Finalist, Remember in November 2013
During my second semester of law school, my grandfather, Papa, was hospitalized with tuberculosis, shingles and a blood infection. My father, a litigator, was in the middle of a long trial, and my aunt (Papa’s only other child) was busy taking her son around the country to visit colleges. As a Holocaust survivor, Papa had already been through a lifetime of categorically isolated suffering, so I refused to let him be alone when it seemed likely that he would die. Since all of my classes were in crammed lecture halls, and it was early enough in the semester that my professors wouldn’t notice my absence, I packed my books and took my bulldog for a stay at Rochester’s finest, the airport Holiday Inn. It was five miles from the hospital, but it was the only hotel I could find that would permit a dog that who was built like an extremely compact rhinoceros.
During the week that I waited for my father’s and aunt’s arrivals, I visited Papa several times a day, sneaking him small cups of black coffee and pints of Haagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream. Each time I greeted him, I laid a palm on his head, where he now had only a few gray hairs. I would kiss his forehead, then look at him closely, as though I was searching for something.
“Papa, I can barely see your scars!” I would announce in facetious celebration, mocking a Nazi-perpetuated myth that Jews had horns.
This was one of our long-standing jokes, a reference to something a German nurse had said after his escape from the concentration camp Neuengamme. When the Germans learned that they were losing the war, the soldiers at his camp loaded 4,500 prisoners onto the bottom deck of a ship that they had commandeered to turn into a floating prison. The Nazis planned to bomb the boat once it was in the middle of the ocean. A British plane flying overhead saw the ship, and, assuming it was Nazis trying to escape, opened fire, first with bombs, then with guns, to ensure that no one survived. Papa was one of the 300 survivors. He floated ashore on a piece of the ship, unconscious from hypothermia. When he awoke in a hospital room, he overheard the German nurses insisting that his file must be mistaken, that he couldn’t be a Jew because he didn’t have horns.
I kneaded his cool head with my fingers until my hand felt waxy, and his coffee was cool enough to take sips of, or his ice cream soft enough to lip. Often, however, Papa didn’t have the energy to talk, so I read him articles from the hotel’s complimentary USAToday until he fell asleep. When his breathing slowed, his chest rising instead of heaving, I flipped through gossip magazines or went back to the hotel to keep up with my classes. As I read, Bella jumped back and forth from one twin bed to the other, stopping every few minutes to lick my hand and urge me to play with her.
My aunt arrived by the end of the week and, by that time, Papa seemed to be responding to his medications. He had lost weight, and his skin was raw with bedsores, but his blood work and cultures indicated that he was recovering, so I returned to school a few days later.
* * *
Several weeks after Papa’s stay in the hospital, he called my father complaining that I had eaten his bag of figs that he had kept in the basement. “It’s alright that she ate them,” he explained. “I just want her to admit that she did it.”
When my father told me what Papa had said, I was not only confused, but also offended. Hadn’t I been the one to stay with him when no one else was there? I told my father that I hadn’t even gone to Papa’s house, that I didn’t have a key. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Those figs probably haven’t been there for 30 years.”
“So what did you tell him?” I asked.
“That you’ll call him and apologize.”
* * *
For as long as anyone could remember, Papa had been stockpiling food and any other commodities he deemed valuable. My favorite childhood game when my family visited him was treasure hunt, when my brother and I would ransack the basement looking for fun things to play with. To the untrained eye, Papa’s house was full of clutter, but to those who knew him, his basement was a Russian nesting doll of adventure.
Inside a tall box, you would find a collection of white PVC pipes. But you couldn’t just turn the box upside down and dump it out; it was far too heavy. Instead, you had to take the pipes out one at a time. After that was done, when you peered over the edges of the box, you’d see an off-white cloth. Here you’d need an older sibling’s help—one person to tip the box, and the other to reach inside and grab the cloth. The cloth, however, was really the top of a canvas satchel that required both hands to lift, because inside was a collection of silver coins that Papa had hoarded when the government announced that it was going to stop circulating them in 1965.
