Phyllis Gunther, Bram Gunther, and Matt Gunther

Recorded February 10, 2009 Archived February 10, 2009 00:00 minutes
Audio not available

Interview ID: LMN001193


Phyllis Gunther (80) talks to her two sons, Bram Gunther (47) and Matt Gunther (44) about the experience of being burned as a child and the impact that has had on her life, her husband, children and grandchildren.

Subject Log / Time Code

Phyllis’s family background.
Phyllis’s memory of being severely burned as a child, other children’s reactions, blaming herself and eventually her mother. She shares pictures and talks about looking back and realizing she was beautiful even though she didn’t feel it.
Phyllis remembers high school and her childhood friends.
Phyllis remembers not dating much and having to cover up, then eventually meeting her husband and marrying him after four years of knowing one another.
Phyllis’s hopes for her future and thoughts for her children and grandchildren.


  • Phyllis Gunther
  • Bram Gunther
  • Matt Gunther

Recording Locations

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth


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00:05 My name is Bram Gunther. I'm 47 years old. Today is February 10th 2009. We are New York City and I'm here with my mother Phyllis and my brother Matthew.

00:21 And I am the mother of Bram and Matt Gunther. I am going to be 81 tomorrow. Today is February 10th 2009. And where in Foley Square?

00:38 And the storycorps booth

00:44 My name is Matt Thunder on 44 and it's February 10th 2009 when New York City Foley square and I'm the youngest son of Phyllis counter and my brother Bram still after me.

01:04 Tell Mom hi, hi, honey. We're here to learn a little bit about your life some things that we might know and some probably a lot that we don't know. So who are your parents and grandparents? And how do you remember them?

01:18 I had very little contact with my grandparents except my mother's father. He lived.

01:27 Longer than

01:29 Any of the others I was very young when they all passed away. His name was Samuel.

01:37 Koenig or Koenig Koenig

01:42 Both the answers and the can eggs.

01:47 Were middle class.

01:50 People

01:53 Canines came from Poland Northern Poland, which may have changed hands between Austria and Poland. My mother said Austria, but it's been Poulan for years now. He was a builder.

02:07 They will both Builders. I understand and my the other family the answers were from the Balkan countries, I think Riga.

02:20 And they came with four of their children. My father was the last and he was born in Brooklyn.

02:30 That grandfather Louis. It was Mary and Louis Esther and the name was probably as their ski.

02:41 He was a scribe in the Russian army.

02:45 And therefore he was very valued.

02:50 Since he was only one of

02:55 A handful, I think who knew how to read and write despite his jewishness.

03:03 And

03:07 I don't know. What year my mother graduated high school and I have her autograph book which of course is written in Polish and Maria who used to me whether she graduated high school in Poland. And why did they leave Poland? I'm not sure I think just to get away.

03:30 From

03:35 The way they will looked at as being Jewish minute, December, I think but you know

03:42 I can talk to other people in Tysons.

03:47 Other people in the family who know more about that of the past they had more to do with my grandparents like Aunt Jenny.

03:58 Sam lived with Jenny and Ben Patterson

04:04 So they know more and they certainly feel more with no more. So, you know, I have both families had six in each family three boys and three girls and so there were twelve and sunoco's and add from that those families all were married. I have 24 I had 24 first cousins.

04:35 We saw a many we saw my mother's family much more than we saw my father's family, but everybody was very

04:49 Aware of politics and activism my mother

05:00 Drove an ambulance during World War II she needed for the soldiers in America and America. I meant to wear the sweater she made for me.

05:11 From the Army wool that she had

05:16 She was quite an unusual woman who before she got married ran.

05:24 A business of making needle of beating beating dresses and I'll tell you they would just worthy of being in the museum. Unfortunately, I gave them away to Drina who played with them bigger and mom stopped working after she got married. Yes. She felt that a dentist wife shouldn't be working that she didn't feel socially that she should be running.

05:59 And the where she had her business was where my father located his dental office, which it was at the corner of 7th Avenue and 40th Street across from the old Metropolitan Opera house and there's a drawing that I have of one of that one of his patients made of the old met that is quite lovely and etching. When did that by Metropolitan Opera close down? I don't remember but certainly they moved to the area where I live where you grew up.

06:44 That's cool. That's right. They took down the old Brown.

