The rabbi hands me the shovel, instructing me to invert its bowl before scooping the first mound of earth onto my father’s grave. This is the custom, he explains. To honor our loved one’s memory, we must demonstrate our reluctance to perform this obligatory task. With an upside-down shovel, the rabbi says, his free hand patting my shoulder, you cannot hurry.
There’s nothing I’d like more than to get this over with. I’ve never had much patience for the Torah. I am more at home in a deli than in a synagogue, so I think about food. The shovel, as a giant spoon. I remember my father’s dinner plate, how he’d always save his favorite thing for last. Family meals were object lessons in perseverance, fortitude, denial. Dad would not permit himself his beloved mashed potatoes until they sat alone on his plate, the buttery, fluffy white mountain the sole survivor, outlasting lukewarm meatloaf and limp green beans.
Dad is a human garbage disposal, my mother and sister and I joked, watching him peer into the refrigerator to retrieve expired containers of sour cream and salad dressing—not to throw away, but to ladle atop his meal. Paper breakfast napkins were turned inside out and reappeared at dinner, stale bread became croutons for his salad, the last dribble of sour milk was poured over his cereal or into his coffee where it would curdle. While we helped ourselves to seconds, Dad waited to refill his own plate, weighing the odds that a scrap or two might be left behind.
Two years ago in the spring, my father pushed himself away from my table, hands laced over his belly, saying he’d had enough to eat. We had just finished our Passover Seder, one of Judaism’s most symbol-laden meals. We dipped vegetables in salt water that represented the tears of Jewish slaves. We ate matzo, unleavened bread meant to remind us of the Jews’ hurried escape from Egypt. We used the tips of our pinky fingers to spill red wine onto our plates, one drop for each of the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh. We concluded dinner with the song Dayenu. Dayenu, loosely translated from Hebrew as “Enough,” gave thanks for the many triumphs permitting the Jewish exodus. At the end of every verse, we sang a round of “Dayenu, Dayenu” signifying that each of the many miracles, on its own, would have been sufficient. Dayenu, our Passover Haggadah text said, was about more than praising God. It was a song that examined the status-quo mentality of always wanting more. Instead, the chorus urged us, raise your voices in gratitude for what you have.
Dad patted his midsection, saying he’d had enough matzo ball soup, enough brisket, enough potatoes. It was the first year he had turned over the role of conducting our family Seder to my husband. My father’s old Haggadah was stuffed with Post-Its and newspaper articles. His Seders were full of digressions referencing everything from the Talmud to the L.A. Times. Each piece of notepaper or newspaper pulled from its pages meant another few minutes tacked onto the Seder run time. Growing up, my sister and I flipped through our Haggadahs under the table, counting down the number of pages we’d have to endure, pressing the books against our bellies to stifle the rumblings until we got to the long-awaited line of boldface, italicized type directing Seder participants to eat the “Festive Meal.” The two of us had never gone more than a handful of hours between meals in our entire lives. Nevertheless, at our Seders, we cupped a hand, whispering into each other’s ears, I hope Dad hurries up, I’m starving.
My husband’s Haggadah had Post-Its, too—indicating the sections and paragraphs we could skip. Our children, who hadn’t received a formal Jewish education and were being raised in a non-religious household, were happier, and Dad didn’t seem to mind. My father was tired lately. He had become quieter. None of us knew that a tumor had been growing inside his stomach for months. If Dad felt something was wrong, he didn’t let on. Instead, he joked. “Dayenu!” he grinned. It didn’t occur to us that his hand might be pressing down to still hunger or pain. A hand on the belly meant Dad was full, and that was that. We’d never questioned why Dad didn’t take a last helping before asking whether everyone else had already had enough. We’d never argued with him when he said he’d be happy to scrape the layer of mold off the top of the old cream cheese for his bagel. The new package, he’d say, is meant for you. That was the kind of guy Dad was. Why would Passover be different?
