By Cheryl Ross
When the phone rang, Claire Agger was reading the book assigned by her book club–The Hours, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel that begins with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in the river Ouse. The caller identified herself to Claire as a TV reporter, and she said that two bodies had just been found in Montrose Harbor. Claire’s phone number had been found in a red Buick parked nearby. Did she know the license plate? “GS5730,” recited Claire, who explained that the plate combined her stepfather’s initials and her mother’s old address. You’ll be hearing from detectives, the reporter said.
Claire could hardly feel the phone. She wondered, “Could it be?”
The past few years had been very hard ones for Gus and Julia Stein, and Claire had heard Julia discuss ways of ending her life. As Claire understood the subject, people who talked about killing themselves didn’t really want to do it but were crying out for help.
The phone rang again and a police officer broke into Claire’s thoughts. He apologized for the fact that the media had called first. She assured him that the reporter had been nice. Then he told her Gus and Julia had drowned.
At dusk on May 1 of this year, Gustave Stein, 89, and Julia Stein, 93, plunged to their deaths. They fell six feet, into Montrose Harbor’s chilly water.
Julia Farkas’s family had owned a flour mill in Hungary that burned down during World War I, driving her parents first to Budapest and then to New York City. Julia, the youngest child, was left behind with a married sister until money could be raised for her passage, and in 1921 the 14-year-old girl’s ship docked at Ellis Island. Soon she was working long hours cleaning a New York City apartment building where her parents worked. She quickly picked up English from the tenants, and she graduated from high school with excellent grades and a reputation as a bookworm. In 1924, the year the family moved to Chicago, she met and married 30-year-old Steven Chulay. She was 17.
They soon shared a frame house at 5730 W. Windsor with Steve’s brother and his wife; Steve’s sister and her husband lived next door in a brick two-flat. The entire block in Jefferson Park was heavily Hungarian. Steve made machine tools and templates and worked ten-hour days six days a week. Meanwhile, Julia and her sisters-in-law were filling their homes with the aromas of Hungary. From their hands came chicken paprikas, strudel dough stretched until it was transparent, flourless walnut tortes, and plum dumplings.
Claire was born in 1926, when her mother was 19. She grew up surrounded by Hungarian ceramics, wall hangings, and vases, most of it red, her mother’s favorite color. She remembers parents, aunts, uncles, and friends speaking in Hungarian about books, food, and workers’ rights. Claire didn’t learn English until she began school.
Her father, Steve Chulay, tried to organize unions wherever he worked, and his employers were not forgiving. He came home a couple of times during the Depression with his toolbox in hand–the sign he’d been fired. Julia wasn’t working either. A penny was “a big piece of change” in the Chulay house, and vegetables prospering in the backyard were reason for celebration.
Steve’s frequent unemployment and a new son, Steven John, who had not been planned prompted Julia to scrape up spare change and earn a beautician’s license. In 1935 a family friend who was a carpenter converted a bedroom on 5730’s first floor into the Windsor Beauty Shop. Julia liked to take two customers at a time, generally in the afternoons and evenings because she wasn’t a morning person. As they sat under her dryers, Julia, who never lost what some family members call a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent, dispensed coffee, pastries, and socialist politics. Her family urged her to raise her prices, but she refused. They’re working people, she replied.
After graduating from high school in 1944, Claire enrolled concurrently at a junior college and at Selan’s, a beauty school–her mother believed a beautician’s license was something she could always fall back on. In September Claire transferred to the University of Illinois. A beautician’s license came first, a master’s in biology in 1949. That same year she married a fellow student, Calvin Agger. Steve’s brother and his wife had moved into their own home by then, so Claire and Cal took over the top floor at 5730 W. Windsor.
Claire taught high school science in Franklin Park until 1952, when Craig, her first child, was born. Cal worked in engineering sales and Claire pitched in at the beauty shop whenever her mom and dad took a vacation. By the late 1950s Claire and Cal had added two daughters, Catherine and Carol; Julia and Steve moved upstairs at Julia’s insistence, and Claire’s family took over the more spacious first floor.
