Three weeks after my father came home from the hospital, I started stealing groceries. It would surprise you how easy it is: so long as you have a full cart, they never suspect you. I’d get the cheap things first — bread, milk, vegetables — until the cart looked full. Then I’d reach out and swipe the luxuries: artichoke hearts, capers, fresh cheese. I’d stick them into my pocketbook, my mother’s Coach pocketbook, which I now wore. It was huge and cavernous, so big and inviting it was as if the expensive groceries jumped in there on their own.
I have to tell you about my mother’s pocketbook: silky, black, flawless leather the creamy dullness of butter. Just by looking at it you could tell how much it cost. She’d confessed the price to me once in secret, guilty and proud — $250 — and we’d both giggled fearfully, knowing that if my father found out he’d have a coronary on the spot. Of course I never told him. He rarely said more to me than “Clean that up,” “Ask your mother,” and, on particularly wordy days, “I hope you didn’t spend my money on a skirt that short.”
My mother had died that January. In June my father had undergone triple-bypass surgery. Two weeks after he’d come home to recover, my sister, Alex, had left for Cornell on a full science scholarship, summers included, leaving my father and me alone with each other for the first time.
“All you have to do is keep him company,” Alex told me before she left. “Just sit with him while he eats, and talk to him.” Since January, she’d been doing all the cooking and grocery shopping while I waitressed at the Queens Burger after school. I usually ate my dinner at work, but the first night after Alex left, I finished my summer-school homework on my dinner break — I’d failed science my freshman year — and left the restaurant at eight. At home, I sat with my father while he cooked spaghetti. I tried not to stare at the Frankenstein-like sutures running down his chest and legs. We were as awkward as mismatched strangers on a blind date.
Father: What’d you do in school today?
Father: You had good classes?
Daughter: Not really.
Father: You’ll do better than in the spring?
Daughter: Doubt it.
Father: [Pouring ketchup onto his spaghetti] How’s it going with the burgers?
Daughter: [Staring in horror] What’re you doing?
Father: [Shrugs] Tastes like tomato sauce.
Daughter: Gross! If we’re out of sauce I can go buy —
Father: Eh, too much trouble. I’m fine like this.
[Fifteen minutes of silent chewing, reading back of ketchup bottle.]
Father: What did you and Mommy used to talk about?
Daughter: Dad. [Clenches shoulders] Nothing.
What could I say? My mother and I had talked about everything. Our meals couldn’t have been more different from this one. In December she’d had no symptoms at all, and during Christmas break I’d met her at her office in Manhattan for lunch almost every day. She was a receptionist for a law firm, and I loved stepping up to her huge mahogany desk in the center of everything, like the bridge of a ship. We’d walk over to Rockefeller Plaza, past St. Patrick’s Cathedral rising up like a fairy castle, the sparkling angels trumpeting to the sky. At the Junebug Cafe, we took up a whole brown booth and ordered everything — Cajun blackened shrimp, sweet-potato fries, grilled Portobello mushrooms, fresh mozzarella cheese, a dessert called Chocolate Destiny. I’d never eaten anything so good.
While we ate, she’d talk about my father. “The thing with him is he doesn’t know how to live. To try new things. Experiment. Life isn’t about watching every penny. You have to spend it to enjoy yourself.”
“I know,” I’d mumble, my mouth full of Destiny.
“When you see something you want, you should get it right away. If you wait, it’ll probably be gone.”
My father’s idea of splurging was iced tea instead of water at Wendy’s. He complained about the price of everything, as if things should still cost what they did when he was my age, growing up in our neighborhood, and his mother could afford to cook kugels for the entire block. Alex and I watched him pay bills, looking thin and wrinkled before the envelopes on the dining-room table, shuffling and re-shuffling them, as if the right arrangement would make them pay themselves. I’d once fantasized about saving my parents from financial ruin with my long-hoarded savings of tooth-fairy quarters and Chanukah gelt — until seventh grade, when my social-studies teacher had asked what we would grab first if our house was burning down, and I’d said my money. Mrs. Meringo had clucked disapprovingly at my greed, and suddenly the fantasy I’d replayed so many times — bursting in on my parents with my nine dollars in change, explaining, Look, here’s the money, see — evaporated into nothing.