I’m sure this hoarding was a remnant of the war—Papa saved things in preparation for a conflict he could never be sure wasn’t coming, but to my siblings and me, the broken irons and handle-less pans were just an ideal setting for an adventure.
* * *
Six years after accusing me of stealing his figs, when Papa died, my reputation as a fig thief remained a running joke in the family. In the days after the funeral, the table in my aunt’s kitchen was covered with food—trays of kosher meat, cookies, fruit bowls and hummus dips sent by friends of the family. During shiva, the Jewish community is supposed to provide food for the mourners so they are free to reflect on the deceased rather than upon their own needs. Despite this, one afternoon before the crowd of mourners arrived to honor my grandfather, my five-months-pregnant cousin was craving Haagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, so my father volunteered to go to the grocery store.
While he was gone, Alesa rummaged through the pantry cabinets, looking for something to temporarily relieve her hunger. After a moment, she ran into the kitchen, where I was sitting at the counter drinking coffee with my aunt, waving a package of something brown, the clear wrapping flapping loosely on one end. “Rachel!” she exclaimed, “I found the figs you stole from Papa!” She thrust the figs dramatically onto the counter, pretending she had found evidence against me.
My father and I joked about the figs from time to time, but I was surprised—and touched—that Alesa remembered the accusation. At first, Papa’s indictment had offended me, but over time it had started to feel like an inside joke, even if it was one we never acknowledged. Even though the imaginary figs pointed to the descent of Papa’s mind, they still reminded me of who he was, of how I had come to know him through the piles of canned food against the basement walls, through his years of silence about the Holocaust and then through the stories he eventually told me.
My father returned with a pint of strawberry Haagen-Dazs—and a package of figs.
* * *
At the unveiling of my grandfather’s headstone, my family members and I looked for stones to put on the grave (a Jewish tradition to mark that we had been there). Even though it was a Jewish cemetery, and most of the headstones had clusters of pebbles on them, there were none on the ground near Papa’s grave. My brother and I started searching the graveyard for stones. There was only one tree in the cemetery, and I thought that perhaps there would be loose stones at its base.
When I first got to the tree, I was disappointed to find the ground smooth and uncluttered by stones. I circled the tree anyway, hoping that previous mourners had just taken some stones, that there would be more behind the tree. As I rounded the massive oak, I saw a pile of empty glass bottles tangled in the grass. At first I wondered who had left the mess, who was in a cemetery doing what I could only imagine was something illicit. Then, thinking that maybe there would be something that could pass as a grave marker under the bottles, I knelt down to look more carefully. Of the dozen or so bottles, only one had any kind of label. I picked it up to read the words embossed onto the glass.
“California Fig Syrup Co.”
* * *
After the unveiling, my family went to lunch along with my aunt, uncle and two cousins. I sat at the end of the table, across from my father, my purse nestled on my lap, one hand resting on it at all times, feeling the shape of the bottle underneath the rose-gold leather. I had tucked the bottle away in my bag when I had found it, wanting to keep its appearance to myself, at least until I could discern what I was feeling.
I wasn’t someone who usually sought meaning in coincidences, and I dismissed new-agey sentimentality without a second thought, so it’s not that I thought Papa had somehow rearranged the cosmos to leave me an antique bottle. Still, half feeling foolish, I was hesitant to lift my hand. I felt more connected to Papa through that bottle than I had through prayer, or through the pebbles I had eventually found and placed on his grave.
While my family updated each other on their lives, my mind stayed on the bottle under my palm, the bottle that somehow both was and wasn’t from my grandfather, and I wondered what its label meant, or whether it meant anything at all. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t a sign from my grandfather, but it was also something more than just a passing coincidence. Whether or not Papa had known about the joke over the past few years, and whether or not those figs had ever existed, it was me whom Papa had accused of stealing them. And that didn’t mean that Papa thought I was the least trustworthy member of our family; it meant that he knew I had been there.
Rachel Blumenfeld is a recovered lawyer who now works as an English professor, attempting to spread her love of literature to her students. In her spare time, she volunteers as a draft horse whisperer at an animal rescue. Rachel earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bennington College.
Image courtesy of author.