“Don’t even think about it!”
My mother’s voice comes at me with the force of a slingshot, at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night. I am 14 years old and I’m standing in front of a closed door, my fist raised, ready to knock.
Beyond that door is the office where my father, Ephraim Stein, a physician with a family practice, sees patients five days and four nights a week. Those four rooms, the left wing of our house in Freeport, Long Island, are sacred territory: No one—not my mother, not my two brothers, not me—may enter that sanctum sanctorum when the door is shut.
Six feet tall, with a brush moustache, deep-set blue eyes, and hair limited to a few strands in the middle of his head, my dad—“Eppie” to his family and friends—almost always wore a white shirt and tie and dressed smartly, thanks to my mother’s constant vigilance. When he went out, carrying his doctor’s black bag, he epitomized dignity to me. He was not a big talker—“introverted” was a word often flung around about him—but his patients found him a good listener and brought their troubles to him.
My mother sometimes fumed that Daddy never said no to a patient, even when he or she showed up late or without an appointment—or called in the middle of the night. He never said no to me, either. I was Daddy’s girl, the eldest of his three children and the only daughter. Every weekday night, no matter how late he worked or how tired he was, he would review my homework, with me sitting next to him at his office desk (on which I am writing this article). He’d read my essays, discuss my history lessons, and explain the math problems I didn’t understand. We bonded, I think, over the fact that my favorite subjects had also been his—literature, history, writing, and public speaking. He had been captain of the debating team in high school, and he enjoyed coaching me for the prize-speaking contests in which I competed.
We all knew Daddy’s academic accomplishments by heart. He graduated from high school at 16, from Columbia College at 18, then went to Downstate Medical Center and set up practice at age 22. He fast-tracked his studies because he had no choice: Money was scarce, so Dad doubled up on courses and went to school year-round.
When World War II came, he joined the Marines as a surgeon. Then he met and married my mother in 10 weeks and disappeared into the storm clouds overseas, operating in the midst of high-risk battles such as Guadalcanal and rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. I might not even be writing this were it not for war’s vagaries. Assigned to fly on a dangerous night mission, he was getting ready to leave when another man in his unit volunteered to go instead, saying, “You have a wife, Doc, and I don’t.” That volunteer never came back.
One of my most indelible memories of Dad, as well as a hard-won lesson, was seeing how calm he was in a crisis. One night at dinner, I decided to warm up my roast beef. I turned on the oven and then went looking for a match. A minute later, holding that lighted flame, I leaned into the oven. It blew up with a loud bang, throwing me across the floor, burning off my eyebrows, singeing my lashes and blinding me—permanently, I thought. I started screaming, and my mother and brothers also went wild.
But not Dad. He spoke to me softly, assuring me that I would be all right. At the hospital he stayed at my side while the doctor on call tended to me. When my sight came back, a few hours later, his face, with its calm demeanor, was the first thing I saw. I had always surmised that he would exhibit grace under pressure, since he dealt with emergencies frequently. But that day I saw it in action, up close and personal, and it left a deep impression.
Preoccupied with his practice, Daddy could seem remote and aloof. He was not openly affectionate with us—certainly not a hugger. Once I even accused him of not loving me. He was flabbergasted and assured me that he did. But as he aged, he became more demonstrative and open about his feelings—at least with me, although he was much sterner with my brothers. He told me many times, “As long as I am alive, I will always be here for you. I will always help you if I can.”
Ephraim Stein was a Renaissance man who grew up a scrappy kid hustling pool on the streets of Williamsburg. But that hustler turned out to be classy, with a deep appreciation of classical music, old-school Latin, world literature, theater, and medicine—as well as sports, from handball to baseball. A passionate lover of words, he’d break into an impish smile while delivering his frequent puns, revealing the space between his two front teeth. Another of his joys was quoting aloud from his favorite writers, including the Romantic poets, Robert Burns, and his numero uno, Shakespeare. Not content for us to appreciate the rhythms and cadences of the Bard’s prose, he also wanted us to understand the meaning. Thus, when we drove up to Stratford, Connecticut, to see our first Shakespeare play—Twelfth Night, with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Ryan—he took along his copy of the play, read some of it aloud while my mother drove, and explained the lines to us.
Daddy had the ability to tune out the world, sometimes with music. At our noisy dinner table, with my brothers and me carrying on, he’d play a record of Beethoven or Brahms and give himself over to it; there he’d be in his own world, humming and “leading” the music with a swiping finger, oblivious to the madness around him.
Despite his formal manner, my father had a playful side that sometimes came out in quirky ways. I have always remembered the little ditty he taught me when I was young, which showcases his love of language, along with that playfulness. When he died, in January, 1999, I ended his eulogy—as I am ending this tribute—by reciting these nutty lyrics:
‘Twas midnight on the ocean.
Not a streetcar was in sight.
The sun was shining brightly,
But it rained all day that night.
‘Twas summertime in winter,
And the rain was snowing fast.
A barefoot boy with shoes on
Stood sitting in the grass.
While the organ peeled potatoes,
Lard was rendered by the choir.
While the sexton rang the dishcloth,
Someone set the church on fire.
“Holy smoke!” the preacher shouted.
In the rush he lost his hair.
Now his head resembles Heaven,
For there is no parting there.