What Papa Fed Me
My grandfather has been feeding me since I was a baby. There are pictures of him spoon-feeding me oatmeal, though most of the oatmeal is on my face.
At age eight, on visits to Papa in Brooklyn, I began working at his grocery store and lunch breaks were the highlight. Standing behind the enormous deli counter, Papa made me a (“Don’t tell Nana!”) ham sandwich. Delish.
As I grew older, during visits to Papa and Nana, meals were a major focus. At some point, when Nana wasn’t looking, Papa snuck food from his plate onto mine, claiming he was full. I, being the good granddaughter, ate it. In the last few years Papa’s appetite has diminished even more. At 93, every basic human function brings discomfort, swallowing among them.
During this week’s visit down in Florida, on my first morning, when the aid walked out of the kitchen, Papa’s hand darted out. Suddenly there was half a hard-boiled egg on my plate. First of all, who knew his reflexes could still move that fast? Second, as per my usual routine, I ate it. When the aid returned and saw his empty plate she said, “Good job Murray.” Papa and I shared a knowing smile.
But as the days passed, I learned it was dangerous for Papa’s health if he didn’t get enough protein. The aid and my uncle Mark (often sounding like they’re scolding a stubborn boy who won’t clear his plate) are forceful, because as a diabetic Papa needs the nutrition.
On my last morning, the same situation presented itself. The aid left the kitchen and out shot Papa’s arm. Yes, I want to make my grandfather’s life easier, but eating his food would only make things harder. I put the food back on his plate. “You need the protein,” I said. The look he gave me tore through my heart. After 40 years I had turned on him.
There’s something ironic when a Holocaust survivor refuses to eat. Often when an elderly person doesn’t want to eat, it means they don’t want to live. But as a survivor Papa doesn’t know how not to survive. Every day, through aches and pains, he’s still surviving. It’s all he knows. When I put the egg back on his plate, he sighed in defeat. He had no choice. He ate it.