I felt that it was my fault we didn’t have enough money. I used to plead with my parents to have another baby to make up for my insufficient sister, until one night my father leaned across the kitchen table and snapped: “You don’t know what children cost.” But I did know, ever since I’d lost my $175 retainer and cried so hard my teacher sent me to the nurse. I hadn’t been crying for the retainer, which I’d gladly have lived without, but because I’d brought my family one step closer to financial ruin.
Staring at my father’s plate of pink spaghetti, I struggled to think of something to say. I could ask him to eat with me at the Queens Burger instead, but the thought of seeing him among our usual dinner crowd — old, lonely Jewish men slurping up matzoh-ball soup, looking bitter and isolated in their empty booths — seemed too much like a glimpse of what my father would become. I picked up my sister’s Lite & Luscious cookbook from the shelf beside the microwave. She’d been following it diligently, determined to whip our father back to health through the miracles of soy. I leafed through the recipes with photos of families smiling over plates of tofu. I told my father that tomorrow I’d buy groceries and cook.
“Consumer Reports rated Prego very highly, but if it’s more than $1.99, go for the Ragu,” he said as he handed me a ten-dollar bill for the shopping. “Don’t lose this.”
I stopped at Food Dynasty the next night after work, armed with Lite & Luscious inside my mother’s Coach bag. I’d never gone grocery shopping alone before. I wheeled my cart past the overstocked shelves, crates of colorful vegetables, towers of cans up to the ceiling. The supermarket offered foods I’d never even heard of: Asiago cheese, hearts of palm, cilantro pesto, Spanish capers. At the gourmet refrigerator case, I picked up a square of fresh, locally made mozzarella cheese, remembering how it had tasted at the Junebug: soft and smooth, like milky velvet. I turned it over in my palm: $3.99. Even with my tip money, I barely had enough for the items on my list.
If you wait, it’ll probably be gone. My mother hadn’t been speaking only of shopping when she’d said that. She’d paused, and I had suddenly seen her whole life. I saw her parents — Omi in her heaping wig, Opa clutching his cane — silent and restrained. They’d lost all their relatives during the war. My mother was just a baby when they left Germany, the only family members to get out in time, on the last boat to America. She blamed her parents for not leaving Germany sooner, for thinking the troubles would pass if they waited long enough, and for finally losing everything. It was one of the few references she made to the war, which was never discussed in our home. But I’d seen our relatives’ names written in pencil on the family tree my sister had made for school — Hans, Julius, Friedl, Malka, and others — along with their places of birth, dates of birth, and their places of death: Thereisenstadt, Bergen-Belsen. The dates of death were followed by question marks. Dozens of question marks.
I squeezed the packet of mozzarella in my hand. I’d planned someday to ask my mother more about her past, but she was diagnosed with cancer on a Thursday night and died ten days later, in too much pain to speak. At the funeral, my grandparents had seemed even more reticent than usual, murmuring to each other in German, sitting paralyzed on the small brown pew.
The question marks, my silent grandparents, my mother’s sudden death — the losses seemed to multiply in our family, which would soon boil down to just my sister and me. The world wasn’t like what Mrs. Meringo and all my other teachers had said: there was no pattern to things, no formulas, no simple rules to balance losses and gains, questions and answers, fair and unfair. Before I even knew what I was doing, that mozzarella was nestled in my pocketbook beside the sugar packets my mother had taken from the Junebug just six months before.
At first my father didn’t notice that our meals were improving.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Can you taste it? There’s chevre in the spaghetti.”
“And capers on that fish piece.”
“Oh. Capers. Oh.”
I cooked from the Instant Gourmet section of Lite & Luscious, where the recipes required little more than opening jars, unlike the dog-eared Lean Legumes chapter — my sister’s favorite — with its three-hour preparation times. Still I managed to ruin some of the recipes, overcooking the fish, being too impatient to wait for the cheese to melt. It wasn’t until the last recipe in the section that my father enjoyed a meal: pasta with tapenade. You bought a jar of tapenade, poured it over hot pasta tossed with chicken and defrosted vegetables, and served.
The tapenade had taken a bit of searching to locate in Food Dynasty, but at last I’d found it, nestled in the gourmet condiments section, standing tall over the special olives. $5.49 for a glass jar that served three. It was made in Modena, Italy, the label said, under the auspices of monks. It had fallen into my pocketbook with a barely audible thud.