Cal’s parents lived on a farm in northern Illinois, and that’s where the three Agger kids spent their weekends and summers, milking cows and riding horses. What they remember from Windsor Avenue is their grandmother, over the paprikas and barley pasta, arguing workers’ rights with their father. They remember her telling them stories about Hungary, preaching women’s rights to them, and explaining that one reason she’d left the Catholic Church was its position on birth control. They remember the books she loved to read–Kipling, Tolstoy, Shakespeare.
In 1966 the Aggers moved to a two-story house in Northfield. A year later, 73-year-old Steve Chulay, who’d long been suffering from Hodgkin’s disease and arthritis, died of a heart attack at home.
In 1975 Julia Chulay attended the memorial service for her friend Ilonka “Helen” Stein. Julia and Steve and Helen and her husband, Gustave–all of them Hungarian-American–had known one another for more than 30 years. An only child, Gus was born Geza Stein in 1911 in Budapest. Ten years later his family came to America and settled in Chicago, where he went to work as a caddy in Jackson Park. After graduating from Lane Tech, Gus began making diamond tools, a trade he continued through the Depression. In the 1930s he married Helen, whose son Laszlo, from a previous marriage, he eventually adopted. When the war broke out, his job saved him from conscription. After the war he became a maintenance worker, and at age 62 he started driving a passenger van that serviced O’Hare.
When Helen became ill she told her husband to remarry if she died. Specifically, family legend goes, she suggested he marry “someone like Julia Chulay.” The nature of the courtship varies with the teller. In a version told by her granddaughter Carol Peck, Julia pursued Gus and won his heart with her cooking. Julia’s granddaughter Catherine Gallagher says Gus did the pursuing, while Julia confided to her family that “all he wants is someone to do his laundry.” But she told Claire that she enjoyed dating Gus “because there are no skeletons in the closet–I’ve known him for so long.”
Five months after Helen died, Gus and Julia married. After 50 years at 5730 W. Windsor, where she still operated her shop, Julia had no intention of leaving. So Gus reluctantly put his Skokie home on the market.
Gus, like Julia, was born a Catholic. But he never seemed particularly religious, and she said outright she didn’t believe in God. They married in Wilmette’s Baha’i House of Worship on January 11, 1976, a 64-year-old man and 68-year-old woman beginning a new life together. Claire read from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea. Carol Peck performed Bach, Bizet, and Handel on the flute. Laszlo Stein recited Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love.”
Julia wore a bluish green dress belted tight, her brown hair short and curled. She looked more like 50 than 68. Gus wore a navy blue suit with a white carnation in its lapel. “Julia and I have chosen to marry because we belong not only to each other but with each other,” he said. “We wish happiness for ourselves. I will be gentle, understanding, and loving. We have been blessed with much love, and the capacity to share it. All the joys of growing together await us in the years to come.”
“Look to this day, for it is life, in its brief course, like all the realities and truth of existence, the joy of growth, the splendor of action, the glory of power,” Julia said. “For yesterday is but a memory and tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope….Love is the greatest thing in the world. It is the light that guides us in the darkness. It can never be captured. It is alive, free, thrilling, and always moving and beautiful.”
So many of Julia’s customers had moved away or died that running her shop was by now more or less something to do. Gus went to work for a savings and loan that was near enough to walk to. Julia liked to sleep late, and Gus tried to have coffee and breakfast ready for her when she woke.
On Wednesdays neither worked. That’s when they ran errands, shopped, and cooked. Gus ground the nuts for Julia’s walnut torte, beat the butter, checked the timer. They wandered through their neighborhood. They often attended the Goodman Theatre, and several times they traveled back to Hungary, where there were old friends and distant relations to visit, and the country’s famous medicinal waters.
