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ABOUT THIS WORK

The journal-style entries that comprise this collection of personal essays were complied over a one-year period from the summer of 2018 to the summer of 2019.

 

This was, perhaps, the greatest single year of self-discovery I had ever encountered in my life and continues to be a source of profound reflection.

 

In the blink of an eye, I suddenly had a family I never knew. People who, perhaps, had heard about me in passing or, most probably, never at all.

 

But this "sudden family" brought to light some of the most profound questions I'd had about my life and the family I'd never known.

 

I have tried to only lightly redact these essays to maintain the immediacy and spontaneity in which they were written, therefore, there are quite a few redundancies and, in some instances, the verb tenses are inconsistent. 

 

Part 1: June 20, 1963

I have no recollections of that day, only a few vague vignettes my mother mentioned in passing over the years; stories about how Arnold wouldn’t even come upstairs to see me on the fifth floor of Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital on North Marine Drive in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, just a block away from Lake Michigan.

That is where I was born, just after eleven o’clock on Thursday, June 20th 1963.

My mother often recalled how Arnold eventually came to the maternity ward on my eighth day of life—the day of my bris milah, the age-old Jewish ritual of circumcising a male infant—and left immediately following the ceremony where his convertible stood double parked outside the hospital with whatever young women he was traipsing around with on that particular day.

Those were the first—and practically only—images I ever had of Arnold. A dashing young man with movie star good looks, riding around Chicago’s north side with gorgeous girls in an impeccable convertible motorcar paid for by the wealthy father whose family scrap metal dynasty was the largest and most well respected in the Midwest.

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I returned to that hospital, two months after my ninth birthday, and stood in the same place where Arnold possibly stood looking up to that same fifth-floor window where, on the 29th of August 1972, my mother gave birth to my half-brother, just after eleven o’clock in the morning.

I was too young and too unsuspecting to make any connection back then, but as the years went on, the irony became clear and the visits I made to Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital every year on my birthday from 1977 until I moved away for good in June of 1996, became more relevant, more poignant and more emblematic of the ripples of sorrow that Arnold left in the wake of his abandonment.

Part 2: Waiting

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I never really knew Arnold, but from what I can remember, he did come around to see me occasionally when I was a very young child, and I only have one recollection of ever having been with him.

I imagine I must have been three or four the day he came to pick me up, bought me a few small toys and put me in the back seat of his car and drove from place to place, stopping, leaving me on the car floor with my toys and a small penlight attached to a chain.

 

I don’t know where he went or how long he actually left me alone in the car—it could have been minutes. Or hours.

And as I grew older, I became more and more aware of his absence, asking when he would come and pick me up, when he would come to see me, when he would come to play baseball with me or watch me ride my tricycle.

But he never came.

And though he never did, that didn’t stop me from waiting outside on the front stoop of my grandparent’s three-flat on Maplewood in my little Cubs uniform or sitting—endlessly it seemed—on my tricycle.

There must have been a day, a moment in time when, for one reason or another, I simply stopped waiting.

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My mother never spoke much of Arnold, so I never knew much about him—or his family—as I was growing up.

Details that did eventually surface from time to time were scant and often ambiguous.

I know nothing about her and Arnold’s courtship, and while they did marry, I’m not certain if it was precipitated by her becoming pregnant (with me) or not.

I also know their subsequent divorce was handled by Arnold’s uncle (or cousin, perhaps) Sheldon, whose Chicago-based law firm, Sandman & Levy, was founded in 1963, the year I was born and still exists today at 134 N. LaSalle Street.

It also became clear early on in my life, that my mother was—and remained—bitter towards Arnold and his family for their betrayal of the both of us. This bitterness, I believe, cast a pall over my mother’s life, one that, in many ways, still looms large to this very day.

Photo (left to right): Mom, cousin Selma, aunt Phyllis

Part 3: Mom

Part 4: July 16, 2018

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Photo (left to right): Arnold and his siblings, Sharlene and Steven

The first time I ever spoke to Arnold was September 5th 2002.

I was 39 years old.

It took me about a week of legwork on an internet that was still pretty much in its infancy to find some leads and speak to some people who would eventually lead me to the Sandman family attorney, Sheldon Sandman, who handled Arnold and my mother’s divorce back in the early 60s.

Before finally speaking to Sheldon on September 5th, I had spoken with family members such as his sister, two of his uncles and a woman who worked for the family scrap metal business for a number of years.

Over the years, every now and again, I would search Facebook and Google for any traces of Sandman family information, mostly to no avail.

This past July 16th, however, that all changed.

While I’d searched for records about Arnold’s parents—my paternal grandparents—before, this time a Google search of Arnold’s father, Lawrence Sandman, led me to a record on Geni.com, a well-known genealogy and social networking site.

The record indicated the names of Lawrence’s five brothers and a woman who I believe to be a step or half-sister.

Now while I’d found that information years ago, what caught my attention this time was the name of the individual who managed that particular account on Geni.com; a name that I had never heard of or come upon in my research all those years ago.

As any good internet detective, the first thing I did was to search for that person’s name on Facebook, and to my surprise, found her profile immediately. More surprising still was that we had a mutual friend, someone who I went to high school with and whose grandfather owned the local bicycle shop in my neighborhood where I would buy magic tricks and gags as a kid.

I sent her a message on Facebook and received an immediate response—she was Arnold’s niece, my first cousin and the daughter of his sister…my aunt.

My cousin Marne was very cordial and open to the idea of starting a relationship with me. She soon shared the first photographs I’d ever seen of Arnold’s family—his parents, grandparents and siblings—and of Arnold at various stages of his life as a child and young adult. The only photo I have ever possessed of him was one taken at what was presumably his and my mother’s wedding; a photo left to me when my mother’s father passed away a dozen or so years ago.

Becoming acquainted with my first cousin signified the first and only time I have ever met or been in contact with anyone from Arnold’s family and was—and remains to this day—an emotionally exhilarating experience.

That was July 16th. What would happen just 27 days later—in the early hours of a Sunday morning while I sat at home in the Netherlands watching the Cubs play the Nationals live over the internet—created a twist in the story that even the best of writers would have a hard time surpassing.

Part 5: Nationals 9, Cubs 4

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It was just your average Saturday night.

 

My daughters were down south in Limburg visiting their grandparents and I was home eating pizza, popcorn and watching the Cubs playing the Nationals live on MLB.tv—like I do about 150 evenings each baseball season.

Like I said, it was just an average Saturday night.

Then a message notification from Facebook rang out on my iPhone. It was a message and photo from my "new" cousin Marne: "Hey Richard! Guess where I am.

The photo made me smile and homesick at the same time as it had been more twenty years since I'd been back to Chicago and to my beloved Wrigley Field.

I had only met my first cousin (Arnold’s sister’s daughter) less than a month before after finding her—by happenstance—on Facebook, and we had exchanged a dozen or so messages and photographs.

My virtual first meeting with Marne just weeks earlier was a somewhat bittersweet encounter as it was the first time I had ever been in contact with anyone from Arnold’s family in all of my 55 years; the bitterness of having been a first-born son and grandchild abandoned by an entire family, juxtaposed with the sweetness of being so openly accepted by my cousin who was happy to share her stories, recollections and family photos with me.

About an hour later—as I continued watching the game—I got another message from Marne. And this one would change everything:

 

“Hi Richard, sorry to barge in on your game again, and even more sorry to share this with you, but I just found out that Arnie passed away.”