06:50 Brownstone tenement building which had

06:54 At least 50 stairs going directly up and his office was on the first floor. So luckily patients didn't have to

07:04 Climb more stairs

07:08 But they were forbidding those stairs so and he was very well liked as a dentist and

07:18 People from he had a few patients from the med.

07:22 So what was your childhood like was that you've mentioned that you had 24 first cousins, which I know I didn't know. So was it rich with family? And what was it like in general my

07:37 I have to put my mother down she was a snob.

07:42 And

07:45 She selected which relatives to say the ones that were more educated there.

07:53 Like my father's brother Marisol though. He lived in Rochester.

08:00 He

08:02 Had been a professor.

08:05 Believe it or not at the port.

08:09 A college or no a high school in Puerto Rico, but then he came back to the states and

08:19 Work for the Chamber of Commerce of Rochester. He was the only Republican out of the twelve. So what was your childhood like

08:31 Well everything revolved about

08:38 The fact that

08:40 I was burned when I was four. It was April 29th, which I never knew until I was a grown up.

08:49 Why your mother and father told you that was the date that my mother told me later on as an adult.

08:58 We my mother and her friend plus the friends two daughters. We went to visit a friend of theirs who I did not know. I don't know how they knew her, but she lived in Eastchester.

09:13 And

09:16 It was a a spring day and there was a young man raking the leaves from the winter.

09:26 And my mother and her friend, I can't remember the friend's name, but it was the Hobart and then the kids names were Nancy and Carol.

09:39 And maybe we were carrying on and my mother said why don't you go out and this is what I remember. Why don't you go out and watch the fire?

09:49 And I was a feisty kid I liked.

09:56 Being active bleeding

09:59 Other people around so I picked up a log and it was there was fire at the end.

10:10 Nobody stop me the young man. He was a seventeen-year-old. So I hear

10:16 Never stop me.

10:18 And it got hot?

10:21 So I used my dress as a potholder.

10:26 That's a log holder and I went up rest of you were wearing and you lifted it up as to flames.

10:36 They rolled me on the girl body. They the dress what up in flames and your skin caught on fire. Is that what happened first address and then your body? Oh, yeah and 75% of my body was burned.

10:55 And my arms stuck together from the Burns and my face the bottom of my face and the front of my body.

11:07 And that's started a series of operations about 13 between the ages of 4 and 7. My metal pointed the adults notice that you are on fire and take you to the hospital.

11:25 I think immediately the screams went out and my mother burned her hand trying to put out the fire and this young man who was raking the leaves had a car a model of

11:40 T car and drove us to the Bronxville hospital and I remember looking at my mother's burned hand and saying to her own mommy. I'm so sorry.

11:55 I'm so sorry.

11:59 Oh, I remember.

12:02 Being isolated or I think maybe I was told that they kept people away from me so that I wouldn't get infection.

12:14 That's I don't remember the pain which I obviously suffered greatly.

12:24 The Opera and they found this doctor garlic who was I think the first Jewish man person to get into Cornell Medical he was recommended.

12:40 I know he was so his choppy actually was plastic surgery, but he assured my parents that he would restore me.

12:54 And what are you doing?

12:57 Today

12:59 Well, you can't be restorative. You have such serious.

13:05 That's what you're eating. The restoration is so do you have any knife scars? I had my face done.

13:14 Over three operations you think it would have been a different person if you hadn't been burned absolutely.

13:23 Well, first of all the pain I went through.

13:30 Must have been horrendous missing school. Although not my parent. My mother was sure to have me hospitalized when school was in session vacations Easter time hospitalized for plastic surgery.

13:52 And also what I do remember is that they believe the scar tissue should be removed and they this doctor you took cotton and just pulled off the scabs. That was horrible.

14:12 And also kids would look at me funny everybody ask me whatever happened to you. I handled it easily. I got burned. I wanted people not to feel sorry for me not to be concerned that I was in pain. You know this I was healed.

14:37 And that's the way I coped with it. What disturbs me most, is that my mother?

14:48 Never told me I look pretty

14:52 She would be accident forever forever. Why couldn't she have acknowledged?

15:02 That she should have been there it took me so many years of analysis psychoanalysis.

15:10 To say where was she until I was forty I blamed myself for getting burned.

