Finding Father in ‘Souvenir’

After her father died in 1990, Louise Steinman found stacks of yellowing airmail envelopes inside a rusty ammunition box in his Fox Hills home. The letters, dated 1941-1945, were in Norman Steinman’s handwriting and addressed to his wife, Anne. In a sealed Manila envelope was a threadbare white silk flag, covered in Japanese characters, speckled with bloodlike drops. A translator explained this was a good-luck banner that had belonged to a soldier, Yoshio Shimizu, who would have worn it until he died.

On Father’s Day at the Skirball, Steinman, 52, will discuss how the unusual memento spurred her to write a gritty but lyrical memoir, "The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War." The process "was like getting to know a father I hadn’t met before," she said.

While Steinman was growing up Reform in Culver City, her father seemed unknowable. A taciturn, workaholic pharmacist, he never spoke of his combat experiences in the Pacific. But Asian food was banned from the house and his four children weren’t allowed to cry in front of him. "Reminds him of the war," his wife said.

While reading his wartime correspondence, Steinman encountered a romantic youth who was very different from that stern patriarch. She embarked on a 10-year journey to learn more about him, interviewing veterans, traveling to Manila to say "Kaddish" over his friends’ graves and to Japan to investigate the mysterious flag. While his letters do not reveal how he came to possess the souvenir, they express his bitter remorse at having taken it, Steinman said.

To help him posthumously make amends, she returned the banner to Shimizu’s family in 1995 — appropriately, on the first day of Passover.

"Like the Jewish holiday, it was all about welcoming the stranger," she said.

Writing "The Souvenir" helped make her father less of a stranger. "The war stole him away from me before I was born, but the book enabled me to spend quality time with him after he was gone," she said.

Steinman will be at the Skirball on Sunday, June 15 at 2:30 p.m. $5 (general) free (members and students). For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.