It turns out that Marne had received the news from a cousin—the daughter of Arnold’s mother’s sister—while sitting in the stands at Wrigley Field watching the same game that I was.

After a number of messages were exchanged, I decided to turn off the game and go to bed.

 

I anticipated having a difficult time falling asleep, pondering a lifetime thinking about this man I never knew—save for one fleeting telephone conversation some 15 years before—but apparently I was so exhausted from a full day of work at the barbershop and so emotionally consumed by the news of Arnold’s passing, that I was probably asleep before ever hitting my pillow.

I woke to the news of the Cubs having lost to the Nationals by a score of 9 to 4 and to the reality that Arnold was gone. Again. Forever.

Part 6: My Sister's Keeper

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On September 5th, 2002, I spoke to Arnold for the first and only time in my life.

During our 20-minute telephone conversation—I was in Valencia, Spain, he in Chicago— which can best be described as madman’s rant, he mentioned, in passing, that he had fathered two daughters in the years after my birth.

Beth was the older of the two girls whose mother, Lavergne, had married a man surnamed “Brother” or “Brothers,” who legally adopted Beth. While he hadn’t spoken to her in more than 20 years, he believed she lived in Elmhurst or Lombard, in Chicago’s western suburbs.

Tina (or Tina Louise), was his daughter with a woman named Inez, though I made a note referring to another woman called Nina Jankowski (as I understood it), so I’m not too certain about which woman might be Tina’s mother.

I also believe one of the women may have been my parent’s neighbor or even a classmate of my mothers at the beauty school she attended.

My search for my half-sisters began in earnest immediately following my phone call with Arnold and has continued—fruitlessly—for nearly two decades.

About ten years ago, a Google search led me to a Tina Sandman with a local north side Chicago address. After inquiring on Facebook whether I had any acquaintances in that area, Lisa, a childhood friend, responded saying she was at work about two blocks away from that location and would be more than happy to walk over there and see what she could find.

An hour or so later, Lisa reported back saying that it appeared a Tina Sandman did in fact live there (her name was still on the bell) but, according to a neighbor, had recently moved away without leaving a forwarding address.

Was that my Tina? I may never know.

Part 7: 1330 Perry Street

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Photo: Arnold’s last known place of residence:1330 Perry St., Des Plaines, Illinois.

It’s nice to have caring neighbors. Individuals who will pick up your mail or water your plants while you’re on vacation; sign for a parcel; lend you a cup of sugar or a Phillips-head screwdriver; or call the local police to request a wellness check when they haven’t seen you for a while and a disagreeable smell begins to emerge from your condo.

I’ll never know exactly who called the Des Plaines Police Department that day (or if it was a Friday or Saturday), but I can take creative liberties in imagining it may have been an elderly widow or the confirmed bachelor who has worked as a claims adjuster for the same suburban insurance company for the past 20 years; or the Polish housewife who had been taking loads of dirty clothes to the laundry room when she noticed the stench wafting through the corridor.

And who were the officers that made their way into the condo? A couple of seasoned veterans who would likely be unfazed by discovering a decomposing corpse? Were they men? Women? Young? Old? How did they enter the apartment? Was it the building manager or a custodian who had a spare key or did the police officers require locksmith’s tools to gain entry? (They really only break down the door on TV, don’t they?).
 

And how did they come upon the deceased? In bed, lying peacefully with a blanket partially covering his face? Or was he sprawled out on the kitchen floor lying in the dried residue of blood or urine or the non-dairy creamer he had just removed from the fridge to add to the cup of coffee he had just made, the one that sits cold on the kitchen counter that will never be drunk...?

Perhaps he was sat in an armchair with a book in his lap or the television on. Or face down at the dining room table, some leftovers and a now moldy piece of some unidentifiable fruit pie on a simple white china plate.

I suppose I’ll never know the answer to any of these questions, but will live the rest of my days orchestrating the hundreds—even thousands—of scenarios my imagination will concoct.

Part 8: "It's Your Dad"

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Just before my seventh birthday, my mother remarried a man I had known as “Uncle Bob” since I was about five. I referred to Bob—and another half dozen or so guys who worked with my mom at the Jewel Food Store on California and Granville—as my uncles, as these guys, ranging in age from their 20s to 30s, were always keen to look after me when I would come by the grocery store for lunch or after school.

Uncle Gary, to my mother’s chagrin, would ride me around the parking lot on the back of his Harley-Davidson; Uncle Mike would treat me to Shakettes (a super yummy chocolate milk drink) and Twinkies; and another Uncle Bob would give me the latest issue of Mad Magazine to read up in the staff lunchroom.

My mom started dating Uncle Bob—a divorcee with two young children around my age—and he’d begin showing up at my grandparent’s house (where I had lived with my mother after Arnold left us) more frequently, oftentimes taking my mother to their usual haunt, Jimmy Fulton’s Captain’s Table on North Clark Street, a dark and smoky lounge featuring fish tanks and kitsch maritime decor.

Photo: Me and my father, Robert J. Morris, at my bar mitzvah. June 26, 1976.

On our way home from the supermarket one warm autumn afternoon, my mother stopped as we walked up Peterson Avenue in front of the Green Briar Park fieldhouse, took my hand and asked me a question that would change my life (and hers) forever…

"How would you like a new father?

I knew immediately she meant Uncle Bob and I couldn’t have been any happier. They were married the following spring—on May 31st, 1970.

Less than a year later—in the presence of my grandparents—we went downtown in our finest clothes to the Cook County Court Building where, in just about an hour’s time, I would face a judge who would ask me a few questions, shake my hand and sign a document making me Uncle Bob’s legal son.

But before any of that happened, Bob asked those present in the conference room if he might have a moment alone with me.

He said that he knew I understood what was going to happen later that morning and that he couldn’t be happier for all of us. But it was what he said next that would have the most profound impact on me…

"If you ever want to see Arnold, all you have to do is tell me and I'll arrange it."

That was the moment in which Uncle Bob became my father; and he has been, and will always be, the only father—the best father—this boy could have ever wished for.

Needless to say, I never took him up on his offer to find Arnold. But as I was reaching middle age, and had begun having children of my own, I started having questions about the half of my family medical history I was never able to account for during regular doctor visits.

I eventually turned to the internet, found and spoke by phone to some reluctant family members of Arnold’s who led me to the family attorney who took my details in the event he’d ever run into Arnold, who he said he hadn’t seen for years and didn’t know of his whereabouts.

That was September 5th, 2002–16 years ago this very day. I was 39 years old.

Barely ten minutes after speaking to the lawyer from my home in Valencia, Spain, the telephone rang…

"It's your dad. Arnie Sandman."

It was the first time in my life—other than when I was an infant—that I heard his voice and at once I became discombobulated and at a loss for words.

Arnold and I spoke for about twenty minutes; I told him I had been living abroad, was a teacher and that I was married and had two small children.

 

While I can’t recall his reactions to hearing that he was a grandfather or that I had a successful career and family life, I can recount the rant that followed.

He spoke at length—and with a good amount of rancor—about how his family had turned against him, owed him 700,000 dollars and were keeping his army footlocker from him that contained his dog tags, photos of me and other personal effects.

He also mentioned that he had fathered two daughters in the years after I was born—Tina and Beth—with whom he had no contact and knew nothing more about.

