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  • Father-Son Ups and Downs
  • Warren S. Poland

For him it could have been Eton or even Oxford, but it was the Nahman Bialek Hebrew School in a section of Brooklyn that was just beginning to emerge from the great depression that had been the central grove in his own academe. He recalled trying to learn a strange language, struggling in class to read the boys' book Dovid'l, working with the same intensity and with the same zeal that he had devoted to learning to ride a bicycle or to hit a baseball. He was in a Hebrew school classroom, but his eagerness to master the challenge before him was no different from the fervor that had suffused his growing years.

The challenge was real because the book, an easy primer for anyone who already knew even simple Hebrew, was very hard for him. At one point in his labor he stopped, unable to figure out what the word before him, l'maaleh, could mean. He remembered raising his hand and asking the teacher what l'maaleh meant.

He said that all he expected was that the teacher would quickly tell him the meaning, but to his astonishment that was not what the teacher did. Instead, the teacher crossed the room, took his right arm, jerked it high, said "l'maaleh," pulled it low and said, "l'maatah," and, repeating the high and low pull of his arm several times, kept saying in rhythm, "l'maaleh," "l'maatah," "l'maaleh," "l'maatah," over and over, accompanying each word with the specific, and—he finally realized—appropriate, movement.

It was now several decades later, and since then he had learned and later forgotten Hebrew as he had learned and forgotten other languages too; but he realized he had never forgotten the Hebrew words for up and down. He now was surprised that as a schoolchild he had not felt the humiliation [End Page 297] that was his customary reaction to any man's demonstrating either superior knowledge or superior power. Instead, he had felt moved emotionally as well as physically. He grieved not to remember his teacher's name, a recognition he thought his teacher merited, but even now he still felt warmed by remembering the teacher's walking over and trying to pass on to him the experience of a language so that it then could become his own. He spoke of his appreciation for the teacher's trying to teach him not only the words of a language, but the love of learning. He felt at that moment a wish to do for his children what that teacher had done, what he felt I as analyst had done for my part: Pass it on.

It was not until a session two days later, when his teacher was no longer on his mind, that he thought again of the simmering resentment he customarily felt toward his long-dead father. He said he always knew that his father adored him and would never knowingly hurt him, even though he had always felt his father's very existence to be a burden on him. His mind went back to when he was one or two years old. He wondered whether he could have valid memories from those days, yet he felt a deep conviction that what he recalled was a repeated actual experience, unwanted and frightening, one he could sense even now in his body. His father would approach him eagerly, pick him up, hug and nuzzle him, and then throw him in the air and catch him, repeating the toss a few times on each occasion that the unwanted frightening game took place. He remembered feeling excited but terrified, laughing and wanting to cry, trying to scream. He felt helpless while a crazy giant threw him about.

Later that same hour he said that he thought he now understood the special satisfaction he felt from a warm handshake on meeting an old friend. Then, tearfully, he softly said he missed his father. There was a long silence, after which he said he knew he would miss me too when we stopped. I could hear in his voice the smile to...


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pp. 297-298
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