In 1986 Julia, who was 79, began complaining of pain in one arm and shortness of breath. Doctors performed angioplasty and she went back to her routine. In 1988 her son Steven, an engineer in San Francisco, died of cancer. The family says Julia never fully recovered from her grief.
Her body began to afflict her. Her back and knees ached. It became difficult to bend over, or to shampoo hair, or to get around. Eventually, staying on her feet for long became a challenge. Osteoporosis had moved in. In 1990 Julia’s salon, the block’s 55-year-old beacon of beauty, closed.
Gus had been a Mr. Fix-It kind of guy. But while changing a lightbulb in 1996, he fell off his ladder and cracked some ribs. After that he couldn’t keep up his old pace. Gus had never been talkative, but the family had counted on his sense of humor. Now he was seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants.
So was Julia. At the age of 89 she’d shriveled from 5-foot-1 to 4-foot-11. At Claire’s urging she tried acupuncture, but halfway through the program she dropped out because she didn’t think it was helping her. She could no longer cook and Gus didn’t know how, so they tried Meals on Wheels but soon canceled the service. A Hungarian neighbor agreed to cook traditional meals for them, but that didn’t last either. Claire began bringing them soup from her home in Northfield, but the Steins tired of it. Their family suggested restaurants, but the Steins didn’t like eating out. Nothing seemed to please them.
The house Julia had kept neat as a pin for 70 years was collecting dust. Claire offered to hire a service but the Steins refused it. They believed they could still keep house, though they did hire help for the yard. The seven steps leading up to the front porch were a mountain, and longer still was the staircase down to the washer and dryer in the basement. Julia struggled down those steps on Gus’s arm and they did the laundry together. When Craig Agger visited their home, he was haunted by the thought of his grandmother losing her footing and falling in a heap on the basement floor. By 1998 Julia was using a walker and Gus was doing the laundry alone.
She began to talk of going back to Hungary “one more time” and moving into a retirement home there. Prodded by Claire, she called a friend in Budapest and asked if the plan was feasible. Forget it, said the friend–our retirement homes are nowhere near as nice as yours.
Living with Claire and Cal in Northfield wasn’t an option. Their first floor had no bedrooms and no full bath. Claire suggested a retirement home. The Steins nixed the idea. Claire offered to hire home care. “What will we do?” Gus asked. “Have them sitting all day looking at us?”
Finally Claire laid it on the line. If Julia and Gus wouldn’t move for their own sakes, would they please do it for a family that was worried sick? Reluctantly, the Steins agreed. Claire and Cal drove them around to half a dozen retirement homes and the Steins managed to find something wrong with all but one. When the time to move into the one acceptable home approached, they backed out.
Julia had shocked Claire during a 1997 visit to 5730 W. Windsor. Julia told her daughter that a couple of weeks earlier, she and Gus had started up the red Buick and sat inside it in their closed garage, inviting death. Claire alerted the family, and Julia’s granddaughter Catherine Gallagher, living in North Carolina, decided to make a point of calling and writing her grandmother more frequently. Catherine recalls that Julia explained to her that she and Gus had decided “it was time,” but abandoned the car because it became so hot they thought it would explode.
“You’ve got each other,” Claire told Julia and Gus. “You can go anywhere you want with the car. You’ve got a loving family around you. Take a trip, go to California, do something, get out of here, change something.”
Julia was taking as many as ten pills a day for pain, high blood pressure, depression, and other ailments. Several months after telling her daughter that she and Gus had tried to asphyxiate themselves, Julia wrote Claire and Cal a note asking them to take care of her husband, then swallowed an overdose of warfarin, her blood-thinning medication. But she didn’t take enough of the drug to do herself harm.
In 1998 the Steins visited a Hungarian friend living at the Bethany Retirement Community at 4950 N. Ashland. More than a century old, Bethany offers a beauty salon, three meals a day, field trips, dancing, bingo, a library, and a 24-hour nursing staff. Residents can log in and out as they please. The Steins decided to move in. Claire had never heard of Bethany, but she was elated by the decision. As for the house on Windsor, she assured them that she’d keep it off the market for several months in case things didn’t work out.