15:18 Whereas a four-year-old shouldn't have had responsibilities.

15:26 For what took place with the parent to blame somebody.

15:32 Yes, I do. I think I'll feel that way. I would like to blame someone for it. I would like my mother to have said I should have been there.

15:44 I should have protected you and what would that do for you?

15:48 It would just made me feel less isolated. Then I had to burn had the burden.

15:57 The responsibility for my

16:01 Health

16:03 And for the pain I went through and the isolation and I was not invited to one.

16:12 Classmates birthday party because the mother couldn't stand looking at me. This was told to me. What was your mother's reaction to that? I don't know. I don't know but so you think it became a different person than you might have been because you had to carry the weight of that accident. Yes. I think anybody who

16:37 Goes through a childhood trauma.

16:41 That extensive does.

16:45 Care-a-van and I never felt pretty and then look I came across this picture of where I am an engagement picture with Dad proposed to you. And then this is my wedding. I mean, I'm quite stunning.

17:09 I don't know but I don't know but certainly and looking at these pictures. I say my God you were okay, or okay. Well, let's put it on the record now Ma you were beautiful. Thank you. You're welcome. And these were taken by a professional photographer.

17:33 And the other thing is when I asked my brother if he'd ever marry anybody with scars. He said no.

17:42 So I never felt.

17:45 How about I want you must understand in retrospect that he's crazy. So his opinion is not valid. I do hope you understand that that right. I hope you're not caring that one.

17:59 Matthew look, very beautiful Ma. I know what about

18:06 Look how pretty I looked.

18:10 So when you were where did you go to high school in Mount Vernon went all through school together? And did you have a lot of friends?

18:23 Yes, I had friends, but I learned and later Liz. There's a photo missing.

18:31 Oh, no here. Here's my brother.

18:34 And these two pictures of my trip to Europe and we gotta we can study the pictures a little bit more later. So what do you feel that your Burns kept you from friendships or did you have a lot of friends was?

18:52 I learned.

18:55 As an adult that

18:58 Marion who was my best friend was asked by the teacher in kindergarten or first grade second grade.

19:09 When I moved on the same street where Mary and lived that the teacher asked her to please be my friend.

19:19 I'm not kind of hurt that we were very I don't remember but I didn't turn into genuine friendship though. Yes, I'm reading.

19:30 Correspondence from her and she mentioned we'd always be friends and then so it turns anyone that's a good thing. Yes, and I alway I live farther from school then she did. So what I would do is walk up to her house.

19:51 And pick her up. So we go to school together, which was only at the corner.

19:57 But she was always available to me and her family.

20:02 The brushes and Tony

20:06 Calls me every once in awhile make her younger brother. Yeah, I just spoke to him know. He's five years younger.

20:17 So we talked about his sister and his parents and they had quite an influence on my life. They were

20:27 Christian and I used to go to we were not practicing Jews. We did not join a temple until so what was the high school called in a B Davis in Mount Vernon?

20:49 It's still there. It's there as a junior high school. They built a new high school actually in the area where I grew up what used to be a golf range.

21:06 So I'm with you play sports there or did you what kind of activities?

21:12 We used to go I live right near.

21:17 A baseball field part of high school don't remember being active on Sports was a student to know I belong we had them.

21:36 A club called the cheerful attic. We used to meet in one of the girls addict from her house. And these were always the brightest students.

21:55 Grace Rutherford. Aarthi hatem Buckle Arlene. I forgot her last New Field.

22:04 They were all the a student's I was put in the C-Class. I was not considered with an act of the NC class. Yes and have you kept friends with these people that you just mentioned and now do you have any childhood friends now or in your life?

22:24 Well, Tony, you mentioned telling right?

22:28 And then high school friends I do have.

22:32 Hope TD who lived behind me and that the last house we lived in either minutes, and I'm Lederman. That's right Lederman, but she was Smith DD's Diane Smith.

22:49 Actually

22:53 They're all having birthdays next week. So I will call them but DD sounds like she's going through a hard time. And of course there was Lindy and David who lived across the street from the first house we lived in we lived in three different houses in Mount Vernon BC were even though I was never neither was my brother was confirmed.

23:25 Which meant I went through the Sunday school when I was different people when I was about 15 and Dick Stern.