Oddly enough, I was too overwhelmed with emotion to even remember to ask him about our family medical history so, a week later, I called him and asked him about it. He mentioned that he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and walked with the help of a cane. He said there may have also been some heart issues in the family, but wasn’t able to go into many details.

That was last time I ever spoke to Arnold.

But hardly the end of the story.

Photo: Exterior of the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Part 9: Arranging Arrangements

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Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined being in this predicament. In fact, the storyline’s so much better than anything my vivid writer’s imagination could have cooked up. But this isn’t fiction. Well, at least not in the literal (or literary) sense, anyway.

27 days after coming into contact with someone from Arnold’s family—a first cousin—for the very first time in my life, she wrote me a short note informing me that Arnold had died.

He had apparently been deceased for more than a week when the Des Plaines Police Department, responding to a call for a wellness check, entered his condo and found him already in the early stages of decomposition.

From all indications, Arnold was a loner. Lived alone, died alone.

According to my newfound first cousin (her mother is Arnold’s sister)—and to information I was able to gather prior to my first and only telephone conversation with him in 2002—Arnold had been estranged from his family, his two siblings, at least three known children he fathered with three different women (one of them being my own mother) and other family members for at least the past three or four decades.

All I really knew about him was from occasional snippets my mother would mention and from first-hand accounts I was given by relatives and family acquaintances in the days prior to my speaking to Arnold all those years ago.

I was told by one woman, who had worked for years for the family scrap metal business, that Arnold ate breakfast at the same diner (on Cicero or Pulaski, if memory serves) every day, walked with a cane and traded in his car for a new one every year.

Another relative said he had been in and out of mental institutions as a result of his time in the army during the Viet Nam War (though my mother claims, despite my hearing stories to the contrary, he never saw active duty).

But now— today—Arnold is no more. At least not in any earthly sense.

His body was found at his condo (which according to information I found was purchased on June 20th 2017—my birthday, incidentally) on August 10th and taken to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office on West Harrison Street in Chicago and placed in the care of Rebeca Perrone, the Indigent Coordinator who looks after the deceased who are either unclaimed or unidentified. Articles that have appeared in the local Chicago press refer to Ms. Perrone as the “Social Worker for the Dead.”

Typically, remains are kept at the county morgue for 30 days and, if they go unclaimed, are buried in a common “pauper’s” grave.

From my initial correspondence with my cousin, she made it clear that no one from Arnold’s family would be willing to make funeral arrangements or assume any costs involved with his burial.

While I never knew this man (though there was never a day in my life when he didn’t momentarily pop into my thoughts), I felt almost immediately compelled to take action to insure he would get a proper burial.

On the very Saturday evening my cousin informed me of Arnold’s passing, I reached out to an old friend who worked as a funeral director for the Cremation Society of Illinois. In fact, I had contacted her on Facebook hours before we were informed of Arnold’s whereabouts while she was visiting her mother at Evanston Hospital. She was both kind enough to offer her advice and assistance and to walk down to the hospital morgue to see if by some chance Arnold may have been there.

Hours later, my friend informed me of his being at the county medical examiner’s office, in addition to providing some information about the circumstances of his body being found at his place of residence in Des Plaines.

The next day, I received an email from Lloyd Mandel, a well-known Jewish funeral director, who offered his services and condolences.

It turns out that Arnold’s uncle, Izzy Dick (Arnold’s mother’s youngest brother), the longest serving funeral director in the state of Illinois, worked with Mandel for years and he felt honor-bound to extend a “generous discount” due to the fact that Arnold was Izzy’s nephew.

While ideally, a proper Jewish burial would have been desired, I wasn’t prepared to pay the nearly 3,000-dollar fee he was asking; and those were just the basic costs that included, amongst other services, transportation of the casket to the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois, some 50 miles southwest of Chicago, where Arnold was entitled to a free burial as a veteran of the United States Army.

My friend also extended a generous offer should it be decided that cremation would be an option (not a traditional one for those of the Jewish faith, but becoming increasingly more common). My friend’s fees would come in less than 2,000 dollars, and despite my launching a new business and my two older children both starting university in the autumn, I felt that this was best and most prudent option.

My cousin and her mother were willing to fill in and sign the required paperwork to have my friend transfer Arnold’s remains to her care for cremation and had the documents notarized and returned in a matter of days.

A few days later, my cousin sent me information she found online about another company who advertised a “no-frills” cremation that was a third of the price I was going to pay my friend. So, I gave them a call and set things in motion one more time.

My cousin informed me in a message I received late last night that she and her mother would complete the new forms and have them notarized in short order and returned to the cremation service.

Meanwhile, I had been in touch with Rebeca Perrone at the medical examiner’s office who kindly extended the claim date for Arnold’s remains until September 20th—a welcomed reprieve that would allow me time to tie up my other pending matters such as launching my new barbershop on the 15th, getting my kids’ university matriculation paid and putting the finishing touches on my 2019 bow tie collection that I would be going to England on the 27th to finalize.

My decision to take on the responsibility of arranging Arnold’s final arrangements wasn't a popular one with family and friends, whose unwavering assertions that “I don’t owe Arnold anything” and “he wouldn’t do it for you” were taken at face value but ineffective in changing my mind.

“Owing him nothing” is relative if in fact that I felt I didn’t owe him my life. Which, in a peculiar but justifiable way, I feel I do. And whether or not he would do it for me is purely beside the point.

In the end, my decision to see that Arnold’s earthly remains were transitioned with dignity, was purely a human one. One that I felt right about. One that, as a Jew, as the biological son of a Jew, and as a man brought up with the identity, traditions and values of a contemporary Jew, I felt morally obligated to carry out.

Part 10: Jacob & Lena

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There will always be unanswered questions. I have spent my entire lifetime wondering how a man could simply one day walk away from his wife and son—his first-born son—and never look back.

It’s a fairly common scenario, one that perhaps raised eyebrows in the middle-class, West Rogers Park neighborhood where I was born in 1963, but today is seemingly common, evoking little social disdain and even less emotional fallout.

But what has been even more bewildering to me these past 50 years, is not how or why Arnold left me, but how his entire family could turn their backs on a first son, a first nephew, a first grandson; a great-grandson.

My great-grandfather, Jacob Sandman (August 16, 1888-May 1965)—Arnold’s grandfather—came to America from Szczilky, Galicia, part of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire, near the modern-day border between Poland and Ukraine, aboard the Kronprinz Wilhelm, that departed from Bremen (Germany) arriving at Ellis Island on December 11, 1906. According to the ship’s manifest, Jacob was born in Loposcanka.

From all indications, it appears that Jacob was one of ten brothers who made their way to America. Some reports state that he—or perhaps some of his brothers—first settled (and perhaps remained) in New York before making their homes in Chicago.

Jacob married Lena (nee Korman, 1896–July 1981) and had five sons, one of which, Lawrence (December 7, 1916-November 1974), married the former Ann Dick (1920–1999) and would go on to have three children together, Arnold (the oldest) a sister and a younger brother.

I have also recently discovered that Jacob had two other children—Harry and Ruth—from a previous marriage to a woman who died young, perhaps during childbirth or a medical procedure gone wrong.