On September 3, 1998, the moving van pulled up in front of the address Julia had called home for 72 years. Movers carried out a bed, a dresser, night stands, lamps, a couch, book shelves, a recliner, Hungarian vases and plates, and all of Julia’s favorite paintings. Julia and Gus took a long look at the red geraniums on the porch, the faux shutters that, years before, granddaughter Catherine had painted on the house and accented with a Hungarian folk motif of flowers, birds, and twining plants. Then Claire drove Julia, and Cal took Gus in the red Buick to their new one-bedroom apartment. Its five windows overlooked a manicured courtyard. Claire thought it cozy.
As Claire and Cal emptied out 5730 W. Windsor, inviting family members to take whatever they wanted and making wholesale donations to the Salvation Army and the Hungarian Baptist Church up the street, the Steins adjusted to their new home. Julia, always well coiffed and nicely dressed, pushed her walker down her hallway to exercise. She greeted her new neighbors with a smile and a compliment. Once she remarked on Harriet Andrews’s white blouse. “It radiates light to your face! It looks wonderful!”
“She’d notice something you were wearing or something about you and she’d compliment you no matter how frowsy or dumpy you felt,” Harriet says. “After she said that you were happy inside again.”
Julia made a good friend, Julia Banez, who was ten years younger. While Gus watched television, the two women played rummy in the Steins’ apartment. Often Julia had a Hungarian sweet to offer her friend.
Julia Banez’s husband had died in 1997. A diabetic, Banez was left alone in the six-room ranch house in Bridgeview she’d lived in for 30 years. Most of her old neighbors had moved out or died. Her son Robert urged her to move someplace where she could socialize. Banez cried, “No, I love my house!”
She was taking out the garbage when she fell and broke her ankle in three places. She needed a walker while she recovered. Infirmity and rising property taxes are what drove her out of her home, first to a neighbor’s boarding house and then to Robert’s house in the city. Because she could not negotiate the stairs by herself, the house imprisoned her until Robert came home from work.
Robert suggested Bethany. In 1998 she moved into a studio overlooking the courtyard. When a studio with a view of the street opened up because the man who had it died, Banez told the powers that be she wanted it. “When I’m dead I’ll be in dark enough,” she reasoned. “I want light.”
She loves Bethany. “Anything you want, if they can help you they’ll be here. For $10 a month we get our personal washing done. They finish our linen. They give you soap. They give you toilet paper. The food is very, very good.”
Harriet Andrews, a retired practical nurse, is an 86-year-old widow who suffers from arthritis and requires a walker. She’d lived nearly 40 years in a south-side bungalow until nieces found her a one-bedroom in Bethany. “I felt like I was put on a garbage dump, in a heap you know,” she says. “It’s the end of the line. You’re old, you’re here. You had to give up your home. You can’t handle it anymore.”
Claire taught biology at New Trier High School until 1986, and Cal retired from engineering sales in 1989. Then they began taking an annual winter vacation in Tucson. That’s where they were the morning when Julia Stein, not long at Bethany, woke to find she could barely see out of one eye. She’d had a small stroke.
Craig Agger always called his grandparents more frequently when his parents were away. Early last year, soon after her stroke, he phoned Julia to say hello. The conversation immediately took a dramatic turn. Julia told him she feared having a major stroke and becoming bedridden, helpless, and warehoused. (One of her brothers had died in a nursing home.) She’d done everything she’d wanted to do in life and she didn’t see the point of going on with it. She told him that she and Gus were now reading Derek Humphry’s Final Exit, which discusses a range of suicide methods, from drugs to suffocation with a plastic bag. She told Craig she and Gus wanted to be cremated.
Craig is a project manager for the Schaumburg office of ACNielsen. Sitting in his cubicle, he forced back tears and began to ramble. He told his grandmother he respected her wishes and might feel the same in her place. But don’t feel you have to do this, he said, because I’d miss you very much. I love you. It was wonderful growing up with you, living in your house when I was a child. Julia thanked him. She knew she could count on him, and she would be sending him material on a cremation society.
