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The Namesake

I named my son after my father—a man I never knew

Amy Schreibman Walter
June 19, 2020
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo Illustration: Kurt Hoffman

My newborn baby was named for my father—a man neither of us will ever know.

My father, Paul Leon Schreibman, died when I was just 2 years old; I don’t remember him. What I know about him I have learned from others: He was a victim—of an untreated mental health problem, of a deeply scarred mother who did not acknowledge his condition, and of Florida’s lax gun-control laws.

The Jewish tradition of naming a child for relatives who are no longer here ensures a kind of connectivity with the past, and I like that. The choice that my husband and I made to give our son Max the middle name Leon was a conscious attempt to forge a connection between the generations. This notion feels especially poignant because I have no personal memories of my father.

My father’s absence was a kind of muted backdrop to my childhood. I recall relatives talking about my father in hushed tones or with a kind of sadness in their eyes; these conversations are among some of my earliest memories. Apologetic glances were shot in my direction when his name came up. “She looks just like him; she has his long legs and slender fingers. She has his smile. It’s just such a tragedy.” When Max was born, my husband commented shortly afterward that Max had inherited my long, thin fingers. I suppose they were never really just mine. My father, who has always been gone, has perhaps never really been fully gone at all.

My mother’s unwavering and unabashed love influences my parenting style today. She is a self-taught master in “keep calm and carry on” parenting, in giving love in abundance, something she does with her grandson just as she did with my brother and me. Sometimes when I talk to Max, I hear my mother’s words, spoken to me and to my brother years ago, but which have somehow come back to my consciousness now that I am a mother myself. I understand that this is how parenting is, passing on patterns of behavior and language, and I often wonder how much of who I am and how I act comes from my father. My mom tells me that Paul Leon Schreibman was a gentle person, and that he was a writer—two traits I am proud to share.

Throughout my childhood, it was difficult for my mother and relatives to talk about my father because, I understand now, the tragedy felt too raw. They preferred to lose themselves in my childhood joie de vivre and to focus on the “now” rather than dig up the past. Especially my mother. I didn’t want to see my mother cry, so I decided, as a child, to never ask her anything about my father. I wanted to protect my mother and grandparents from the darkness they were trying to avoid, so we all chose to focus on the light.

When I was 11, my mother remarried—a kind, loving, and sensitive man. Suddenly I had an extraordinary stepfather, a man who later legally adopted me. I remain very close with him; he helped me with everything from math homework to the pain of first heartbreak. With the arrival of my brother, who was born when I was 12, and with two parents very much in love, I saw then something that I had never been able to articulate: Parenthood could be a partnership filled with presence and love. It didn’t have to be done solo or be tinged with loss. I hoped one day to foster the same kind of stable home environment for my own children that I had seen my parents create.

In my 20s and into my 30s, I fell in love, and along with that, my desire to become a mother grew. Simultaneously, the more I learned about my father, the more I recognized and allowed myself to feel grief about never knowing him. I told myself that if I ever had a child, I would certainly acknowledge my father in his or her name.

In my 40s, a mensch of a man stole my heart. My husband is the sort of man that my father would have been, undoubtably, thrilled to call a son-in-law. I became pregnant a month after our marriage, at the age of 42. At a time in my life where we couldn’t have been certain that a pregnancy would happen, falling pregnant so soon after standing under the chuppah together felt to be nothing other than bashert.

During our 20-week ultrasound scan last year, the technician asked us whether we wanted to know the gender of our child. We did, though I already had an inkling that our baby would be a boy. “Looks like you’ll be having a boy,” the doctor told us, and my eyes filled up.

Immediately, I thought back to the last time I had visited my father’s grave, seeing “Paul Leon Schreibman” on his gravestone. Growing up, I hadn’t known many other Schreibmans. I had thought then about how much I’d like to have my own child who could carry on the Schreibman name. There are not too many Schreibmans; ours is a relatively small family, and I am my father’s only child. When I first started publishing essays, I decided that my writing name would include both of my surnames—Schreibman for the father I was born to and Walter for the father who raised me.

Mine was an uneventful pregnancy. At the bris, with 40 people crammed into our living room, my husband said a few words about why we’d chosen the name. My mother was moved to tears, having not previously been told his name.

In conversation with her after the bris, I asked what kind of grandfather she thinks my father would have been. She said that he would have tried to foster a love of the written word in Max and probably would have brought him a book every time he came to visit. This is information I will share with Max one day; I would like him to know about his grandfather. These days, I feel more comfortable talking to my mother about my father. I’d like to know as much about him as I can and I look forward to passing this information to Max when he’s older.

Names are poignant; they hold so much power. As it happens, our son was named Max after his dad’s grandfather. My husband and I like that both of Max’s names are steeped in ancestral meaning. Jewish tradition is so much about the continuation and the passing along of things—rituals, customs, and of course, names. I feel privileged to be able to continue the tradition into which I was born: I was named after my great-grandmothers on both sides. Being named for these women has, throughout my life, inspired me to learn about who they were. I can only hope that the name choices my husband and I made will motivate Max to connect with his heritage—so we can both learn more about the man we never knew.

Amy Schreibman Walter is a writer and teacher living in London. Follow her @amyswalter