By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Looking back at old photos of a rail-thin Helen, with her dark eyes, fleshy lips, and a cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth, you can see why my mother describes her as a "sexpot." Paul, on the other hand, who was six years her senior, bore all the trappings of a 1950s vintage dweeb: Vitalis hair parted on the side, thick glasses pushed against a pudgy, round face, and an ever-present tie.
Born in Yorkville in 1932, Paul, too, was affected by the war. When he was 11, his father got drafted, and, since his mother had to work 12-hour days, she sent him to live with his grandmother in New Jersey. It didn't work out, so in less than a year, he was back home. When the war ended, his father moved the family to a place in Stamford, Connecticut, but continued working in the city. Paul graduated from high school in 1950, and though he longed to join the army, he was rejected several times: "When they accept people with flat feet and seeing-eye dogs, I'm in," he used to tell his daughter, Julie. It's not a surprise that he developed a fascination with military history and war, amassing hundreds of books as well as a collection of knives and, yes, a couple of firearms. He graduated from Columbia University School of Pharmacy in 1954.
Paul and Helen met in the summer of 1957 at Dichter Pharmacy in Inwood, where he was working. They started dating in September and married the following April in a hall on the Grand Concourse. When Julie, my cousin, was born three years later, Helen, who had already stopped talking to her parents, informed them by mailing them a birth announcement.
Soon afterward, Helen cut off my mother and Rene. (Their photos are conspicuously absent from the wedding album.) No one in the family can say why she did it, but, as Helen used to tell Julie whenever she came home crying after a disagreement with one of her friends, "I told you so—you can't trust anyone. It's not worth having friends. They'll hurt you in the end." The same, apparently, went for family members.
When I came along in December 1959, my aunt and uncle were already out of the picture.
It wasn't until 1974, when I was 14 years old, that the two of them first laid eyes on me—at a rare appearance at my grandfather's (Helen's father's) funeral. Another decade would pass before the next encounter—at a 60th birthday party my mother threw for her oldest sister, Evelyn. But even during the 10 years that followed, when they were "speaking" to my immediate family, months would pass without us hearing from them.
The final brushoff came after Rene made a plan to host Helen's 50th birthday party. While the whole family waited, it soon became apparent that the Weinsteins weren't going to show.
According to my dad, "Helen once made a statement that they can't have a relationship with the family, because we demand too much of their time. She never really said anything and just changed her telephone number." Like a passing thunderstorm, the Weinsteins were gone.
For my mother, Helen's death brought no tears: "I was shell-shocked that he could have done that to her, but I did not cry when I heard about it," she says. "The way she died bothered me more than the fact that she did die. Looking back, I would admit that one of the reasons I did not carry on—crying, as one might expect in a case like this—was because of all the hurt Helen and Paul caused their daughter."
Of the four sisters, Helen was the youngest and closest in age to my mother. But that mattered little in a relationship tainted early on by jealousy and petty grievances. ("Each time I brought a boy home, she disappeared in her bedroom and came out with short shorts on," my mother says.) Soon afterward, when my mother got married at 23, Helen disappeared for the next 14 years. The last time my mother saw her sister was nearly 25 years ago.
Rene, who had even less contact with Helen than my mother did, seemed to take the news harder: "Even though she didn't want to talk to anybody, I was very, very upset," she told me. "I don't know what to say—there's no words for it. And yesterday was her birthday. You know what I did? I lit a candle for her. I had a bad day yesterday."
The only sister who maintained contact with the Weinsteins after they got married was the oldest, Evelyn, who is now 85. She was also the most distraught over the news. "When your parents came to tell me, my mouth went open, and I nearly choked because I was so shocked. I push myself to go out so I shouldn't think of things. Because outside, I won't cry, especially if I don't have my sunglasses with me," she says with a modified Cockney accent.
For several years, Evelyn lived in the same Washington Heights housing complex as the Weinsteins. And though she served as a kind of surrogate mother for Julie, her relationship with the couple had about as much depth as a piece of Saran Wrap.