Jacob founded Sandman & Sons Scrap Metal which, over the years, became one of two rival scrap metal businesses on Chicago’s north side. From all accounts, the scrap metal business made Jacob and his sons wealthy and the family lived an affluent life, owning attractive homes and driving luxury automobiles.

I was only two when Jacob passed away in 1965, and I wonder what, if any, relationship we might have had in those two short years. I imagine he must have come to my bris milah (Jewish ritual circumcision) and subsequent pidyon haben, a Jewish ceremony wherein the father of a firstborn male redeems his son by giving a kohen (a priestly descendent of Aaron) five silver coins, thirty days after a baby’s birth.

I suppose there’s no harm in thinking my birth made Jacob happy; happy to have a great-grandson—perhaps the first or simply another—and another male heir to carry on his name and legacy.

Photo: Arnold's paternal grandparents, Jacob and Lena.

Part 11: Larry & Anne

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I was recently told that when my grandmother Ann passed away in 1999 while on a Caribbean cruise, she left a jewelry box to my cousin Marne that contained, amongst other things, photographs and other mementos from my childhood.

Having no recollection of Arnold’s parents and having maintained no contact with them during their lives (my grandfather Larry passed away in 1974 while still in his fifties), the photo here is the first I’d ever seen of them. And that was a little less than two months ago.

What continues to puzzle me to this day are the circumstances that led Lawrence and Ann Sandman giving up their firstborn grandchild; to make the conscious decision to never see me again; to speak to me, to include me in their lives, their simchas or their family. My family.

I gazed long and hard at that photo—one that could have been taken of a dazzling Hollywood movie star couple at Chasen’s on Beverly Boulevard—resigned to the fact I never knew them. And they never knew me. And never will.

Photo: Arnold's parents, Lawrence & Ann.

And when I think about the jewelry box and its contents, I have to wonder where Ann obtained these items. How did she come to possess photos, newspaper clippings and other snippets of my life when apparently she never saw me or anyone in my maternal family after I was a year or two old?

Or did she?

When asked, my mother has always insisted that there was no contact.

And then there was my maternal grandmother, Mary Lurie.

My grandmother was a social butterfly. Knew everyone, belonged to half dozen charitable foundations, sat on boards of local Jewish women’s societies, Zionist associations, synagogue organizations and participated in mahjong, book-of-the-month and Yiddish clubs.

And she was a proud and doting grandmother.

Well, aren’t they all?

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Photo: Me, c.1965. From Ann Sandman’s jewelry box. Courtesy of Marne Klinsky.

In 1994—during my final year of graduate school at Chicago’s DePaul University—I was invited to do a poetry reading from my new book at the Northwest Home for the Aged on California and Rosemont. The reading was organized by the events committee my grandmother was on.

As my book had recently been released, I was doing a reading or two a week, so I had been accustomed to these types of venues—homes for the elderly, synagogues, schools and local bookshops—and the audiences my readings would attract, mainly older Jews, connected well to the Jewish immigrant themes of the book.

The reading at the Northwest Home came off without a hitch as I read selected poems from my book, took questions at the end and sold signed copies of the book at a table at the back of the room.

While packing up the unsold copies and gathering my coat and hat, my grandmother came up to me and—in the most nonchalant way—told me she thought she may have recognized Ann Sandman amongst those in attendance, that she thought she may have been a board member of the home.

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I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but I’ve carried that recollection around with me all these years wondering if she was there that evening.

So, where did the photos and clippings come from? Photos like my nursery school picture, the one that came in a variety of sizes to cut out for framing or to keep in one’s wallet? 

Or clippings like the one from the Jewish Sentinel announcing my bar mitzvah in June of 1976 or my book signing events, which were also published in the local papers and Jewish press?

Knowing my grandmother and the warm, personable woman she was, I can easily envision her having kept in contact with her “co-grandmother” all those years, perhaps out of a feeling of compassion for Ann or sense of kinship towards a woman who would never come to know the grandson she cast aside.

Whatever the case, I take some comfort in knowing that—at least early in my life—it appears that Ann remained interested in my welfare and made some effort to keep informed about me.

As the years went on, Larry and Ann settled down in Skokie, lived in a lovely home on Pottawattami Drive and had a small, white toy poodle named Keeney.

I’ve been told that Larry died of a heart attack a month before his 58th birthday (just three years older than I am today).

I also heard that he was fiery-tempered and fought often with Arnold and Ann; the tumultuous relationship between the couple—as has been suggested—the likely cause of his untimely death.

But every family has their stories; some, perhaps, closer to fiction than to fact.

My bar mitzvah notice from the “Sentinel,” June 1976.

Case in point is another cousin—a first cousin of Arnold’s—with whom I have also become recently acquainted, whose recollections of her uncle Larry are quite different: “He was even tempered, quiet and sweet," I was told in an email. "He would come and pick me up in his Thunderbird and take me to the drugstore for candy. He used to tickle me until I cried.”

I wonder what it would have been like to be picked up after school by Larry on a Friday afternoon in his Thunderbird, treated to candy and then taken to his house in Skokie, where I would spend the weekend watching Gilligan’s Island and Tarzan, eating ice cream sundaes and playing with Keeney out back in their garden on a freshly mowed lawn, Ann bringing out a tray of cookies and lemonade.

One can only wonder.

Part 12: Brothers & Sisters

Families are complex social units whose members are all interdependent and reciprocally influence one another. Over time, tension and conflict amongst family members have a tendency to increase.

I know a little about these family conflicts as I was born into a family rife with conflicts. And later—at the age six —I became part of a new family that also had a few skeletons in their closet.

I’ve been told stories of how the patriarch of the Sandman family—my paternal great-grandfather, Jacob, who arrived in the United States at the age of eighteen and who eventually built a scrap metal empire on Chicago’s north side—would often pit his sons one against the other.

One of his five sons—my paternal grandfather, Lawrence—apparently also had a stormy relationship with his son (my biological father), Arnold.

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Sharlene, Steven and Arnold Sandman.

When my mother remarried in 1970, one of the first stories I remember being told about my new father was that he had a twin brother who he hadn’t spoken with in a decade or more due to some undisclosed falling out.

My dad—and his twin brother Dick—saw each other now and again at family functions and eventually reconciled towards the end of Dick’s life, which was a milestone in both men’s lives and brought their families closer together.

I imagine their early lives weren’t the happiest; growing up on Chicago’s north side during the Second World War and raised by a single mother who at times struggled to make ends meet; so much so that she could only afford to have one of her twin sons circumcised following their birth. And those same sons as young boys oftentimes had to steal food to provide for their mother and two sisters.

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Photo (left to right): Richard “Dick” and Robert “Bob” Morris.

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The brothers graduated from Field Elementary School in 1947, but never graduated from Sullivan High School with their 1951 graduating class.

Bob received his GED before entering the army where he was stationed at Camp Roberts, California. Dick ran into some trouble with law and when those were cleared up he enlisted in the army and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.

After their respective stints in the military, they spent a few semesters at Northwestern University on the G.I. Bill and were even members of the Sigma Pi Omega Fraternity.

After his short time at university, dad got a job as a bank guard at the First National Bank of Chicago, at the time renowned as having the second largest “police force” in the state of Illinois after the Chicago Police Department.

 

After a few years as an armed bank guard, he went to work for Jewel Foods (where he would later meet my mother) for the next 30 years.

 

Following his time in the army, Dick moved to Wisconsin, where he married twice and raised his family. Dick Morris passed away in 1999.