Tapenade. I loved the sound of it, like a dance, a waltz leading you gracefully across the floor. The picture in the book had been beautiful: mushrooms and olives over strands of hot pasta and ribbons of chicken. My reproduction looked miraculously similar. I served it on the blue-printed china my parents never used. Swirls of steam rose from our plates; we twirled the soft strands about our forks, savoring each bite.
“What do you call this?” my father asked.
He stared at me quizzically. “Tap and nod?”
I shook my head. “It’s a sauce. You know. Olives, garlic. Stuff.” I didn’t tell him it was from a jar; I’d decided the intention to cook good food from scratch mattered more than the actual act.
This satisfied him, and he chewed happily, giving his plate the same attention he paid to Silk Stalkings and The Rockford Files. Watching television and reading the New York Times in its entirety had become his full-time occupation. The doctors had told him he could re-open his shoe-repair shop whenever he felt ready, but after a brief trial — he opened it for three hours one afternoon, and nobody came — he said he wasn’t ready yet.
He paused between bites and gripped the armrests of his chair like an airline passenger preparing for takeoff. “You’re like Nana, is who you’re like,” he said monumentally. Nana was his mother, of the legendary kugel fame. She’d died before I was born. All my life I’d been told it was the greatest shame that I’d never met her. Even my mother had spoken of her reverently. My grandmother had cooked, sewed, and cleaned away all her family’s memories of poverty in turn-of-the-century Poland, replacing them with the enormous pot roasts, soft cotton dresses, and sparkling linoleum of Queens. My father still kept her broken sewing machine in his shoe-repair shop; he hadn’t gotten around to fixing it yet.
He helped himself to another plateful of pasta. “If Nana could taste this . . . ,” he said.
“It’s not that good.”
“It is, it is. What do you call it again?”
My father began to display an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for tapenade. He described it to Mr. Lee, who owned the candy store across the street, where he bought his Tums, and Mrs. Lombardi, the one faithful customer from his store who still called with updates on her bunions and corns. “My daughter seasons very well,” became his mantra. “My daughter, the famous chef.” My pasta sauce rose nearly as high on his bragging scale as my sister’s science scholarship, far surpassing my poem “Ode to Queens,” published in the sixth-grade school bulletin, which had been my crowning achievement to date.
The problem was that the tapenade wasn’t easy to steal: there were only four bottles of it in a line; my taking one left a noticeable gap on the shelf. Not to mention the huge bulge in my pocketbook, and the glass clanging against my keys. I considered actually paying for it, but then how would I explain the sudden lack of milk, cereal, and orange juice?
“You wouldn’t mind making this dish for company?” my father said, after we’d been living off spaghetti and tapenade for nearly a week.
“Why? Who’d you ask?” I imagined Mrs. Lombardi seated at our table, displaying her throbbing corns in the middle of the meal.
“Omi and Opa would love this,” he said.
I’d only seen my grandparents once since the funeral, when my father had dragged Alex and me to their apartment for dinner. I’d rarely seen them when my mother was alive, because she still resented how they’d treated her growing up: no toys, no books, never once telling her they loved her. But since my mother’s death, my father had been calling her parents every other night, as if he wanted to make them his own. Their conversations consisted solely of health updates interrupted by “What? What’d you say?” But it seemed enough for him.
“Your mother didn’t understand Omi and Opa, was the problem,” he had told us as we drove to their apartment. “They loved her; they just couldn’t show how much.” Eating their boiled chicken and sugar-free apricot tart, I pondered my feelings toward my grandparents, which were as confused as those I had towards my father. They were always afraid to touch Alex and me, as if we’d disintegrate beneath their fingers. I told them I loved them, but it was automatic, not grounded in secrets and shopping trips and bites of Chocolate Destiny. And part of me resented them out of loyalty to my mother — except my resentment was mingled with the knowledge that they knew things about my mother that I didn’t. They held pieces of her that I wanted for myself.
“They won’t like it,” I told my father. “They can’t eat it. It’s too salty —”
“They’ll eat it. Omi and Opa love you very much.”
That night, my father gave me money to buy groceries — eight dollars: just enough to cover pasta, chicken, and vegetables, but not the extra jar of tapenade it would take to feed two more people.