23:38 Was one of I have a picture somewhere of the graduation and

23:44 So you refer to yourself as feisty pre-accident, did you lose that feistiness after the accident or do you think you kept that trip? Well as Matt knows I like talking to people strangers make conversations like I did with Anna and Abby.

24:07 Every day when Bram and I went to school. I remember that why I absolutely and pinions being married a feisty person. That's for sure.

24:25 That is interesting. But feisty has a negative implication and how it manifests itself. Well, I hope I'm not obnoxious you are not obnoxious. Thank you. You're welcome. There's a teacher from 199 who always quotes that you said to her when she was telling you not to do something in the playground at 191.

24:59 You can't talk to me that way my mother give it to you or my mother's head of the bicep that yes, she loves to quote that really, who's that? Who's Hilda somebody held her and she lives in Lincoln Towers.

25:17 So you're saying I inherited that from you?

25:22 But I don't find I'm negative. I mean if I make a suggestion.

25:28 I'm sorry, I use that word feisty. I see it is negative. What I do depends upon as I said, how would I like to make suggestions where I see? It can be helpful.

25:44 And you know, I I have a masters in early childhood education and I have very strong viewpoints on

25:56 Observing children getting to know what they like how they learn and how they respond so and my greatest success are you too, I just feel

26:13 That you are very special you think well of yourselves your friends your

26:23 Accomplished you like what you're doing you pursue that you have friends. So you are my

26:34 Biggest accomplishment, we appreciate that you did give us self-confident. Well many forces. I'm sure worked to help us be self confident, but you were the primary force.

26:48 So I'm not sure how much time we have left. But what would your message be to us to your two sons and now can fart as far as I'm concerned more importantly your grandson alive you a message.

27:03 Skip that lunch will my messages pursue what gives you pleasure and totally immerse yourself?

27:15 Well we skip I didn't mean that cuz I thought we had last time left out of hell. We can come back. Alright my message to you guys. And of course my precious Eli.

27:27 Pursue what gives you pleasure and totally immerse yourself in it.

27:34 Pursue what is in the best interest of the community and the world?

27:41 Passionately love

27:45 Enjoy to give to those that are closest to you. Would you have always done with your mom?

27:56 So

27:59 They want to talk about that a little bit and how you met him and what things were like since I didn't date very much and I wasn't cuz of the burn you think are because you don't feel very confident dating I think both and not feeling my mother may always said cover yourself up cover your scars wear makeup. None of my friends were makeup, and I wasn't going to

28:32 But she's completely wanted to

28:37 Forget that I have these scars that I grew up with.

28:43 But we always went to the beach.

28:49 And I did not mind showing my body wearing bathing suits hold though. She who was knew how to sew and she made dresses for both of us mother daughter dresses. She'd make me a bathing suit that covered up.

29:10 My scars on my neck.

29:17 So

29:20 Where did you go to the beach of the family Glen Island, New Rochelle always what we would do is summer mornings by 9. We were in the car and by noon before it got really hot. We'd be back. So and we generally went alone. We didn't take out. Although I'm surprised we didn't take the actors after their father died.

29:57 And

30:04 Other people would go away for the summer. We would take two weeks and go to a farm a working farm in the Catskills, which I remember fondly that was just great.

30:19 Livingston

30:22 There was a town and so when did that emergency our life? Oh, that's right.

30:29 A friend of mine Alice Fitzpatrick with whom I went to college although she never finished but we were friends.

30:41 When I grew up in Brooklyn, and she

30:47 Was driven to work wherever she worked with a man who's sad?

30:56 You know, I have this man working for me and I'd like to fix you up with him Alice, but he's Jewish and she was a practicing Catholic.

31:12 So she said well, I have a friend who's Jewish?

31:17 And they fixed up the date and he called me.

31:22 And on the second date

31:25 He proposed to me second date. Yes, how much time was there between the first date and the second time now, I think a few days.

31:35 Oh, yeah, I mean here was this very handsome.

31:42 Man, how old were you at this at this point in your life?

31:48 I need 28 and I felt like an old maid the other my friends were all married.

31:58 So I was very flattered and he was Charming, but he body think he proposed on the second day. That seems pretty quick to me even in current term. Well I came from

32:16 An upper-class family certainly in his

32:22 Manager coming from a family that it was on welfare where the mother left the father and had to work.