My father was as cautious and measured with the information he offered up about his childhood as he was with the portions he took onto his plate. There was one story, though, that he told again and again. It was 1944, and Dad was eight years old. His father was dead, his mother had been deported to a concentration camp, and he was in hiding with his aunt and uncle, living in the basement of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest with several other families. One day, a bomb ripped through a nearby building. Plaster rained down from the ceiling in jagged chunks. No one was hurt. Most important, my father said, someone had thought to cover the pot of cabbage soup simmering on the stove. Because of that, the food was salvageable. “We were lucky,” Dad said. “So very lucky and thankful. We got to eat that day.”
The Nazis didn’t manage to kill my father. Many years later, Dad’s own body let him down, in revolt against itself. Cancer, alarming in its ordinariness and stealth, was an indiscriminate and efficient assassin. The morning my father died, on a borrowed hospital bed in my childhood bedroom, his robust body was whittled down to not much more than the essence of a body, to the idea of one, to mottled skin stretched over brittle bone. I thought of my grandmother, dead at forty from typhus contracted in Dachau, as I held Dad’s hand one last time. With its papery skin and feeble pulse, it was so delicate and insubstantial I felt as though he might float away if I let go.
On a hill at Mount Sinai cemetery, overlooking the Holocaust memorial, I’m holding a shovel instead of my father’s hand. It weighs five pounds, then ten pounds, then one hundred pounds, then one thousand. I scoop the dirt, hearing the hollow thud as it hits my father’s casket, and pass the shovel to my mother and sister. Beside us, a line of my male cousins assembles, suit jackets off, shirtsleeves rolled up against the punishing 101° August heat. One by one, they perform the ceremonial burial, shovel bowl-side up, flipping it back over to finish the job. Brows dripping, temples throbbing, forearms rippling, backs hunched over in shirts turning translucent with sweat, they move an enormous mountain of displaced soil back into the grave. No one speaks. The pine box holding my father’s body is obscured and the thuds become muffled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt atop more dirt. My father would be embarrassed by their exertions. I can hear him urging: please, please don’t go to all of this trouble. Don’t wear yourselves out on account of me.
Back at my house, platters from Canter’s Delicatessen await the mourners. There are pinwheels of roast beef and corned beef and pastrami, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese and muenster. There are containers of pickles and pepperoncini and olives, coleslaw and potato salad, mustard and mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. There are baskets of rye bread and challah and rolls, plates brimming with chocolate chip and cinnamon rugelach and rainbow sprinkle cookies. There is coffee, regular and decaf. The excess suddenly makes me nauseated with shame. I picture my father standing at the end of the buffet, last in the long line of people winding out of my kitchen into the living room, where the early birds already sit in folding chairs, balancing sagging paper plates atop their knees. My father waits patiently, content with maybe half a pastrami and cheese sandwich, one pickle spear, a tablespoon each of potato salad and coleslaw, a broken cookie. At his own Jewish funeral, where a shortage of food would be inconceivable, Dad still wants to make sure there is enough for everyone else.
Once the guests are gone, I wander through each room, picking up a crumpled napkin here, a coffee cup and a nibbled quarter of sandwich there, sweeping cookie crumbs off a card table into my cupped hand. But I can only busy myself for so long. Back in the kitchen, the silence becomes a roaring in my ears that makes me dizzy. I double over the sink and weep, enough tears to fill cups of saltwater lining dozens of Seder tables. When I lift my head, I picture my father standing right beside me. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s retrieving the used plastic forks and knives from the trash. He wipes each one with a soapy sponge and rinses them off in the sink. As he dries them with a dishtowel, he tells me they’ll come in handy when I pack his grandchildren’s school lunches. He divides up the leftover lunchmeat and cheeses, asking to borrow a black felt-tipped Sharpie so he can carefully label each Ziploc bag before stowing it in my freezer. Maybe you can have a picnic, he says. Or another dinner, for a rainy day. Sweetheart, he continues, because that is what my father has called me my whole life, don’t let any of this delicious food go to waste.
No, Rabbi, I am not eager. I have not had anywhere near enough.