Dad (left) and uncle Dick (right).

As for me, I was an only child until the age of nine. My parents had been married for just over a year when mom broke the news of her pregnancy. I was elated, as I had been lobbying hard for a baby brother.

When my mother went into labor that warm August night, her friend Enid drove me over to my grandparents’ house where I spent the night.

The next day, I walked across the street to my great-grandfather’s community center during my lunch break from school when a call came in from my grandmother who was at Weiss Memorial Hospital, informing us that my mother gave birth to a healthy baby boy just before 11:30 that morning, the 29th of August 1972.

My brother was given the name I had suggested, Glenn, inspired by my looking through the TV Guide one day and coming across a listing for The Glen Campbell Show. My parents liked the name and chose to use it with a double n.

While nine years is a pretty wide gap between siblings, I loved having a baby brother and would help change his diapers, give him baths and play with him for hours on end in the room that we shared for more than five years.

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My brother Glenn and me, 1974.

In 1977, we moved a few blocks away where I finally had my own bedroom and bathroom in a large three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment at Washtenaw and Devon in Chicago’s far north side neighborhood of West Rogers Park.

In January of 1979, my father’s first wife, Diane, was stricken with a brain aneurysm and died a few days later and her two children—my step-brother and sister—came to live with us.

After high school, I ending up moving out west, leaving a void in both of our lives. When I moved back to Chicago some seven years later in 1988, Glenn was in high school and I was about to start college, and while we were both thrilled being back in each other’s lives, it was apparent that those were very different lives from the ones we shared as kids.

A few years later, after graduating from college and graduate school, I moved away again—for the last time—to Valencia, Spain, with my new Spanish wife, who has accepted a Ph.D. position at the University of Valencia School of Medicine.

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About a year later, Glenn came to visit us in Valencia.

That first year in Spain was a difficult one for me due to the pressure of early married life combined with the fact that we struggled to make ends meet on my wife’s university grant and the money I was able to scrape together by giving private English lessons.

When Glenn arrived that year, my wife was pregnant with our first child, which made our economic situation even more precarious. And while I tried to focus on enjoying our time together and making Glenn’s stay as pleasant as possible, my preoccupation with work and money made me irritable and not often very pleasant to be around. I became distant and at times would withdraw to my room giving no explanation to my brother who must have felt confused, hurt and rejected.

While I briefly saw my brother again when I came to Chicago just days before our grandmother passed away in 1998, he never came to visit me again and has only met one of my five children. The only contact we’ve had over these past 20 years has been talking occasionally on the telephone or exchanging emails every now and again.

In a letter my brother wrote to me while I was living in Los Angeles in the 1980s—he was a teenager then—he told me I was his hero. But heroes, as we know, often fall from grace, and for me, at times, it feels like I haven’t stopped falling. And like the late rapper Tupac Shakur once said, “When your hero falls from grace, all fairy tales are uncovered.”

My story about brothers and sisters wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Tina and Beth.

Glenn and me, with Simon and Daniel. Valencia, Spain, 1997.

When I spoke to Arnold for the first and only time in September of 2002, the most shocking thing he revealed was that he had fathered two daughters by two different women in the years following my birth.

He hadn’t kept in touch with Tina and Beth and told me that Beth’s mother remarried and she took her new father’s name, perhaps Brothers, he thought, and the last time he spoke to her she had been living with her family in a suburb just outside of Chicago. About eight or nine years ago, I thought I might have picked up a trail on Tina when I found a Tina L. Sandman living on Chicago’s northwest side through some internet records. When a friend who was working nearby walked over to the address I gave her, a neighbor had said that the Tina Sandman who’d been living there had recently moved away.

While I’ve been fairly consistent in my search for my half-sisters over the past 16 years, I have yet to find them. More than mere curiosity to locate their whereabouts, I find myself with an intrinsic commitment to search them out, to see what became of their lives and to discover—hopefully—that they have been well and happy all of these years. And moreover, to put two of the biggest missing pieces into the puzzle of my life.

Part 13: In Gina's Words

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Gina is the third Sandman cousin I’ve become acquainted with since July. Prior to that, I’d never known anyone in the Sandman family. Gina, 61, is the daughter of Arnold’s uncle, Joseph, who was one of my grandfather, Larry Sandman’s four brothers. Gina recently shared the story of her life and her Sandman family recollections with me via email from her home in Idaho. The following text has been edited for clarity and continuity.

Dear Richard,

So, here’s a bit of my history.

And a bit of information about my grandparents, your great-grandparents.

Things were definitely dysfunctional growing up.

I was reunited with my folks in 1999 when I took a trip to Chicago after 22 years.

After going back home I kept in touch with my folks. Dad passed away on June 10, 2003 and Mom (I called her Mom) passed away March 31, 2008.

Gina’s father, Joseph Sandman (1922–2003) around 1945 at the age of 23.

In 1978, I moved to California. My Aunt Esther—who is my biological mother’s sister—tried to get me going on the right track. But I wanted to party and be a “good for nothing!” Geez, sometimes I wish I could go back and kick myself in the you-know-what! My husband tells me, “Gina, your older self would not have listened to your younger self!” He basically told me to move on, let it go. And he was right…

My Dad—your great-uncle Joe—was a hard-working man. He worked until he was 75 and passed away when he was 80. He worked one-handed as his left hand was crushed in a conveyor belt at the Sandman [scrap metal] business when he was 18.

Dad started his own scrap iron and metal business not long after Grandpa Jacob passed away in May of 1965.

Grandpa had a very funny, silly side of him. Dad told me once that Grandpa had special shoes made so he would be as tall as his sons. Grandpa was a small man.

My Dad was a kidder, too. He could imitate movie actors and he could sing like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin! And he would dance to music from the 1940s.

Dad would be in the shower and start singing one of Frank’s or Dean’s songs and later mom would ask him, “Joe, why don’t you finish the songs when you’re in the shower?” My Dad would say, ”I forget the words!”

My sister Ilene could sing too. She kind of sounds like Liza Minnelli.

Ilene is a retired teacher. She worked for the City Colleges of Chicago and has a degree in Humanities & World Religions. She did a lot of tutoring.

I have been in the food service industry for about 35 years. I also was a preschool teacher.

I graduated from Mather High School in 1976, which was connected to another school, a special education school. At one time, it was affiliated with the Jewish Children’s Bureau. I think it’s called something else now.

I went on to Truman College and studied Child Development. Then I moved to California, like I mentioned earlier.

I continued studying child development at a vocational school in Woodland Hills, California, and also worked at a daycare center as a preschool teacher while working on getting my certificate in preschool teaching.

This is were I met Mike. My boys’ dad. Well, all of that went out the window. Getting married was a BIG mistake. We have two boys. Mike is 39, Daniel is 38. Mike has two boys, 18 and 16.

Over the years I have remained close to Mike’s mom and his five sisters and their families. I have been blessed with several close friends and families over the years.

I worked for 25 years at a not so fancy job at Taco Time. I was a supervisor there. Yes, fast food! But I embraced that job.

I lived in Clarkston, Washington since 1981 then moved out to the country after I met Gary, the true love of my life. I divorced the boys’ dad, Mike, in 1983. Mike was homeless for years and years but now has an apartment and lives in California.

