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VERY FIRST PERSON

A Room With a View

Her Father Was a Psychoanalyst. Would a Search of His Office Yield Clues to the Wellspring of His Wisdom and Love?

November 22, 1998|JOY HOROWITZ | Joy Horowitz last wrote for the magazine about her grandmothers

An immigrant grocer's son, my father was a man of exquisite contradiction. He translated Japanese during World War II and studied psychology at the Menninger Clinic, thanks to the GI Bill. Yet, despite his sophistication as a world traveler and a lover of human foibles, nothing made him more nervous than figuring out whom to tip and how much. He brokered in a world of feelings but often had difficulty expressing his own. When he called me on the phone, it was as if by shorthand. "Joy-Joy?" he'd ask, using the childhood nickname he gave me. "Dad here." As if I didn't know.

Now, as I take apart his office, I wonder how much of who he was is really a part of me. He once said that patients completing successful analysis feel as if they are unwrapping gauze from their eyes: They finally see the truth. No doubt I became a journalist in weak imitation of his life's work. I wanted to ask the right question; to listen to what people mean as well as what they say; to embrace ambivalence rather than see the world in black and white; to distinguish fact from truth. Also, like my father, I can hide behind my questions but still feel connected to the person I'm interviewing.

In a cardboard box I'll take home, I keep his desk pen, some tchotchkes from his travels, a photograph of a lion for my middle son, who is looking for courage. My father's files, I realize, are a mishmosh of the personal and professional: journal articles, old PhD dissertations from students he trained, some of my earliest newspaper clippings, a lecture he delivered on love and psychoanalysis, Father's Day cards from children and grandchildren, an unpublished manuscript of a book he wrote about being "a frantic football father"--a tribute to my brother, the jock. In a file cabinet, there is a Valentine's card. It is from my mother. My parents had been married 48 years when Dad died. "And it goes on and on and on," Mom scribbled to him on the bottom of the card, likening their love to the relentless vim of the Energizer Bunny.

Only one discovery really stands out as a final unexpected gift. In his desk drawer, my father kept a quote from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" that he had copied by hand onto a piece of stationery. It reads, in part, "none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

The futility of words in the face of feeling; the longing for more. This is what my father the psychologist understood best. Still, we keep trying, because even as words fail us, the greater failure is in abandoning our hearts.

So I write, having taped Flaubert's words to the wall above my desk. What else is there? Tomorrow, the Salvation Army van arrives for the final load of office furniture.

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