Monday, September 25, 1972. I was 18 years old. It was the beginning of the fall term at Penn State, where I was beginning my sophomore year. My grandmother — my mother’s 79-year-old, cancer-stricken mother — died at her home that morning. She had suffered from colon cancer for more than a year. My mother had brought her bed down to the dining room of her house where she had settled in months earlier.
Incidental note: When the 83-year-old Sigmund Freud was dying of cancer in 1939, he had his bed moved down to the living quarters of his house in London so that he could gaze out onto the garden. He loved that garden! He died on September 23, 1939 in London, an exile from Nazi-occupied Vienna. I remember during the summer of 1972 I had read a magazine article about Max Schur’s newly-published book titled Freud: Living and Dying. Max Schur, M.D. had been Freud’s physician and administered euthanasia. It was in September 1972 that I purchased an anthology of a selection of Freud’s nonclinical essays, Character and Culture, so Freud was on my mind in that time period.
My only memory of September 25, 1972 is coming home at about 6:00 PM, my father in the kitchen, alone. My mother was away; I suppose she was tending to issues surrounding her mother’s death. My father’s first words to me at the kitchen sink were “Did you hear the news? Grand mom died.” My father hated his mother-in-law. His reaction to her death didn’t surprise me.
Recently, I jogged my memory for any memories of Sunday, the 24th, the previous day. I recalled being alone with my father in the evening. My mother was probably with her mother whose condition was deteriorating. My father and I watched TV at our house. I remembered it was a movie starring the actor Jack Lemmon. What was the movie title? What was it about? I couldn’t recall. I know it was a comedy. I laughed furiously. I found the movie unbelievably funny. I could remember only two things: a scene in Central Park with Jack Lemmon and his wife (portrayed by Sandy Dennis) as visitors to New York. I Googled “movie + Central Park + comedy — Lemmon” and came up with Neil Simon’s 1970 comedy, The Out of Towners, which follows the adventures of a married couple as they are vexed by misfortune while in New York City for a job interview. I thought, “That’s it! That’s the movie!” I confirmed by checking the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday edition television page, which included a listing: “ABC Movie, The Out of Towners, 9:00 PM.” So I had to have watched television on Sunday evening between 9:00 PM and 11:00 PM on the 24th. Then my next recollection is standing in the kitchen the following day and my father telling me that my grandmother had died earlier that morning.
My next recollection is my grandmother’s church funeral on Thursday, September 28, 1972. It was raining lightly. I recall carrying an umbrella. As we left the church after the service, my mother — noticing the sun was coming out — said to the priest as he walked us to the limousine, “Maybe that’s a good sign.” The priest replied, “Yes, it is a good sign.”
That afternoon, my sister, who had taken the day off from teaching to attend the funeral, drove me to the Penn State Abington campus. I had to take care of an administrative matter. I was dropping the section of the Public Speaking course I had signed up for and registering for a different section of the course, taught by one Stanley Cutler.
Stanley was the name of my grandmother’s husband (my grandfather) who died in the 1918 swine flu pandemic. My grandmother had emigrated in 1910 from Poland to the United States at age eighteen and had no contact with her family again. She had no relatives in the United States. She spoke broken English when I knew her in old age and my father used to ask rhetorically, “how can a person live in a country for fifty years and never learn the language?” My grandmother’s husband, a coal miner, who brought her to the United States, died when she was twenty-six, leaving her in poverty with two young children in the years before social welfare programs. All my grandmother’s tribulations in the U.S. appeared to begin with Stanley’s death, upon whom she had apparently been dependent. What must the sleepless nights of such a person be like? What occupied her thoughts? Did she have nostalgic feelings for her homeland? Did she ever wish to return? Did she ever think, “How am I going to get back home?”
Was The Out of Towners a symbolic reference in my mind to my grandmother’s tortured status as an out-of-place Polish immigrant who never acculturated? Did I view my grandmother as a symbolic out-of-towner? Who knows? But why did I remember that movie from the evening before my grandmother’s death?
On the afternoon of the 28th, following my grandmother’s morning funeral service, I met with the Penn State Public Speaking instructor whose course I was dropping. I had signed up for an appointment on his office door. When I presented myself as Gary Freedman, the instructor (whose name I no longer recall) said good-naturedly, “So you’re Gary Freedman! I had no idea why somebody named Gary Freedman would want to see me.”
A coincidence: In the fall of 1972 at Penn State I had a choice between the campus’s two male speech instructors, one of whom was named Stanley. (Public Speaking is a requirement at Penn State). I chose Stanley. Stanley Cutler. The odd thing is that that was only the first time in my life that I was given a choice between two men, one of whom was named Stanley. It happened a second time. In November 1989, Albert Rothenberg, M.D. gave me two referrals to Washington, DC psychiatrists, one of whom was Stanley Palombo, M.D. Again, as in September 1972, I chose the man named Stanley. Stanley Palombo – the same given name as my grandfather, my mother’s father, who died when my mother was three years old.