I had to work up my nerve before I could take the two big jars from the shelf, even though stealing in general had become routine. I’d mastered the art of it, and could have published a how-to book: dress nicely, look rich, know the store clerks, smile at the manager. I’d read magazine articles about shoplifting addicts who said, “I do it for the rush,” or, “I love the thrill.” But I could live without the beating heart and sweaty palms; I just wanted to cook good meals. Maybe they weren’t exactly gourmet, but at least I was trying. That’s what my mother faulted her parents for: they never even tried to make a life here, she said; they refused new things, shunned change. When my mother was eleven she inherited a piano from an elderly neighbor who’d given her lessons every afternoon. One day she came home from school and the piano was gone. Her parents had sold it and thrown out all her sheet music. They gave no explanation.
We deserved these expensive groceries, these few fine things. We deserved even more — the whole damn supermarket. The last time we’d been to my grandparents’ house, I’d asked to see old photos. There were several of the inside of an apartment. What’s this? I asked. Omi murmured it was their living room in Berlin, taken as they were about to go. It didn’t look like an apartment one was leaving: finely furnished, candy in a dish on the table, framed photos, magazines ready to be read. It looked like a place you expected to return to soon.
With my grandparents’ special diets, meals were a challenge; everything had to be low-cholesterol, sugar-free — “dietetic,” in their lingo. The Coffee-Mate my father set out was dietetic, as were the packets of Sweet ’N Low he’d filched from Wendy’s. I didn’t exactly know what dietetic was, but I slapped the word onto my dish, anyway. “Dietetic,” I said, as I set the tapenade on the table for lunch.
My grandparents’ faces gleamed. Of course, I could have set out Cat Chow and received the same response. They ate eagerly but delicately, all their actions in slow motion.
I couldn’t stop staring at them: Omi’s auburn wig balanced slightly off-center; Opa’s excessive nose hair. They were tiny, thin, approaching ninety. At the funeral, my mother’s oncologist had shaken his head and told them: “It’s natural to lose a parent, but the worst thing in the world is to lose a child.” At the time I’d scoffed — how could anyone’s loss be worse than my own? But now they looked even smaller than I remembered, and quiet and frightened, like children. The picture that had developed in my mind from my mother’s descriptions of them — ogrelike, depriving her of all pleasures — faded away. “So tall,” Omi had said to me, impressed, though I was barely five-foot-one. They resembled my mother while she was dying: fragile, crumpled, worn, separate from the rest of the world.
The truth was they wouldn’t live much longer. “Eighty-eight years old,” my father would lament after speaking to them on the phone. Eighty-eight had seemed eternal to me: almost twice my mother’s life. But now I wanted them to live forever, because if they died, my mother’s whole history would die with them: Hans, Malka, Friedl, Julius — all with question marks beside their dates of death. How did we even know they’d actually died? It was the same feeling I’d had towards my mother’s cancer: The doctors had said they had no idea where or when the cancer started, or what caused it to form. That just didn’t make sense to me; how could a cancer kill you in ten days, when you didn’t even know its cause? Part of me even disbelieved my mother’s death — it was all staged; it was a mistake. In my dreams, she was alive, just elsewhere, and sent messages assuring me she’d come get me soon. Sometimes I still jumped when the phone rang, half-thinking it might be her.
In the middle of the meal there was a pause. I gazed at my grandparents, cloaked in their silence; how little of them and their families — my relatives — I actually knew. I thought of Alex’s family tree. I don’t know what made me say it exactly, or where the impulse came from, but I suddenly blurted out: “How do we know which concentration camps our family died in?”
As soon as the words flew out of my mouth, I knew it was a mistake: gaudy, tactless, ignorant. I felt like an American tourist visiting another country, snapping photos in a plaid shirt, going to Burger King in the middle of Paris. No taste whatsoever. Like when they showed a Holocaust film at school: “Good movie,” everyone said, as if it were Star Wars or Rambo III.
The question hung suspended in the air. My father kept chewing; in his perpetual half-deafness he hadn’t heard. But my grandparents right beside me, they had heard. They said nothing, just stared ahead, blurry-eyed. Not a sound; not a glance. But the quiet itself, the sudden freeze, was a response all its own.
My father concentrated on his food. After a while he said, “I think maybe the chicken was a little overcooked. I think last time it wasn’t so dry.” He pierced a green bean.