My son Mike lives in Lewiston, Idaho and the other, Daniel, lives in Winchester, Idaho. I live above a little town called Culdesac, Idaho, surrounded by beauty, peace and quiet. Winchester is not far from where we live.

Lewiston & Clarkston are divided by the Snake River. About a 30-minute drive from where we live, the two towns have stores, restaurants, a paper mill, lawyers, doctors and a community and four-year college. The population of Clarkston, Washington is about 17,000; Lewiston about 34,000. Lillian Disney (Walt Disney’s wife) was from Lapwai, Idaho. It’s also home to the Nezperce Indians. Lewis & Clark traveled this area and the towns are named after them. The area is about five hours south of Boise, six hours west and Portland, Oregon, eight hours northwest of Seattle and two hours north of Spokane.

My husband has three grown boys (39, 37 and 33) — all hard workers, and I love them like my own. They are great guys and good fathers! I am very close to one of my daughters-in-law.

After years of being a screw-up, I got my ducks in a row. Not a perfect row, but better. I was a single mom working at TacoTime and was recognized for many years of service while receiving many customer service awards. I became very close with some of my customers who today are good friends. I even married one of my customers! That’s were Gary comes in the picture…

On our first date. I told him “Look, I don’t know what you want from me.” And I pulled out all my dirty laundry. Gary sat there and listened. When I was done with all the blah-blah, he simply said to me, “I just like you!” And he meant it. We have been married for 16 years.

I work part-time in the fall, winter and spring as a cook for a head start in a small community called Craigmont, not far from here. Gary works full time; long hours in the summer.

When he was in the Marines, he fixed helicopters. He also was a logger. He had various other jobs. Then he worked for a mechanic shop for 25 years in Clarkston, and at lunch time he would come to where I was working.

He now works as a mechanic/farmer for a big farm company outfit. They farm 30,000 acres. After 20 years, he’s now retired from the Marines and Army National Guard. He loved military life, but didn’t like the politics. He also received several military awards and was an E-5 Sergeant. He also knows Karate; has a Purple Belt but doesn’t practice anymore because he messed up his back.

Gary is a true outdoorsman. He loves to hunt big game, fishing and hiking. I have even learned to make a yummy roast from elk! Oh my gosh, to die for!

So basically, I went from being a city girl to a country girl.

There is some amazing country in Idaho, Montana and Washington State.

Because of my faith in God, my life is good. It’s not perfect, far from perfect. I have a good husband, a good circle of friends and good family. All because of God’s mercy on my life.

I am Jewish but it comes full circle.

I am not real crazy about social media, but it has brought several of the Sandman’s together. Descendants of Jacob & Lena Sandman…

Oh, and another thing...grandpa was married before he married Grandma Lena!

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According to what Grandma told me years ago, Grandpa’s first wife died from having an abortion. They had two children, Harry and Ruth.

Grandpa came on a ship when he was [18] years old. He ran away because his father was very abusive. Grandpa came to America from the same small village in Austria as Grandma. She came to America with her family when she was six years old. This comes directly from Grandma to my ear. She met Grandpa years later in Chicago and they got married; that’s where Larry (your grandfather), Paul, Joe, Albert and Donald came from.

 

Grandpa did not want Grandma to learn to drive or have her own check book. This again is coming directly from grandma to my ear. Grandma was a lovely lady, but she was the complete opposite of Grandpa. Grandpa was always kidding around while Grandma was a very serious person. Grandma loved Dinah Shore. Their house on Christiana Avenue was gorgeous! I have many fond memories of that place. I loved it when [my cousin] Sheree would also come over to Grandma and Grandpa’s. We are close in age.

Jacob and Lena Sandman’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren are amazing people; some who have overcome huge adversities!

Lena Sandman (nee Korman). Jacob Sandman’s second wife.

Part 14: Dutch Treat

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My only real intention in looking for Arnold back in September of 2002 was to find out about the half of my family medical history I wasn’t able to account for having never had any contact with my biological father or his family during the course of my life.

With a short list of names and telephone numbers, I set out to do a little detective work hoping the leads would result in my speaking to Arnold for the first time and discovering, if any, important facts about his family’s medical history.

During the two to three days I spent on the phone with various relatives and people who had worked for the family scrap metal business in Chicago, the closest relative I came in contact with was Arnold’s sister.

After introducing myself on the phone, the long pause of complete silence led me to believe that my aunt was either in shock after hearing my voice or that she simply had hung up the phone.

The conversation was short—lasting less than a minute—and my aunt told me that she hadn’t spoken with her brother in years, didn’t know his whereabouts, and that he had been in and out of a variety of “institutions” over the years.

Arnold and his sister, Sharlene.

And that’s where the conversation ended.

Sixteen years later—through the wonder of the internet and Facebook—I connected with my aunt’s daughter, my first cousin, who was welcoming and open to communicating with me.

She sent me a dozen or so family photos—the first ones I had ever seen of my grand and great-grandparents, aunt and uncle. It was also the first time seeing photos of Arnold as a baby, young boy and teenager, as the only photo I had possessed up until then was a photo of Arnold, my mother and my cousins Sophie and Joe Nelson from Canada that was taken at my parent’s wedding in Chicago in September 1962.

After my cousin informed me of Arnold’s passing—just 27 days after we met online—it became clear that no one from the family was willing to claim his body from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office or pay for his final arrangements. Apparently, the siblings were estranged and hadn’t spoken in years, if not decades.

That’s when I became confronted with the dilemma of whether or not I should step forward and take matters into my own hands.

So, despite disapproval from family and friends, who felt strongly in their argument that I owed Arnold nothing, I began making arrangements for his funeral.

At first, I made contact with a family connection—a longtime funeral director in the state of Illinois—via an email sent to me by his daughter. The funeral home in question offered a discount for their services. A discount. Not an offer to pay for their own nephew and cousin’s burial, but a discount. They seemed to also feel that they owed Arnold nothing and that his biological son (me)—who he hadn’t seen Arnold in nearly a lifetime and who wasn’t even considered a legal relative—should be given a discount to bury a virtual stranger.

Next, I contacted an old friend who is a funeral director in Chicago. She also offered her services and a generous discount, but I was beginning to cave to the pressure being put on me by my family not to intervene and leave matters to Arnold’s family. One friend in particular made a poignant statement telling me to spend the money I would be spending on burying Arnold on my own children, the grandchildren he never knew. “Your kids deserve your hard-earned money more than he does,” my friend concluded.

Then I received a message from my cousin saying that she had found a “no-frills” cremation service that perhaps would be a more affordable option for me. And it was. Not that I wasn’t prepared to spend whatever I had to, but it became more and more clear that cremation was going to be the best option. And the most frugal. After all, I do have five children, a newly launched business venture and a roof that needs mending, and seeing how the family wasn’t opposed to cremation (though more and more Jews are opting for it), this was going to be the best solution.

Arnold’s sister agreed to signing the necessary papers to claim his remains from the medical examiner’s office and have them transferred to the cremation facility. She also took care of having the required documents notarized. Now all that had to be done was to submit the paperwork and for me to settle the payment.

About two weeks ago, I received another update from my cousin.

She told me that her mother had decided to make a contribution towards her brother’s cremation. I was delighted on all accounts; this would not only reduce my own costs, but it meant including someone from Arnold’s immediate family becoming directly involved in the process. And it’s the process that I feel is infinitely more important than the money. Infinitely more.

