A Therapist’s Tender Message in a Bottle

Adult children and their retired parents sometimes meet in the stories they want to hear and the ones they want to tell.

Thus, we meet in oral, video, and written histories — the questions asked and the ones answered.

My youngest created video histories of my wife and me several years ago. Last year, she gave us individual subscriptions to Storyworth. We were expected to answer in writing one question she selected for us per week, 52 weeks in all. A hardcover book would then emerge.

In approaching this task, I tried to imagine the emotional state of those who might not read it until I was gone. I’d be speaking to my children, grandchildren, and brothers then. Time uncertain, but not just ahead, so I’d like to think.

A morbid thought, you say? Well, I’ve thought of death since my 47-year-old dad had two heart attacks within 24 hours when I was 11. Just so you know, he lived past 88, but the idea of his vulnerability never disappeared.

If you want to take the reader’s role right now, I invite you for a sneak peek.

How has Your Life Turned Out Differently than You Imagined It Would?

Gerald Stein on January 24, 2022.

The question takes me back to childhood since my sense of a future was informed by how my family lived, what my relatives told me about their lives, and my own experience in and out of the home.

I was born in the mid-1940s, roughly five years after the Great Depression ended. Over a decade long, the latter period finally concluded due to government and private spending on WWII, bringing tons of jobs, both for soldiers and the manufacture of the necessary military materials.

For my parents and their siblings, as well as for the friends I made in school, the shadow of hard times didn’t disappear. Moreover, whatever relative financial improvement these adults achieved, there was a sense of insecurity about their position in life.

Since my public high school was attended almost entirely by Jewish students, there was a feeling of unease never discussed — unarticulated but present. Anti-Semitism still existed and, along with the revelation of the six million murdered European Jews, the awareness that genocide might occur again. Were economic downturns to return? No one knew, but some of these ideas still floated around in my home.

My folks told me many things about their lives when I was a boy, including portions of their pre-war personal histories. Through these stories and my own lived experience, I became aware of my mother’s teenage poverty and inadequate nutrition due to the Depression, her resulting tuberculosis, its reappearance in the mid-1950s, dad’s late1958 heart attacks, and his subsequent six-week hospitalization during which children were not permitted to visit. These made health issues real and potentially catastrophic.

Financial concerns were always present, frequently evident in the “Can we afford that?” conversations I overheard. Economy and saving money were the watchwords, avoiding unnecessary expenditures a daily consideration.

Though I was praised for my performance in school and expected by my parents to go to college and become an MD, I was also told I would have to pay for any post-high school education. That meant I had to work after school and in the summer. None of my friends worked every day after school as I did, and my summer times were, even by the time I was 15 or 16, less free of those responsibilities than theirs.

None of my parents’ siblings went to college, at least not for long. There were no models of a way forward. Their jobs were unremarkable, and their vision of a different possible future for their children was abstract. They pointed to unnamed universities but didn’t know what steps I might take to prepare myself and gain admission.

Mom and dad thought I’d win scholarships, and I did win some money as an Illinois State Scholar and in graduate school as a teaching assistant, research assistant, and a fellowship on the way to my doctorate. Still, I knew nothing about how to pursue any of this until I entered college.

Some of my friends had a bit more guidance. Steve Henikoff had two older sisters and parents who’d graduated from the University of Chicago. Rich Adelstein’s soon-to-be brother-in-law went to MIT, as Rich would soon do. Don Byrd’s parents went to U of C, as well.

I don’t blame my parents for not knowing more about how one might get from here to there in educational terms. Dad was preoccupied with making a living, while mom was overwhelmed by three active boys and a troublesome family of origin.

Concerning Steve’s home, books signaled the difference in worlds. Steve’s parents bought him a new set of the World Book Encyclopedia, updated by World Book every year. My folks had a well-worn set of encyclopedias dating to the late 1930s, over 20 years before and therefore out of date. Such comparisons, though never mentioned, told me all I needed to know about my family’s social and financial status and myself.

Steve’s dad, moreover, was at home frequently during the week, talking about buying and selling stock. It was a different world from the one I lived in, though my dad did buy shares in a couple of companies on the stock market. I can still remember the names: American Hospital Supply and Brunswick of bowling equipment fame. The former did well; the latter tanked, and dad lost money and never retook financial risks.

He talked about the ups and downs of these common stocks, preoccupied with their performance during the period he held them. That’s why I still know their names.

As a consequence of all I’ve said, plus, I’m sure, my shyness and insecurity, I also thought of a future in abstract terms. I read about becoming a doctor and pursued the steps described and a curriculum that would get me there. I also knew many attempted to walk the path to that promised land and only a small number made it all the way.

