My father’s father, for whom I am named, arrived in this country from Lithuania around 1890. I always thought he came to Ellis Island, but I recently learned that Ellis Island only became an immigration station in 1892. Maybe he came to Castle Garden in New York, or perhaps he came directly to the Port of Boston (my father was born in Chelsea in 1891). Wherever my grandparents landed, a relative met them and asked, “What’s your name?” “Pollock,” my grandfather replied. The relative said “that’s not an American name” and told the customs inspector, “Their name is Steinfield.” My father told me this story many times, but he never explained why the relative insisted on changing the family’s name. Whatever the reason, that is the name they took with them to Claremont a few years later, and that is how I got my last name.
It hasn’t always been an easy name to have. People get the “e”s and the “i”s mixed up, or they just leave out the second “i.” I have been dealing with this all my life, most recently with the Internal Revenue Service, which sent me 2009 tax forms for someone named “Steinfeld.” I suppose I’ll have to pay anyway.
One time we were invited to a friend’s home for dinner, and the host’s young children were excited when they heard that I was coming. We arrived, and there they were sitting on the stairway, eyes filled with anticipation. I took off my coat and looked up to see two very disappointed children. They thought “Seinfeld” was coming.
Another time, a psychiatrist asked if I would speak at a meeting of women psychiatrists. They were interested in the subject of testifying in court as expert witnesses. I accepted the invitation, and at the appointed hour I arrived at the host’s home and was introduced to a group of about 30 doctors. I tried to sound like I knew what I was talking about, and then I asked if anyone had any questions. Several hands went up, and I managed to answer the first few questions without stumbling too badly. Than a doctor raised her hand and asked me to comment about a particular case.
I had no idea what she was talking about, so I turned to someone else who had a question. Well, that doctor was not so easily put off. She insisted that I answer her question about the case. I started to have that feeling you get when you know something has gone terribly wrong. Apparently thinking I needed to be reminded (lawyers call it “refreshing memory”), she said she was asking me about the case in Colorado in which a psychiatrist served as an expert witness and, by the time the case was over, ended up getting sued. The story was featured on the television show “Frontline,” but I hadn’t seen the program. I couldn’t just keep avoiding the question, so I told her that I still didn’t know about the case.
At that point the host, the doctor who had invited me, stood up and said, “Oh my God, I invited the wrong lawyer.” It seems that the Colorado case involved a lawyer of the same name, or almost. I think his name was “Steinfeld.”
Oh, by the way, my grandfather Joseph was known throughout his life as “Burt.”