On Naming My Son

by E.H. Jacobs

 

“I’ll take you out and make you the best ballplayer in the league.”

My father’s words stirred desperate hope in me, as I led my team in dropped fly balls, through-the-legs grounders and game ending strikeouts. The fact that my father never followed through on that promise was made more painful by my knowledge that he had played in the minor leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Decades later, when my mother’s death lowered his wall of grandiosity, my father reminisced about how a finger injury caused him to miss the opportunity to try out for the Dodgers. Just as he had never played professional baseball, my father had never attended college, despite having talked about it. This was revealed that same week when I discovered my father’s school records in my parents’ papers, which showed that he had taken college-level classes in high school. But there was no record of attendance at an actual college. My father, I believe, had fabricated and exaggerated these events to compensate for a life that he perceived as failingly ordinary.

I should have suspected my father’s veracity by the way he talked about me to others. Listening to him, you would have thought that I was one of the most famous and wealthiest of psychologists. I rationalized his behavior by telling myself that this was his way of showing how proud he was of me. What it really was, I think, was his way of aggrandizing himself through me, or at least his fantasy of me, and, in the process, any real recognition of me was lost. Never having felt “known” by my father, how could I have felt loved?

Despite the pride he sometimes expressed in me, he often found a way to ridicule me because of my intelligence by telling me that I might be smart in school, but I had no common sense. In his conflicts with my mother, he pushed me away by aligning me with her against him. I remember constantly hearing his raised voice declaring, “You and your mother…” and then adding whatever he felt was our common belief or behavior that he objected to at the moment. I also remember being publicly embarrassed by his crude humor, looking on in disbelief as he told stories laced with profanities and scatological references, oblivious to the discomfort of those to whom he was speaking, and of his own son.

My feelings turned to more conscious anguish when it came time to name my son, my second born. It is a Jewish tradition to name a child after a deceased family member, not by giving the child the same first or middle name as that family member necessarily, but by giving the child a name with the same initial letter. In this way, the deceased lives on in spirit, with the hope that the child will acquire some of his or her laudable qualities, such as a generous spirit or a long, healthy life. By the time my first child was born, all of her grandparents had died. My wife and I thus had four parents to honor through the bestowal of names onto their grandchildren. We gave my daughter a first name after my mother and a middle name after my father-in-law. When my son was born, there were two more parents to honor. If I did not give my son a first or middle name after my father, it would be an omission conspicuous to the entire family. But I was not comfortable naming my son after a man whose characteristics I had so much difficulty accepting.

Through that struggle, it occurred to me that the man I knew as my father only represented part of a life, much of which predated my own, and which encompassed much more than what I had observed. I thought about a part of my father’s life of which I had no first-hand knowledge. My father often talked about his service in the Second World War as if he were stuck there. He was an infantryman serving in Europe. Although I could not verify his claim that he fought in some of the major battles, I did have documentary and photographic evidence that he was in the Army, and even that he became separated from his unit, was close to being captured by the Germans, and was sheltered by a family in Belgium.

The realization that the scope of my father’s life was broader than the part he had shared with me also made me appreciate that I had not given him credit for all that I had  observed. Although my father’s incessant complaints about work created tension in the home, I knew that he worked long hours, first driving a cab and later, selling insurance. I also remembered long car rides to vacation in Lake George, New York, when we could not have had much money, as we spent part of my childhood living in publicly subsidized apartments. I remembered the pleasure my father took taking his family on vacation, just as I remembered how he delighted in taking us to drive-in movies in our pajamas and out to eat for fast food burgers. I also remembered my father’s interactions with people we would meet along the way: waiters and waitresses, cab drivers, policemen, parking lot attendants. He treated everyone with respect and deference, probably never forgetting that, when he was a young father, he made his living as a taxi driver in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

So, my wife and I gave our son a middle name with my father’s first initial, and I can feel confident telling my son that his grandfather had a strong work ethic and a strong sense of duty to his country and his family, that he enjoyed pleasing his family, and that he treated everyone, no matter what their station in life, with respect: not bad qualities for his grandson to emulate.

 

Drawing by Haley Greenyer

Drawing by Haley Greenyer

 

E.H. Jacobs is a licensed psychologist practicing in Londonderry, NH. He is the author of two books: Fathering the ADHD Child: A Book for Fathers, Mothers, and Professionals and ADHD: Helping Parents Help Their Children, as well as several professional papers and popular articles on psychology, parenting, ADHD, learning disabilities, family therapy, neurofeedback and chronic pain. He wrote the “Life Talk” column for the Derry News. He is a graduate of Vassar College, earned his Ph.D. from Temple University and completed a fellowship and served as a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School. He is at work on a novel.

Haley Greenyer graduated with the Class of 2015 from Conval High School in Peterborough, New Hampshire. She was a member of the chemistry club, participating in the New Hampshire State Science Fair, placing first in biochemistry in 2013 and first in electronics and physics in 2014. She also enjoys playing the piano, singing, reading, drawing and painting. She received special recognition two years in a row in the Congressional Art Competition in New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District. Haley attends the University of Vermont in Burlington, where she majors in engineering.

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