(Poem #1437) My Father
The memory of my father is wrapped up in
white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work.
Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits
out of his hat, he drew love from his small body,
and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with good deeds.
What an intimate portrait Yehuda Amichai draws of his father in a mere six lines. Except for the mention of his father’s small stature, the picture is all drawn indirectly, through association and inference. His father, we learn, was a little man, a working man, a modest man who packed a lunch for the day, and most importantly, a kind man.
The poem almost seems like the memory of a little boy watching his father go to work, thinking his father magical as many children do. The poet unwraps this package of memory, a memory held in paper, like his poem. I remember being entranced when I learned how to wrap sandwiches in waxed paper, folding the sides back and forth together accordion-style, and tucking under the ends. When a sandwich is wrapped this way, unwrapping takes as much care as wrapping; the process must be reversed. Just so, time must be reversed for memories to come alive. Amichai discussed this notion of time and memory in a 1989 interview in the Paris Review: “It’s easy for me to shortcut back to my childhood, my adolescence, my wars. It’s actually a very Jewish sense of time, out of the Talmud. There’s a Talmudic saying that there’s nothing early or late in the Bible, which means that everything—all events—are ever present, that the past and future converge on the present, especially in language.”
Yehuda Amachai was born in Germany in 1924. His entire family emigrated to Palestine when Hitler was coming to power, and so they all escaped the Holocaust. He fought in four wars–World War II and the Israeli wars of independence—though he abhorred violence. Politically active, he enjoyed movie-star status in Jerusalem, where he lived until he died in 2000.
Amichai wrote in colloquial Hebrew, which was revolutionary for his time. His reputation for wordplay is something that can’t be captured in translation, and after reading how inventive he is with the Hebrew language, I’m disappointed that I can’t experience a true reading of his poems. But what I can read is still pretty darn good.
The poem seems at first to be a haphazard collection of images, but actually the poet has focused the reader’s attention by stealth on his father’s hands. The sandwich must be wrapped, and then opened, and then consumed by hands; the magician pulls rabbits out of the hat with his hands; “he drew love from his small body” is an action we visualize being done with hands. And so at the end of the poem when the father’s hands become overflowing rivers, the progression seems logical even if we aren’t aware of the logic. Hands are particularly important in this poem because hands are so often the instruments of kindness.
My husband and I used to keep a list we called “Sweet Men,” which was composed of kind men we knew with gentle spirits. Amichai’s father would surely make the list. But why not “Sweet Women”? Because kindness in women, while beautiful, is not necessarily surprising. Kindness in men, God forgive my sexist soul, delights me. I keep another list of my own, a secret list of kindnesses various men have done for me. It’s a list I love.
Which brings me to Father’s Day. It’s wonderful for fathers to give children opportunities, material goods and memorable vacations, but showing children kindness in action is the most lasting gift. And what would a child value most: a father’s intelligence, his charm, his success or his kindness? The answer reminds me of a framed piece of needlework I keep in my laundry room: “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” And also the oft-quoted lines from Wordsworth:
That best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
Amichai’s poem surprised me because it’s given me a way of connecting my father and father-in-law, both gone now. They were very different men with entirely different strengths and weaknesses. But I honor both as men who were kind.
My father was a sometimes difficult man, a man the mailman once complained to my mother as having “the tact of a herd of elephants.” But under his bluster was a compassion he acted upon again and again, and those are the family stories we treasure. A Denver boy, he saw his first homeless person (in those days called a bum) on a trip to New York City, and tried to lift the man out of the gutter, quite literally. On leave, he refused to sleep at a hotel that denied entry to a black man under his command. He always kept a collection box in the front hall for everyone in the family to give change for the poor. He was a great sender of cards, flowers, thoughtful letters and inscribed books. One of my most poignant memories is of him, in his late old age, apologizing to me for something he had said that had made me cry. It takes a kind-hearted man to issue the gentle apology he gave to me that day.
My father-in-law was 50’s kind of man, a bachelor type who happened to get married and have children. For most of his life he had a pronounced distaste for emotional displays, but as he aged it became clear that his avoidance of emotion masked a tender and kind heart. So many occasions he showed kindness to me, and not just in difficult times when my need for it was obvious. No matter what was going on in his own life, he always had a kind word and welcoming expression for me. His kindness forms the theme of several personal stories which I won’t relate here, except to say that his sweetness, tact and calm presence sit in my heart like a small paradise.
I must mention also my husband who I will embarrass by extolling his kind nature and describing a quality of his that irritates and pleases me equally: that is, he is unskilled and unpracticed in extricating himself from deadly conversations with people who won’t stop talking. This is on purpose, I recently found out. Some people, he explained to me, always get pushed away by others because of their excessive talking. He chooses to listen instead of looking for an exit. “They must really have a need to talk,” he says. What a man my man is!
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, especially the kind ones.