What could I hope for? I enjoyed psychology and history in college more than biology, chemistry, physics, etc. At some point, maybe third-year college, I told my folks I would become a psychologist but still knew little of what would be involved. By the way, most of my friends went away to college, though a few of us remained in Chicago. I couldn’t afford to go away and probably would have been hesitant even with a scholarship paying my room and board.

I recall a teaching assistant at U of I’s Chicago Campus with whom I became somewhat friendly. He was a psychology graduate student there, and he offered some guidance. I also talked to at least one professor about going about the process.

Still, I was hesitant. The grad student told me most of the good jobs in psychology required a Ph.D. Again, it looked like mountain climbing to me, a mountain I doubted I could surmount.

I still thought a Master’s Degree might be as much as I wanted. Fortunately, I was admitted to Northwestern University. As I became comfortable there, I took the next steps and had the support of the faculty, the institution, and many good friends. We were of mutual support to each other.

You know much of the rest. Over my life, I came to have a lovely, dear, and supportive wife, two terrific daughters of whom I am enormously proud, a magnificent son-in-law, and two budding grandsons. I became an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton, and ultimately had a private psychotherapy practice in Clinical Psychology.

I consulted for the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Blackhawks. I became an oral historian for the Chicago Symphony and published articles about classical music and sports. I won many friends and was good at keeping them, including several from my days in elementary school.

I served as an expert witness in two or three dozen civil lawsuits, including the most significant class-action case in US history up to that time. I was appointed by the district court to be one of the outside evaluators of the State of Illinois Department of Mental Health (DMH) in a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations brought by two DMH patients and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

I became an excellent public speaker and one of the founders of a high school scholarship at our old high school, philanthropy intended to benefit a diverse and economically disadvantaged student body. I did things I could not have imagined from my childhood home at 5724 N. Talman Avenue in Chicago.

As I write this, I realize that my son-in-law traveled a similar road that was arguably even harder. I had an easier life than my folks, aunts, and uncles. They survived the chaos of troubled families, the Depression, the considerable anti-Semitism of their time, and, in the case of every uncle and my dad, service during wartime.

Back to me, I met many prominent and impressive people and tangled with some scoundrels, too. My contact with others, including my patients, taught me important lessons.

I was lucky in every feature of this, tried to make the good from the bad, had help along the way, and fashioned myself into the kind of person I wanted to be, even though I am still imperfect. I have answered the question to give you more of my history since you will all be my survivors.

And yet, as much as my professional attainments meant a lot when they happened, they mean much less now. I knew I was never a great man but tried to be a good one. I made a good living and have helped my children financially with some of it. I made sure my relatives benefitted when I came into an unexpected legacy from my Aunt Florence.

One of the personal accomplishments of which I am most proud is that I got past the financial preoccupations of my parents. Living your own life, not the one you inherit, is essential. I am also happy my children are friends, and my brothers have a relationship. To the good, I have their friendship and love, as they have mine.

I also helped with the lives of my mother and my brothers, Eddie and Jack. If I were religious, Ed’s life is something I’d call a miracle. I had a hand in influencing this, but his courage and willpower were the determining factors in surviving a challenging time.

Jack’s growth and self-awareness were also unexpected but remarkable. These things have lasting value to me.

Within the past few years, it occurred to me that I was part of the luckiest generation in the history of the world. We had decent-enough parents, a safe place to live if we were white, and grew up in the world’s most influential and prosperous country — one with affordable advanced education and financial support for that education.

Those with adequate intellectual skills could advance and do better than their parents. The air was clean, and none of my friends fought in wartime. Nearly everything was possible for us.

So what else matters now? To show love to all of you and be as kind as I can in the way I live. To live in the hope of a better world for you than sometimes seems probable. Finally, to do my part in making it so.

I don’t expect to be remembered except by all of you. Of course, some patients and my dearest friends will think of me from time to time, and others might come across my name here and there for a while, but I never shot for that. I imagine you will tell stories about me, at least occasionally. Some will be funny, especially those about whatever you find amusing or peculiar in me.

Think of me laughing with you.

Much is out of my control, as it is for the rest of humanity. Thus, I hope to grow in acceptance of whatever is to come. We are all participants in a giant relay race. That is enough.

Your love means the world to me. You have all mine.


The top photo is a Painted and Sealed Message in a Bottle with Messages of Multiple Authors painted by Peer Kyle, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The painting below it is Helgoland in Moonlight by Christian Morgenstern, 1851, sourced from History Daily. An Untitled 1959 painting by Mark Rothko comes from the Stanley Museum, U of Iowa. It is followed by Arizona Sunset on a Train Trestle, late July 2020, the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. This gallery finishes with another Rothko from the Stanley Museum, U of Iowa: Untitled, 1968.