32:35 And the van so that here he met somebody and I think he identified with me being scarred because he acid infant.

32:49 Had empyema something with the ear and so he was hospitalized has an infant for that operation and then there was a I think other so he always has asthma as he told us childhood. Asthma. Oh, I didn't remind him that he's talked about that is so he was sickly.

33:17 So I think he identify when he had a scar also on his body.

33:24 Directions to show us all the time and right side of his back. That was the intestinal.

33:33 Never know that's when he had part of his intestine removed when he was in the Navy.

33:40 I don't remember the store. He told us you know, the intestines was when he got Crohn's he said it happened when he was in the Navy in the back.

33:55 So

34:00 I felt a tension with him. I broke off.

34:09 Seeing him you felt tension with him after he proposed to you. I just put that aside. Let's get to know each other.

34:25 And then it when I went to Europe I had broken up and I had met somebody else.

34:31 Broke up with Daddy went to Europe you were with somebody else in your upper back here or before I left actually, he was the father of one of them your classmates.

34:45 Oh you mean that Dina stander's father Richie Stander now Richie stand there was a friend of Steve

34:57 So anyway you were so then when I came back is it almost time that you broke off with Dad? So what made you come back to him? I decided there was a a nice quality.

35:17 And

35:20 He appreciated me and felt I was attractive and

35:31 And he went to school to graduate at night and I am college right college and I respected him for that. He pursued things and he took up the politics that I cared about.

35:50 So we shared that very well and I had to help him and relating to

36:00 To both of you when so when did you finally said yes to his am I?

36:09 4 years after I met him for years, or maybe it was 5 not sure.

36:16 And he obviously waited for you and there's a wonderful little

36:23 Letter that I sent to my friend Didi how much I loved him that she sent back to me and I'd love to show it to you that his quality is What attracted me were?

36:42 His

36:44 Caring for me and

36:49 Expressing it

36:51 Somewhat I missed a lot of it. I wish there was more.

36:57 And I wish that.

37:01 We had worked out more of a relationship.

37:06 And you have you wish you had a more intimate connection with us. And then certainly when he died I would have liked him to know that I cared for him and why you don't think he knew that.

37:23 We we got removed from each other when they even that even though we shared and one of the things that I felt was the way we

37:38 Resolve some of our differences was that I decided.

37:45 Not to push him to do things.

37:50 That he didn't want to do.

37:53 And vice versa so that we lived Yuna An away separate.

37:59 Lives

38:01 He preferred being on Broadway. That's a good example and I preferred going to the park for our outings. So it worked it was successful.

38:14 And that dumb and we share the politics.

38:19 And he got a lot of Acclaim for his role.

38:24 In the community on the board and in politics and I think he was well-respected at his job for popsicle in distress.

38:38 Eve ensler's father was his paw just so you know that the time accumulated Eli has a t-shirt that has popsicle on it and we have popsicle towels towels with your wonderful. He was head of the

39:00 When you got up enough popsicle bags and you sent it in and they get her premiums. He was head of premiums for a while, but then he became credit monitoring the people like working with him.

39:19 So why his mother was not a warm fuzzy person nor is his sister.

39:28 But somehow he

39:32 Any any last parting things you would like to say hi to my last question on my list was what would you change about things now? But the other question I missed it was what is the most striking change between your childhood and now so maybe enough which whatever question you like that swear. How did I answer that sentence or two? Well, because striking thing is is that

40:02 I know. I be happier. If I could learn to be more organized and could redecorate my apartment. I'd like to study take up some subject. I'd like to attend more cultural events develop more friends and be a volunteer in the school. I have things I want to do as long as I keep my health and fitness. I hope you

40:38 Get stronger at my compliment to go by hopefully, I will tell you a hundred.

40:44 And you either boys are just the greatest I love being with you.

40:52 Tell him we love you too very much Mama and happy birthday. Happy birthday. And we're glad to have your story. And if you'd like to tell more of the story, we can either do it here again, or we can just do it as a family.

41:07 I would love it and maybe we could pull in more of the family wealth is very interested in the origins of his family. So I think next time we do this we should have Eli with us when we do with year. How about we do it at home? I'd love love he wants to know where he comes from and and that's very and I think partly as an only child that's particularly interesting to him.

41:31 Great.