My grandparents stared at their plates; my grandmother’s lower lip quavered. In my humiliation, I excused myself to the kitchen and stood at the sink, filling my water glass up and then emptying it back out, again and again.
After my grandparents left, I curled up on my bed for the rest of the afternoon with my scrapbook of my mother, leafing through photographs, post-its with her handwriting, her scrap-paper doodles, the obituary. Stashed in the back, but not pasted, was last December’s phone bill. My father had given it to me so I could check my calling-card charges, to ensure that AT&T hadn’t ripped us off.
Three minutes, a call to her office had lasted. Two minutes. One. I’d made those calls on a few December afternoons, before we knew she was sick, to tell her I couldn’t meet her for lunch at the Junebug. Of course, in reality, I could have, but I had other, supposedly better plans: smoking cigarettes with my friends, shopping for new lip-liner, watching the boys play frisbee in Central Park. Why had I hung up so soon? Why hadn’t I talked longer? Why hadn’t I agreed to share one more meal? She was always so disappointed when I cancelled lunch, and now all I had was this bill.
My tears fell onto the paper. Crying did me no good: it was selfish; I was crying for my own self-absorbed reasons, my inability to realize how much I loved her when it mattered. Simple guilt. Guilt from which I still hadn’t recovered. Chevre, artichoke hearts, the ridiculously expensive tapenade — as if I could steal back all those lunches I had missed.
In some corner of my mind, when I’d swiped that food, it was as if my relatives were there with me in the grocery store: Hans and Julius, Friedl and Malka, telling me that was how they’d survived. Stealing bread from their captors, telling lies — in the camps, that meant the difference between who lived and who died. And I could do it; I would do whatever it took to survive.
I looked around my bed: calico scrapbook, rainbow-covered quilt, Snoopy pillowcase, audience of fuzzy stuffed animals. I wasn’t in the camps; I was in my bed in Queens. I’d imagined the world to be the same for me as it had been for my mother, for my grandparents, for their family. But my reality wasn’t harsh or life-threatening, just lonely.
I went out to the living room, where my father was settled into the couch, watching Silk Stalkings. I told him I wasn’t going to cook anymore.
He seemed unfazed by my revelation. No mourning over the loss of home-cooked meals; no requests for just one more surprise from the Instant Gourmet. Instead, he asked if I was hungry for dinner, and I told him I didn’t think I’d ever be hungry again. He folded his newspaper. “Well, your father’s ravenous. Why don’t we walk to the Boulevard? I’ll buy us some Wendy’s grilled chickens.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Come. Give your old father some company.”
I followed him the five blocks to Wendy’s, keeping a few sluggish paces behind, gazing at the back of his nylon jacket, his high-water corduroys, his frayed New Balance sneakers. My father fixed everyone’s shoes but his own. The restaurant was mostly empty, except for a few elderly Jewish men — overflow from the Queens Burger — eating alone at two-person tables. It felt strange to stand up at the counter with my father, like we were on our first date. I prayed I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew.
He ordered an iced tea and a grilled chicken. It smelled good. He opened his wallet. “You sure you don’t want anything?”
“I’m not hungry,” I said unconvincingly.
“Let’s throw in another grilled chicken. Maybe I’ll eat it — I’m a growing boy,” he joked to the cashier. She didn’t get it.
I settled into a corner booth while my father waited for our order. I watched the taxis careening down Queens Boulevard, the sun beginning to set behind the Merry-Go-Round strip bar across the street, the number-seven train rumbling on toward Manhattan — no longer the Jewish delis, the friendly butchers, the quiet storefronts of my father’s old Queens. There were no signs they had ever even been there.
My father returned with our tray: two sandwiches and two iced teas. He set them down softly, carefully. He unwrapped my sandwich as if it were a present. I remembered as a child watching him with the shoes, how he sewed on a sole, polished the leather. He took such time and care repairing these little things, as if they were all that existed in the world. He unwrapped my grilled chicken the same way. The yellow wax paper crackled slowly, and not a drop of anything oozed out.
It was quiet in Wendy’s. The light shifted outside the window, changing the color of the subway tracks, the single trees in their sidewalk plots, the customers in the restaurant, the food on the table. In a way we’d lost everything, my father and I; still we ate and leaned back in our booth the way rich people do.