me, and it has been wonderful to hear from people who knew my Dad in his prime.

He has been slowly fading for so long now, that most of my current friends have only ever seen the shadow father, deaf and weakened with only occasional sparkle. I’d like to read a note here, from Alice who was a friend from 3rd grade on through high school.

“Dear Varda,
Joan sent me the message about your father’s upcoming memorial service. I wish to extend to you my deepest condolences for your loss. I always remember both of your parents with fondness. Your father was warm and funny and your mother always open and loving. Your mother called me ‘Alley Cat’; it made me feel special that she had a nickname for me. What I remember most about your father was his free, artistic spirit, which made me think anything in life is possible.
With best wishes, Alice”

Dad I like to think that you have passed on your “free, artistic spirit” to your children, your grandchildren and all whose lives you have touched, if ever so tangentially, like those German students at the Met.

I remember when I was a teen and you were teaching photography at a college – a feat you were so proud of, having never made it beyond high school yourself - you had gotten your feedback evaluations and it made you so happy that your students had loved you, had written glowing reports of how encouraging and inspiring you had been to them.  It was important to you to feel that you were passing on, handing down to the next generations something of import; you couldn’t give your students your incredible eye, but you could help them to open up their own and teach them to see like photographers. 

It is a legacy to be proud of.  You were a father I could be, and have been, proud of.  You will live on, both as a person in the hearts and minds of those who have known and loved you, and as an artist: the beauty and depth of your work astounding and inspiring a multitude more.  Goodbye, Dad.  I love you.


  1. Your father sounds absolutely amazing.

  2. That is a beautiful eulogy, you were blessed to have parents like yours. It's nice to know that such fathers existed.

  3. I really, really feel your grief. And, I lost my father too, three years and seven months ago. It was totally unexpected, and I'm nowhere over it yet, probably never will be... I haven't written about it, though, and I guess I should, for me...
    It was in a way good to read this, your words could be mine. Thanks!

  4. Oh honey, I am so glad you wrote this. Such a way to capture everything for what it is with emotions delicately woven in. That part of fatherless at camp - priceless. It sounds like your father had a profound impact on you and you will continue to see that as you have your hand over your kids.

  5. Its hard to say good bye ... takes a while

  6. I really enjoyed reading this. Sounds like he was a wonderful man and will be missed! You were blessed to have him as long as you did:-)

  7. What a beautiful tribute to an amazing man and father. Your parents' marriage is inspiring.

  8. I am soaking you up, Varda. So glad I started here, by getting to know your father - in turn, better knowing you.

  9. What a moving eulogy, Varda. I am so glad that you shared it here -- and that I was led to it through Blog Gems. The love you received from your parents, that they shared and that you return just radiates from your words.

  10. What a beautiful eulogy. It sounds like your dad was an amazing man who touched the lives of many :)

  11. What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man and dad.

    I especially loved this: "He suddenly knew that what connected him to other people was larger than what separated him from them."


    BlogGems #32

  12. What a man and I know you still miss him dearly. The very first time I read your post 'From Autist to Artist' that has the Girll with the balloon photo I went to the website and looked at some of his photos (never told you that) and they are amazing. Time for me to go enjoy them again. Thanks for putting this up for Blog Gems, I know how important a post it is. Jen


I am so sorry to have to turn word verification back on, but the spam-bots have found me - yikes!