The conversation lasted half an hour. Craig’s eyes were wet as he retreated to the men’s room.
He invited Gus and Julia to his home in Glen Ellyn. He wanted them to see where he’d placed the Hungarian vases and plates he’d collected from Windsor Avenue. When it was time to go, Craig and Gus tried to help Julia down the three steps, each about a half-foot high, that led from the house. Though they held her hands the descent terrified Julia, and it was only after some 20 minutes of false starts that she reached the ground.
I don’t think we’ll ever be able to visit you again, she told Craig.
A young couple bought the home on Windsor Avenue and began to remodel it. Julia wanted to see how it looked. Claire knew it had been gutted. “Remember it the way it was,” she told her mother.
Julia spoke often to her granddaughter Catherine about killing herself, and sometimes there was panic in her voice–she feared becoming physically unable to carry out the act. Catherine told her to think of her life as a gift. “Isn’t there some way you can find to make every day enjoyable?”
By the summer of 1999 the Steins had stopped seeing their psychiatrist, though they still took antidepressants. In August Julia complained to Catherine over the phone that Gus had made a suicide “agreement” with her but was backing out. Julia said she didn’t think he cared enough for her anymore. Would Catherine drive her to Lake Michigan? Catherine, who was anguished by this sort of talk, explained that anyone assisting in a suicide could land in deep legal trouble. “If you really want to do this,” Catherine said, “you should call a taxicab.”
Julia hung up on her.
Julia had always loved to swim–Gus did not know how–and one day she asked Claire to buy her a swimsuit and take her to a pool. “Yes, and how are you going to get in and out of the pool?” asked Claire.
Julia was constantly bringing up swimming pools. Finally Claire told her mother to forget about trying to drown in a pool–the lifeguards wouldn’t let her. “I just want to go swimming, it’s good exercise,” Julia responded.
At Bethany the Steins were a couple in love. During musical activities they requested songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and kissed in front of their contemporaries. They even danced. Julia Banez, who likes to shake it up, took the fast dances with Gus, but he reserved the waltzes for his wife. Gus held Julia tight and gently swayed with her.
“He helped her with everything,” Banez recalls. “He pulled out the chair for her like a gentleman. He would sit her down. ‘Are you OK honey, are you all right?’ I wish I had a man like that in my life. Very loving guy. Very smart. But she was the boss. Anything she wanted, he was there for her.”
To Julia Banez, Julia Stein confided her fears and anger. If I lose my eyes I don’t want to live. My husband has to dress me, he has to bring me my food. What’s the point of living? I’m a burden on him. I can’t walk, I can’t write…
Banez told Julia that she would be there for her. “I just want to die,” Julia said. Gus then turned to Banez and announced, “I wish God would take me too. When my wife goes, I go.”
This January Gus passed the driving test and renewed his license. On the 11th of the same month he and Julia celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary. Julia turned 93 on January 20, and the next day Gus turned 89. Claire threw them a party at Bethany.
By this time the Steins were going to bed as early as 7 PM, though Julia required a sleeping pill to make it through the night. Life doesn’t interest me anymore, she told Claire.
When Claire and Cal came home from Tucson in April, Julia brought up the idea of asking some relatives if she could swim in their pool. Don’t even think about it, Claire told her. Julia mentioned that she and Gus had been talking about driving up to Wisconsin and then driving into Lake Geneva. Claire didn’t know how to respond. “Mother, you’ve got a lake just a mile away from here,” she answered absurdly. “What are you talking about, driving up for an hour and a half to go to Lake Geneva or someplace and get lost or whatever!”
That same month, Gus’s 70-year-old son Laszlo, who’d been director of the Siegel Clinic at Michael Reese Hospital for 25 years, was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage.
