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How Carl Reiner Brought My Father’s Voice to Life

A cousin of the author's late father, the comic legend shared memories and family lore


When the comedic genius Carl Reiner died last month at the age of 98, I lost a part of my father I had never heard: His voice.

Carl was not my father, he was my father’s first cousin, my first cousin once removed he would remind me, delighting in the precision of that often misunderstood appellation.

Carl Reiner had been my closest relative, the last person alive who knew and remembered my father, Maxwell, who died of polio at the age of 34. I was two years old then and always an only child. The year was 1950.

My father died alone, I was told, quarantined. No doctor could be found to perform the tracheotomy that might have extended his life during one of the last surges of that disease, three years before the Salk, and then Sabin, vaccines would conquer it. The parallels with our current horror have not escaped me.

In ways only she could fathom and only she could suffer, my mother’s grief prevented her from telling me things about my father I should have known. She would write the word “deceased” on the elementary school forms that asked for my father’s name. I knew he was dead, but what about “deceased?” Was that something else, some other state of being that meant somehow, somewhere I could still find him?

I would dream, quite often, that I would see him, standing on the subway, in a fedora placed low over his face. Was that deceased?

Finding a Place in the Family

My mother’s grief also prevented her from reaching out to other Reiners on behalf of her fatherless son. So throughout my upbringing, other than my paternal grandfather, who was a heartbroken, impeccably stoic and stolid man, I didn’t know other Reiners, nor them me.

The entire family was a small one anyway, and never a close one, my grandfather would hint. His, an earlier generation, had seen its share of sibling rivalry, unspoken resentments and the other mysteries of shared blood. My father was also an only child, and one from a bitterly broken marriage. I never learned the nature of his relationship with the handful of people who shared his last name.

Each time I saw him, Carl would share with me family lore, and tell stories of the brilliant inventions that his father and my grandfather (who were not twins but looked as if they were) had patented.

When, in adulthood, I took it upon myself to make my existence known to the other Reiners, to Carl’s brother and his family, to the second cousins of my generation, and of course to Carl and his wife Estelle, I was met with open arms, if a bit of disbelief or bewilderment. Where had I been?

Yet over the years, despite the warmth of my newfound kin, I was unable to embrace the family my last name had delivered to me, despite my cavernous need. Had my mother’s grief taken its toll on me? I would disappear from my family, re-emerge and disappear again. The question repeated itself. Where had I been?

Then, late in our lives, my wife and I had a son, who we named Harry, after my father’s father. When he was two years old, about the age I was when my father passed away, I took Harry with me to the cemetery, to visit the small footstone that marked my father’s grave.

I’m sure Harry didn’t understand just what was going on (how could he?), but I’m certain he knew I was crying. And I promised myself I’d never disappear from the Reiners again.

My Father’s Beautiful Voice

We would go on to see Carl and his family infrequently, but regularly, over the years, in New York or California. Carl would delight in my young Harry, root for him, praise him, welcome him and read to him from a children’s Halloween book he had written.

Each time I saw him, Carl would share with me family lore, and tell stories of the brilliant inventions that his father and my grandfather (who were not twins but looked as if they were) had patented: Sugar and salt dispensers, toy carousels, ingenious self-winding timepieces.

And unfailingly, on each visit, Carl would say, “Your father, he had such a beautiful voice. When he would sing ‘Ramona,’ it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.”

I wander out yonder o’er the hills

Where the mountains high

Seem to kiss the sky

Someone is out yonder o’er the hills

Waiting patiently. Waiting just for me.

Ramona, I hear the mission bells above

Ramona, they’re ringing out our song of love

The song was from a 1928 romance film of the same name, sung by Dolores del Rio. Not surprisingly, I had never heard of it. But I did hear about it each and every time I saw Carl, well into the years when he may not have quite realized that he had already told me all he could about my father’s voice.

There was no recording, no photograph, no sheet music, just his memory. “The most beautiful voice. Operatic,” Carl said.

The Memory Became My Touchstone

That was all he ever chose to share, or could share, about his first cousin, and it became my touchstone.

Ramona, when day is done you’ll hear my call

Ramona, we’ll meet beside the waterfall

I dread the dawn when I awake to find you gone

Ramona, I need you my own.

So, “Ramona” became my song, too. I tried to sing it a few times, and I listened to several recorded versions, but none were as beautiful as my father’s version, the one I never heard.

In the end, I preferred, deep in my imagination, to remember the melody and the operatic voice that sang it for Carl. That is how I found my father’s voice.

Millions of people, it seems, are remembering Carl Reiner as a national treasure, thanking him for the many decades of laughter he gave them.

I thank him for “Ramona.”

By Steven Reiner
Steven Reiner is an  emeritus associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University in New York. He is an Emmy Award-winning former producer for the CBS News program "60 Minutes" and a former executive producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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