Friday, March 25, 2011

Not his 94th Birthday

Jim Steinhardt, Dad, in his early 20s
My father, James Bruce Steinhardt was born on March 25th, 1917.

As anyone who has been reading this blog lately knows, he died last year -- 12 days shy of his 93rd birthday -- on March 13th, 2010.

Today would have been his 94th birthday.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

I miss you.

Dad & I with cherry blossoms in Riverside Park, 1998
I was going to write a long post, thoroughly lionizing his life, I was going to have a massive  scan-a-thon session and toss up a ton of new old photos of him, but I am just worn out, without the energy to do that AND parent my kids.

And you know who wins that equation. The boys, they are here with me, and Dad, well, he really can wait, now.  So to hear more about Dad's life? Read the eulogy I wrote for him and delivered at his memorial gathering on March 28th, 2010.

For photos? Here's a post with some of Dad and some of his photographic work. And here's another with many photos of him. I'll likely be putting more up soon.

But I thought, today, in honor of his birthday, I'd tell one of his stories that I have not told before. A story that began with his birth...

My father was not born "James." No, his birth certificate reads very differently. It was supposed to have been Benjamin, but the story goes that the uncle who was supposed to tell the nurse who was registering the name got terribly flustered with excitement, or perhaps he was a bit tipsy on celebratory sherry.

But, in any event, he gave the registrar the wrong name, a different one that began with the same letter, and thus Dad's original birth certificate reads: Bertram Steinhardt.

Now when my father would tell this story to me as a young child, I would take the opportunity to fall down laughing at this point. I thought this was funniest thing, ever.  I would repeat the name, "Bertram?" incredulous, rolling it around in my mouth, making the most of that clunky cluster of consonants 'round the middle of it.

Being quite old fashioned, it had fallen completely out of favor by my time, so I had never, ever, heard the name used, had no idea it was the long form of the rather pedestrian but equally mothballed "Bert." (This was long before Sesame Street made Bert and Ernie household words.)

But it didn't end up mattering, for my father was never actually called Bert or Bertram.  My father was an adorable blond, chubby baby.  Here he is in late 1917 or early 1918:

Sunny Jim
At that time there was a popular cartoon character named "Sunny Jim" and that's just what everyone called my Dad as a baby and young boy.  According to my father's story, this character was a cherubic blond boy from a comic strip, much like himself.

But when I looked it up to provide a link for you all, I found instead that "Sunny Jim" was a strangely coiffed old man created to sell "Force" cereal flakes in 1903.

Maybe Dad looked like a wizened old man, as babies are wont to do, or maybe it's just that "Sunny Jim" was such a wildly ubiquitous character of the popular imagination of the time. And it was a very common moniker; an expression much used (often ironically): "He's a real Sunny Jim!"

In any event, wherever it came from, that's what they called my father, from the time he was born... "Sunny Jim."

And then, as the story continues, one day when he was about five years old, my father got really tired of being left at home when his brother Allan went off to school. He tagged along, and as he was old enough for Kindergarten, and the younger brother of a bright, well behaved student, the teacher went ahead and registered him.  
Baby Jim and big brother Allan, 1917
(Now, my adult mind questions the veracity of this story. Even way back then weren't there more official channels for something as important as school registration? Wouldn't a parent, an official document be necessary for this procedure? But this is my father's tale and this is how it was told.)

The teacher sat my father down, asked his name, and he said: "Sunny Jim" (the only name he had ever knowingly answered to). And so into the record books was entered one James Steinhardt, younger brother to Allan.

No one ever corrected it. His name remained that way in school records, and somehow continued on to his employment records, no questions asked. I don't remember when he acquired the middle initial"B" but that might have been a nod to the original Bertram.

But then he wanted a passport, his birth certificate was unearthed and he was in for a shock: his name was still legally and officially "Bertram" so he had to have it legally changed.  He decided to keep the B. as his middle initial, but as he now had a son named Bruce, he used that as his middle name.

As a child, I loved that my father had acquired his name in an interesting manner, that there was a story to it. In this, as in so many things, he was much less "boring" than most of my friends parents.

All in all? I don't know how much of this is 100% true, as all those who were present at the time are now long gone. But this is something remembered by my father and passed on to me.

My father was not a hidden man. He told me all his stories, in great detail. They live on in me and I will tell them to my sons, so he will live on in them.

This is the story of his name, as my father remembers it, and that is true enough for me.

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