That’s what we, in English, call Dutch Treat.

Now to clarify, it just so happens that I live in the Netherlands, where the Dutch do not and have never used this phrase. Wikipedia suggests that the phrase “going Dutch” or “Dutch treat” originates from the concept of a Dutch door, with an upper and lower half that can be opened independently.

And there have certainly been a good share of doors opening and closing lately.

I am grateful to my cousin and my aunt for joining me in this emotional and strangely unexpected experience; and it’s not only about the money, but about taking responsibility, even more so, fulfilling a moral obligation to providing a dignified end to the life of our (biological) father, brother and uncle.

Whether we feel in our hearts he deserves one or not.

Part 15: Payment in Full

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September 19, 2018. Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews from all walks of life fast for 24 hours, ask forgiveness for their sins and from all those they may have wronged. It’s also on this solemn day when God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life.

For me, I spent this holy day making the final arrangements for Arnold.

I sent an email to Colton, who has been handling matters for my cousin and I at the cremation center just outside of Chicago, after not having had any response from emails sent earlier in the week. I finally decided to pick up the phone and call him.

When he informed me that he had not been successful in reaching my aunt by telephone to make arrangements to receive the portion of the fees she had agreed to pay, I told him that we should just go ahead and that I would make the payment in full and settle accounts with my aunt at a later date. I wanted to be sure that I would fulfill my commitment to Rebeca at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office to have all of the arrangements sorted out by the 20th, ten days after the 30-day holding period which she kindly extended upon my request, giving me some extra time to weigh my options.

Last known photo of Arnold, c. 1970s.

Colton walked me through the online process and confirmed that my payment transaction had been approved. He told me they might collect Arnold as early as tomorrow, and if not it would be one day this week. He said the other paperwork that’s involved could take seven to ten days and when everything was finalized, Arnold would be cremated, his remains handed over to my cousin.

There was also the matter of Arnold’s death certificate to be decided upon.

Colton gave me two choices. One, to receive a provisional death certificate providing general details and turned over following the cremation.

 

The second option—the one I chose—was to have the official death certificate which includes the cause of death and the official signature and seal of the county medical examiner. I was led to believe that an autopsy would also be performed.

Now that payment in full has been remitted, I imagined the next time I heard from Colton would be once Arnold’s cremation has been performed.

I had the notion that I would feel a sense of closure once I made the decision to pay for Arnold’s final arrangements. However, that didn’t actually happen. Then, I thought, perhaps, it would come at the moment my credit card payment was accepted. But it did not. The obvious suspicion was that it would come with Colton’s next email, though if I were to have been be brutally honest with myself, I supposed there may never be closure.

In fact, I’d been spending a good amount of time pondering whether or not I would ever have closure. But you see, closure, in and of itself, would suggest that there was some preceding event, something prior to closure. But in my case, there was nothing; no memories, no attachment, just a lifetime of wondering why I wasn’t special enough for him to stay.

Part 16: Waiting (Again)

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It had been two weeks since remitting payment for Arnold’s cremation and I had yet to hear from Colton, who was my contact at Illinois Cremation Centers.

I imagined by that time, Arnold's body had been transferred from the Cook County Coroner’s Office to ICC’s Lombard facility about 45-minutes west of Chicago.

Those few weeks had been replete with emotions as I continued to correspond with my three newfound cousins, two of which are first cousins once removed—daughters of two of Arnold’s father’s brothers, Joseph and Donald.

The pictures that these women—now in their sixties—painted of their fathers and the Sandman family were quite disconcerting, to say the least.

It seemed that Arnold’s uncles were hard living, hard drinking, heavy smoking men who—as portrayed by some of their daughters—were also womanizers and alleged sexual predators. At least three of the five brothers —Paul, Donald and Lawrence (Arnold’s father)—died young as a result of their detrimental lifestyles.

Arnold in his late teens.

I’d tried imagining the scene of Arnold’s body being claimed at the county morgue, his remains collected by someone who looks at the task as merely just another routine day at the office. Familiar greetings, coffee offered, paperwork exchanged and a van loaded in some discreet backlot surrounded by a chain-link fence and a boom gate that is raised and lowered dozens of times a day as the dead are taken in and out of the facility.

I was still uncertain if and when an autopsy would be performed and curious to know the results. It was hard for me not being able to imagine Arnold atop of the coroner’s table being sliced open and examined like I’d grown accustomed to seeing on so many of these police series on television, some whose graphic details of autopsies seem terribly lifelike…or deathlike.

It had been nearly two months since Arnold’s passing and the story—in many ways—was still unfolding. For the first time in my life I was starting to feel something for this man, this stranger, this unknown figment of my imagination. And in a way, I was in mourning though not exactly sure what or who I am mourning. I did feel a great loss, and did feel forlorn, but I suppose those feelings were merely reminiscent of those I had harbored for Arnold all of my life.

Part 17: Ashes to Ashes

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It’s done.

Your earthly body is no more; what remained of you—your skin, hair, bones and vital organs—have been burnt at a temperature of around 900 degrees Celsius for two to three hours, reducing what was once a thriving human body to less than four kilograms of ash and fragmented bone.

I want you to know that cremation wasn’t my preferred method concerning your final arrangements. It was purely a decision made based upon financial considerations.

You see, your son—the one you abandoned, the one you never knew, the one you never bounced on your knee or threw a baseball to—has five children of his own. Five children whose first-year university fees were due the week of your death; five children whose swimming lessons, new clothes and school supplies needing remitting.

 

And then there’s my new business—a barbershop that I recently opened in The Hague, far away in the Netherlands. There was a barber’s chair to buy, plumbing to install and a thousand dollars of supplies to acquire.

 

And my second bowtie collection will launch in November.

Arnold as a young boy in the early 1940s.

Then there’s my bespoke liqueur to be produced, bottled and labeled; handmade soap and my own brand of men’s grooming products—so quite a few expenses to cover.

 

In fact, your untimely, unexpected death—and the fact that you left no next of kin eager to pay for you to have a proper Jewish burial—became an added and unwelcome expense, though I am grateful to your sister’s family who came through at the eleventh hour to pitch in a generous portion of the cremation costs.

But not to worry, I did what I felt needed to be done. I did it out of compassion, and out of the mere humanity that seems to be becoming more and more ossified in the world today.

But more important, I did it because you were a father—a role that you never acknowledged or assumed. You were the father of three children who never got to know you; a father who never even saw a photograph of his five beautiful grandchildren (and who knows, there may have been even more); a father who I have always wondered if he ever even confessed to having been a father, to friends or acquaintances; a father who was never a father but who, nonetheless—deserving or not—should be delivered to the afterlife with the honor of a father, with the respect and dignity of a father, and with the humble, sincere and genteel desire that his soul will be loved, cared for and protected by his heavenly father.

Part 18: Natural Causes

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Organic Cardiovascular DiseaseIt sounds so, well, so organic.

Arnold had been gone six months, and there were times when I reflected heavily on his passing.

While I never knew him, he had been a part of my life and there wasn't a day when—in some form or another—I haven’t thought about him.

The pain and consternation that he caused my family—especially my mother—all those years ago, pale the dismay and curiosity I carried around for more than fifty years of wondering if this man ever once thought about me, his firstborn child.

