Children contemplate death with many emotions… fear, dread, curiosity, worry, sadness, helplessness. Poets have pondered death, too, and there is no shortage of poems that address death and the wide range of emotions it brings to us. 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai gives us a beautiful little poem, MY FATHER, in which death has not robbed the world of a wonderful man. Instead, this man lives on in the generous and loving way in which he lived his life. MY FATHER is a lovely way to open a conversation with a child about death, while absorbing the powerful, lasting images and words of a poem…
MY FATHER by Yehuda Amichai
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.
Before you share this poem with your children, you may wish to talk about a loved one who has died… a grandparent, friend, relative, pet. Explain that the poem is a way to remember the wonderful, loving things about someone who has died.
Read the poem with your children. Talk about the speaker, or voice, of the poem (the child of the father). Talk about how much the child loved the father while he was alive, and how the father is still loved. The difference is that now the child loves the father through the memories. Poet Amichai uses a very ordinary image to celebrate the father’s memory… white paper, the kind that wraps sandwiches to be taken to work. But in that image are days and days and weeks and weeks and years and years of memories. Just as we wrap a sandwich each day in white paper, so do we accumulate memories. Memories do not have to be grand, once-in-a-lifetime memories. Memories of the father are many, many, many small ones that add up to a magnificent lifetime. Talk to your children about memories; perhaps about a grandparent who is deceased or one who is still vibrantly alive. Talk about ordinary memories… reading, baking, playing cards, sewing, laughing, joking, being. These are white paper memories.
The next 2 lines of the poem elevate and equate the memories of the father’s love to the magic of a magician; love pulled out as easily as towers and rabbits from a trick hat. Talk to your children about this magician image that the poet uses. Is it easy to imagine how much love and happiness the father brought to the child and to the world through this image? These memories go beyond the ordinary ones. These memories celebrate magical love.
The last 2 lines of the poem compare the father’s hands to rivers. The image of rivers is very powerful; hands overflowed with good deeds like rivers surging to their banks. Full. Grand. Powerful.
Talk to your children about the 3 images presented in MY FATHER – white paper, magician, rivers. Memories, Love, Good Deeds. Ask your children if these are good ways to be remembered. Although death is never an easy thing or easy topic, in MY FATHER poet Amichai gives us lots to think about and lots to discuss with children.
Remember that LITERACY is all about WORDS – Written, Spoken, Felt. Words explain concepts, even difficult concepts, that give children a way to embrace, to learn from and to use language. USE LANGUAGE!