After a visit to her grandmother last summer, Catherine thought constantly about her. When they talked, her grandmother complained of blurred vision and constant back pain, of sometimes falling down as soon as she stood up. “If I were your dog,” she said, “you would take mercy on me and put me to sleep, wouldn’t you?”
Catherine promised her grandmother that if a stroke disabled her she would help her find a way to die. “It made her feel better to know I agreed with her train of thought,” Catherine says. She believes that the summers she spent close to nature on her paternal grandparents’ farm, as well as the lack of religion in her upbringing, have made her comfortable with life and death. Life ebbs and flows, she says, and “life without quality isn’t really living.”
Because her grandmother loved literature, Catherine liked to include selections of it in her frequent letters. This April she reminded Julia that she wasn’t the first to ask the question haunting her.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to…
In letters large enough to be read by Julia’s failing eyes, Catherine printed by hand Hamlet’s soliloquy in its entirety.
The last Saturday in April, Claire spent several hours at Bethany. She bought Julia a Dove bar and accompanied the Steins on a routine visit to the on-site doctor. On Sunday other relatives dropped by.
Monday was May 1. Gus and Julia had a lunch of cabbage rolls with rice and ordered spaghetti for Tuesday. As always, Julia was smiling, and as always Gus had little to say, though he seemed to be in a good mood. After lunch, Julia gave Julia Banez a cloth embroidered with red flowers. “You don’t have to give me anything, it’s not my birthday,” Banez said. Julia told her friend the cloth was a piece of typical Hungarian folk art, and she wanted her to have it because she loved her and wanted to be remembered by it. She told Julia Banez to take care and wished her much luck. “I always take care. You take care–never mind telling me,” Banez said.
“I’m going to take care,” Julia Stein told her friend. Then she waved a finger at her and said, “I am going to take care.”
What a peculiar thing to say, thought Banez. I am?
Julia and Gus skipped dinner, and without signing out took the Buick for a spin. It was dusk when Gus guided his tiny, bent wife down the grassy slope to Montrose Harbor. At about 8 PM their bodies were spotted floating facedown in the water. Police soon located the red Buick and the walker. They later found the copy of Final Exit in the Steins’ apartment, as well as an undated suicide note that Julia had written asking Claire and Cal to take care of Gus.
Claire had never thought they’d go through with it. Never.
The next morning, Harriet Andrews was puzzled by the glum silence in Bethany’s dining hall. She sang, “We’re all in our places with sunshiny faces.” A resident shot her a look. “Julia Stein died,” the woman said. A beat later she added, “Gus died too.” “On the same night?” asked Harriet. “They walked into the lake together,” the resident said.
Julia Banez had received a shot of insulin and was leaving the nurse’s office when she bumped into Harriet. Afterward, Banez couldn’t eat. She went to her room and hid the cloth Julia had given her. Looking at it filled her with horror.
Claire and Cal began calling the family. When Catherine heard the message Cal had left on her answering machine, she felt both astonishment and anguish. “I wish that I could have protected them from old age and death,” she would say later, crying. “I wish I could have been there, an angel to protect them. Just the thought of them going into that cold water–I guess it kind of made me feel helpless. Helpless and small.”
She called her mom and they consoled each other. “What a brave thing that was to do,” Catherine said. “I’m proud of Julia and Gus.”
Catherine’s words awoke Claire to her own feelings. She realized that she too honored their final act. “A lot of people think suicide is really a bad thing, a sin, whatever. I don’t feel that way,” she would say later. “It’s more of a sin to let people linger, to let people suffer, to let people vegetate not knowing anyone. Fortunately my mother–or maybe unfortunately my mother–was still alert and still bright and intelligent and she just didn’t want to end up that way. I respect that.”
As for Gus, Claire says that without Julia he would have been a lost man.