And when we spoke by telephone on those two brief occasions back in September 2002, it seemed as if he had never left. “It’s your dad, Arnold Sandman,” he said with robust familiarity. But that was the first time I’d ever heard his voice, and a week later would be the last.

His decomposing body was found by the Des Plaines (Illinois) Police Department on August 10, 2018 after neighbors called requesting a wellness check on apartment 303. The medical examiner’s office said he may have been dead for up to ten days prior to that.

I don’t regret never meeting him and I don’t regret not speaking with him again, although I must admit that I did call his (disconnected) phone number on a few occasions—mainly to see if I could find out any more details that might help me find the two daughters—my two half-sisters—that he had with two different women in the years after I was born.

His death certificate says he died of natural causes, which in and of itself is unremarkable. But what about his life? I had always wondered — and will continue to wonder—what were the natural causes of his existence? What did he do every day? Who did he see and talk to? And about what?

I was told once he had breakfast at the same diner on Pulaski Road every day; that he got a new car every year; that he walked with a cane and suffered for years from rheumatism. I suppose that actually told me quite a bit.

If there had been any regret, it was that I was unable to get any photos or mementos from his apartment, the apartment where he took his last breath and died. The apartment where so many last things occurred; his last glance out of his window to the living world outside; the last thing he read, ate, drank, saw on TV; perhaps a newspaper, book or magazine—an electricity bill—; a toothbrush, hairbrush, hand towel—common accoutrements of his daily life.

So, I would continue to ponder the nature of his existence and wonder whether his life was as natural of a cause as his death; or merely a consequence of his being.

Part 19: Here's Where the Story Ends

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It had been nearly a year since I received the news of Arnold’s passing, a year filled with reflection and one that brought many new people into my life; people I’d never known but with whom I shared an indubitable bloodline.

Arnold’s niece—my first cousin Marne was the first of about half a dozen Sandman family relatives I began corresponding with during the summer and autumn of 2018 and has been a confidant of sorts, providing me with information, photos and details of her knowledge about our family.

It was Marne—just weeks after we met on Facebook for the first time—who wrote to me while sitting in the grandstands at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs play, to tell me she had just received word that Arnold had died, his decomposing body found by police after neighbors summoned them for a wellness check in the apartment complex where he had been living for about a year in Des Plaines, Illinois.

Over the next few weeks, Marne was instrumental in helping me sort out the arrangements for Arnold’s cremation, the cost of which I shared with Marne’s mother, Arnold’s younger sister Sharlene.

The plan had always been to scatter Arnold’s remains at the resting place of his parents—my and Marne grandparent’s, Ann and Larry Sandman—and Marne had expressed her desire for me to be involved (vitually) in that event which would take the form of an informal ceremony at the gravesite.

Photo (from left to right): Uncle Izzy's daughter Mallory, my first cousin Marne, Arnold's sister Sharlene, Marne's daughter Blake, aunt Molly, cousin Marlene.

A couple of weeks ago, Marne wrote to me to say they had chosen a date for the ceremony and asked if I would still consider being a part of it.

I knew very early on that I wouldn’t want to take part in the ceremony and at the same time felt bad about telling Marne, not wanting to sound unappreciative of the effort that she was making to see that Arnold’s final send off would be a dignified and sincere undertaking.

Once the date was confirmed, Marne wrote to me with the details and to ask one last time if I would re-consider joining her, her mother, husband, daughter and a few of Arnold’s other relatives via FaceTime. I politely declined and Marne’s response was—as she had been from the very start of our relationship—cordial and considerate.

I came home from the barbershop that Sunday evening after an unexpectedly busy day to find this message from Marne:

“Hi Richard!! It is done. Arnold is now in his final resting place and is with his parents. It is a beautiful day and was a perfect and appropriate service. We mentioned you, we each said a few words and said the prayers. Sending lots of love from all of your cousins!!! WE LOVE YOU!!!”

So, while Arnold’s story is over, for me, the journey continues, one that I hope in time will provide some closure and deeper insights into a part of my own story that has—for a lifetime—remained a mystery and a constant thread of intrigue and curiosity.

Ashes.jpg

Arnold's final resting place; his ashes scattered at the headstones of his parents. July 28, 2019.

Part 20: Epilogue

It's been more than eighteen months since Arnold's remains were scattered near his parent's headstones at a Jewish cemetery outside of Chicago.

It's also been more than a year since my communication with Arnold's family began to wane to the point that I rarely hear from anyone outside of an occasional like or comment on a social media post.

But I say that without any resentment whatsoever, as I anticipated from the start that the newfound relationships forged during that emotionally overwhelming year would eventually subside.

What cannot diminish, after all, is the reality of what brought us together in the first place after more than fifty years.

I am grateful having encountered these women—my cousins and aunts—and the stories, photos, memories and insights they have shared. These connections were life-altering and will be cherished with fondness for the rest of my days.

In one final reflection about Arnold and the void he left in my life when he left my life (twice in my life!), after reading the preceding short paragraph, I was reminded of the interesting role that men have played in this story, more precise would be to say the role they didn't play.

And it's one that has burdened me greatly since childhood and continues to be one of the sad realities of my life even to this day.

In an earlier essay herein, I mention the tension that existed between my brother and I after I moved to Spain in 1996. Sadly, that relationship has never mended and today there is hardly any semblance of a relationship to speak of. I reached out to him about a year ago and he did not reciprocate. Sadder still, is that I speak to my parents via FaceTime some three or four times a week—many times in the very presence of my brother, who moved back home some years ago to help care for our father who suffers from Parkinson's Disease—and he never once says as much as a hello or demonstrates any desire whatsoever to reach out to the five nieces and nephew he has never known.

And perhaps an even deeper personal tragedy is one I have only spoken about to my mother.

One year ago, at the on onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I called my son and daughter in Spain to see how they were getting along with the new restrictions imposed by the Spanish government.

It was a call like any other I would make—often daily—to my older children, and while I wouldn't speak to my daughter as frequently, there was hardly a day gone by when I would not talk to my son. Ours seemed to be an infrangible connection, an unbreakable bond as sure and steady as the sun and stars.

Aaron and me 1999.jpg

And one day, a day just like any other day, we spoke about this and that and said goodbye and haven't said a word to each other since then.

Just like that.

There were no harsh words, and rarely—if almost never—were there. No hostilities, nothing that would ever in a million years lead me to believe we would never speak again. But we didn't. And we haven't.

Now, some may say you're the father, you should be the one to call your children.

Others say that children have an obligation of biblical proportions to "honor thy mother and father."

And I have found it funny over the years during moments in my life where I have gone silent for a few days, weeks or months due to whatever torments and troubles were weighing heavy on my mind, that I'd been told to call my mother because that's what a son does, and in the same breath I'm told to call my children because that's what a father does! 

My son and I. Valencia,1999.

The no-win predicament, the Catch-22, the Mexican standoff of being someone's parent and someone's child...

I have some "conspiracy-style" theories as to why my son one day decided to take leave from my life, but in the end, the pain I allowed to overcome my sensibilities has all but left me indifferent and desensitized. And it's a big hurt. A hurt with a capital H. A bold H. An italicized H. A hurt, I feel sadly enough, that time or words or circumstance will never mend; one I feel (and fear) that even reconciliation could never fully remedy and restore.

 

This is where I've arrived. And this is where Arnold's story ends. This is where the stories of abandonment and betrayal and disillusionment will remain as cautionary tales for the rest of my life.