by Marcella O’Connor


I have a bad habit of using the word “we” when I talk about my family. Like, “We were deported from America back to Poland.” Or, “And then we were sent to the camps during the war.” I catch myself doing this even if the events I’m describing occurred many years before I was born. Mostly it happens when trying to explain something about why my family acts a certain way, but it is a bad habit because I was never in any camp so it’s ridiculous to imply otherwise. The past still affects us, though. Furthermore, there are times when it’s perfectly accurate to use “we.” For example, “We can’t throw away food in my family.” 

My babcia has always been intractable on this front. Growing up, if I ever had Muslim friends over, I’d have to explain the situation beforehand: “This woman might attempt to feed you pork, but don’t throw it away. Whatever you do, don’t throw away any food. Just pass it to me when she’s not looking and I’ll sneak it out.” And diets were unthinkable. A friend of mine once tried to explain why she chose to be vegan. Babcia looked at her across the table sadly, as if thinking of veganism as a kind of terminal illness, before resolving to cook some chicken soup to try and cure the girl. In Polish, telling someone to get well is the same as telling them to get fat; therefore dieting is a form of self-mutilation while anger is thought to stem primarily from hunger.

During my childhood, family meals devolved into battles. I picked at my dinner and never finished. I spent many nights sitting up at the table staring down the food I refused to eat while the rest of the household slept. My Babcia beseeched. She pleaded, “Jeść. You are too skinny. Jeść.” She commanded, “Chodź tu ty. Siedzieć. Tak się nie mówi. Jeść.” She had nearly starved to death as a child, had watched her siblings die one by one, and could not understand this modern world where children would turn away perfectly good food. My brother and my cousins ate and dutifully grew taller than any ancestors in living memory, but I stubbornly remained a runt, pretending to be a vegetarian one moment and inventing a host of food allergies the next. 

Among my generation, we considered riling up Babcia with bad language or mischief to be perfectly kosher, but my refusal to finish dinner crossed some kind of line. Babcia’s breakdowns over wasted food filled us with guilt and also scared us a little. I would have preferred having my mouth washed out with soap or a lash of the wooden spoon to the sight of Babcia having gulag flashbacks. As Babcia tallied her war dead and wept, my cousins and brother began to turn against me. When I was nine, my younger cousin snapped and said, “Why can’t you just eat your fucking dinner, you selfish bitch? You’re making Babcia sad.” He’s now over six feet tall while I barely clear five. My shortness is still seen by some relatives as my existential punishment for all of those uneaten dinners, the tallness of the rest of my cohort like a rebuke. 

Sometimes the elders would blame the influence of my mother for my refusal to eat. My mother’s people are long-limbed and slight like greyhounds (and also, like greyhounds, prone to back problems). They’re finicky, wispy souls who prefer coffee and pastry to a hardy meal. You might expect them to have the same philosophy about wasting food as the Polish side since they’re part of the diaspora driven out of Ireland by famine, but they’re the kind of Irish-Americans who don’t acknowledge being Irish-American. They don’t deny their Irish heritage as such, but never speak of it or think of it, and perhaps at some point in the past abandoned it on purpose, opting for cultural amnesia in order to become American.

In high school biology, another possible explanation for my poor appetite and lack of stature emerged. According to my textbook, height is partially determined by genetic makeup. Mendel’s pea plants inherited their long or short stems. My dad’s side of the family had produced plenty of small people. Some of them, sure, must have had the tall gene but never got enough nutrition to make the most of it, but maybe some of them would have been short no matter what. How could you tell? Maybe, I told myself, I was genetically-destined to be short so I ate just enough to fill out my frame by instinct. Maybe I would have been short even if I had eaten all those dinners.

Eventually it dawned on me that our battle of wills over food had nothing to do with me, at least not directly. I brought my son back to Queens for a few weeks of the summer. He had tried a new kind of yogurt and ended up not liking it, so I re-covered it with the foil lid and put it in the fridge, hiding it in the back behind a bowl of kapusta. Babcia spotted it one morning and said, “He didn’t finish?”

“He didn’t like it.”

“You are going to eat it?”

“Yeah. I’m going to have it for lunch.”

I had absolutely no intention of eating it myself. Two weeks later, Babcia fished the container out of the fridge while I was making tea. “Oh no,” I said. “It’s out-of-date. I forgot about it.”

“It’s still good,” she said.

“No, it’s mouldy.”       

A green film marked the border between yogurt and plastic. Babcia scraped the mould off with a spoon and plopped it into the garbage. Then, still standing in the light of the open fridge, she downed spoon after spoon of yogurt until the container was empty. The defiant look on her face told me that this was between herself and her god. Fate dared her to waste food, to become comfortable, to forget, but she never would. 

Later that week, more relatives visited and I made tacos for everyone. There were a few taco shells left over, mostly broken. I shoved them back into the box, but forgot to get rid of the evidence in time. A few days later, the broken bits of taco shell reappeared in a bowl in the middle of the kitchen table. “Are you going to eat them?” asked Babcia at breakfast.

“I will,” I said. “I’ll have them for a snack sometime.”

They sat there for several days. On the third day, plastic wrap covered the bowl (though surely the taco shells were already stale): a message. After making sure Babcia was still watching TV in the living room and unlikely to walk in on me, I dumped the taco fragments into my pocket. I poured a dollop of salsa into the empty bowl and swished it around until it looked spontaneous, then left the bowl in the sink like an offering. A few hours later, while watching my kid run around Doughboy Park, I felt grit in my pocket and remembered the shells. I drew out fistfuls of crumbs, throwing them to the pigeons, scattering them to the wind.