Claire and Cal collected the Steins’ possessions from Bethany and the Buick from the police pound. They called the Cremation Society of Illinois and made arrangements. On Monday morning, May 8, one week later, Claire and Cal and the wife and son of Claire’s late brother Steve came to the harbor with handfuls of red carnations. A young woman noticed them and asked if they were paying their respects to the couple who had died. I was their daughter, Claire replied. The woman said she’d seen an old man and woman get out of their car that Monday night, and she was struck by how carefully he had led her down the slope to a bench by the water’s edge. She watched them sit there holding hands, and then she’d gone on.
Claire broke the red flowers from their stems and tossed them into the water one by one. She sobbed as she watched them float.
When Craig spoke at the memorial service May 13 at the Hungarian Baptist Church, he told the mourners that his grandparents’ suicide was an act of courage. He later reflected on their deaths. “It was one of the least attractive things about being alive–having to die,” he said. He believed Julia repeatedly spoke of suicide to prepare the family, which is why he was stunned but not surprised by the news that she and Gus were dead. He was, in fact, relieved and he admired them. “There’s something to be said for doing things on our own terms instead of having everything forced upon you or just passively waiting for things to happen to you.”
The Steins had seen their children and their children’s children “for the most part thrive and succeed,” Craig said. They had witnessed nearly a century of change, “practically from before the invention of the airplane to the space shuttle.” They had lived long and well. “Nobody had been cheated out of anything, nobody missed out on anything. There were no what-ifs.”
Craig and his wife told their five- and nine-year-old children that their great- grandparents had died, but they didn’t say how. That will be revealed to them when they’re older. But Craig’s sister Carol explained to her six-year-old what happened. “I didn’t know of any reason why I shouldn’t be [honest],” Carol said. “She wouldn’t have any conceptions that suicide is a bad thing. It’s so far away from her. I tried to impress upon her that they were very old and had a full life.”
Claire and Cal have sold the red Buick. “Nobody in the family wanted it. It’s kind of an old man’s car,” Claire says and lets out a hearty laugh. “My daughter said, ‘Gee, if it was a cute little Volkswagen we’d store it somewhere [for our young children].’ You know, who wants a four-door sedan? Well, a woman my age bought it.”
In Suicide in America, Dr. Herbert Hendin wrote that “immigrants to the United States from countries like Austria and Germany that have high suicide rates tend to mirror the suicide rates of their country of origin.” He concluded from his research that “culture and character are even more critical than economic circumstances in determining suicide in older people.” He observed that “the choice of [suicide] method represents a convergence of cultural and personal significance.”
Hungary is blessed with medicinal baths, spas, and natural springs and burdened with–if that is the word–a suicide rate that might be the highest in the world. The cultural background sounds like an “interesting correlation,” Claire says, but she has no idea if it’s significant. She thinks Gus and her mother chose to drown because “after several failed attempts, this wouldn’t fail.”
Dying to preserve dignity is “a very European idea,” says Catherine, who believes her grandmother made a choice that one day she might make as well. “She had a lot of class, that woman. It was very important to her that she left this life with class.” Catherine believes the Steins chose a public death because Julia wanted old people with “no bright future” to consider suicide for themselves. “We’re not talking about a 30-year-old who is depressed,” she says. “We are talking about an elderly person for whom things are not going to get better next week, they are going to get worse. There are worse things than death.”
Julia Banez has retrieved the cloth Julia Stein gave her and placed it on an end table under a vase of artificial flowers. She is eating again, sleeping, playing bingo, chatting with friends in the dining hall. “I never knew love could be that strong,” she says. “I know my husband, if I was going to die, he wouldn’t give a damn [to] commit suicide with me. Hell no.” She laughs. Not that she’d ever do it. “I’m chicken,” she says, adding that of course she’s never been as sick as Julia.
Some might believe that even if Julia acted correctly Gus did not, for he could still have made something of the time left to him, perhaps attended to his son Laszlo, who would die himself on June 1. Their friend Harriet Andrews, a woman of faith and a churchgoer, disagrees. Neither of the Steins could have lived–or died–without the other. “I picture them hand in hand,” she says, “and assuring each other in the last seconds that it was all right to do what they were doing.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.