Nothing is Certain: Death and Bagels

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

My very first marriage proposal came from the guy behind the counter at H&H Bagels on 80th and Broadway. I was around twelve and realize now he was most likely just looking for a tip or playing with the shy girl who was only recently allowed to go out from her school to buy her own lunch. I said,  “No,” obviously, but with a smile. I admit, though, that bagel tasted extra delicious. I can’t say for sure, but I am fairly certain this is where my love affair with the bagel began.

I even went to school with the Zabars’ kids, and a Lender helped set me up with my husband. Loving bagels was in the cards. 

But bagels are nothing more than yummy delicious bread made to expand my waistline. And expand it they have. I had always been quite thin growing up. Then I got older, had babies, and was no longer so easily thin. But for the life of me, I just couldn’t quit bagels.

Whenever I get serious about finally taking off the last of the baby weight (my “babies” by the way are in the double digits), I eliminate bagels, among other ‘evil’ carbs. Living in Los Angeles now, I may be one of the few there who still dabbles in carbs.

I was about half way through The Whole Life Challenge, one of the many programs I have tried, and was doing very well I may add – no bagels, no cookies, no chips, only spin class and spinach, when I raced across the country back to the Upper West Side, where bagels reign.

My father had unexpectedly started hospice.

It had been a rough year for him. Some strokes, a rare autoimmune disease where one layer of skin was attacking another layer of skin, sciatica that made walking nearly impossible, and now a virus he couldn’t fight.

I came in from California. My sister drove in from Pennsylvania and my other sister flew in from Vancouver.

“Hi Rachie,” I heard him that first day. No one calls me Rachie, or if they do I don’t particularly like it. But at that moment no name sounded better to me.

He knew I was there and even asked me about the grad school program I was about to start. I was glad he knew I was continuing with my education with the goal of becoming a college writing professor. As a Jew from Brooklyn, education was important to him. He was a lawyer who dreamed of being a writer. My years as a struggling actress (waitress) were tolerated. This was a nice goodbye to leave him with, the thought that his daughter could become a professor.

He was actually my stepfather but he’d formally adopted me as an adult. It was not lost on me or my mother and sisters (his daughters) that this would be my second father to die. But this time, instead of being a four year old rushed out of the house by a hysterical mother, I would be able to sit by his side. That felt like a generous gift. To us both.

As a lawyer, he repped bottling companies in their labor disputes. Our house was often filled with large bottles of Pepsi or Sprite or Ginger Ale. He was really the only one who drank them. The doctors and hospice reps had instructed that he would not be served food or water, unless he asked for it. It would just prolong the process they explained. I understood, but didn’t like it. His lips were so chapped. It seemed wrong to be caring for him and not to offer him sustenance. I ordered some ginger ale (which felt very right considering the cases of it we grew up with stacked in our closets) and, with the hospice’s permission, I began sponging his lips with it. He lapped it up, reaching out with his mouth and tongue. Hungry for the care.

I did not know him when I was a baby. Or even as a toddler. I met him when I was nine. He did not care for me when I was an infant who needed to be fed hand to mouth, but it still felt like I was returning the favor.

Each night, heading out from the hospital, I walked back to the apartment where I was raised, listening to Hamilton blasting on my headphones. I would make my way through the neighborhood I used to live in—a few blocks south of my school, H&H, and the apartment where my mother and I had lived after my dad died and before she met him. 75th and West End was the only place where it had just been the two of us. Me and my mom. As I walked home, I would search the night sky, lit up by the city and especially by the digital clock at what I will always only call the Apple Bank building, for answers to this feeling, to this weight – a burden and a gift: to witness the end of someone’s life.

One day at my sisters’ insistence, I took a break and exited the hospital. I thought it would just be a walk around the block, with Leslie Odom’s  “Wait for It” on repeat. But then I spotted the coffee shop. Without thinking, and without worry for what points or diet program I was on or what size my pants were, I went and sat down and ordered a bagel. Tuna fish, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar cheese. Not toasted please. Open faced.

This was not a failure of will power, although I am the queen of finding pleasure in a bag of chips when I am sad and berate myself after eating said bag of chips, or a cookie, or usually a bagel (or bagels if I am honest). This was solace and care, a refueling. This was sponging my lips with ginger ale; providing myself with a little humanity, more than just an emotional escape.

But can humanity really be found in a bagel?

In that moment in that coffee shop across from where the man who chose to be my father lay dying in a hospital bed — just down the street from where I went school in a neighborhood we moved to only because my first father died — it felt like a reckoning, a welcome home. My history was just outside this coffee shop, and I knew that this neighborhood and this man and these memories had made me and formed me. And I also knew with this impending loss, I was being reformed and reshaped, yet again, perhaps with a little hole in the middle, like my true love the bagel, but still solid.

My food arrived, and I had no guilt. I salted it up, as I can be known to do. It was a gift I gave myself so I didn’t just keep roaming the streets, so I could get up and go back in through those hospital doors and bear witness to something awful with love. And then I did just that.

Comfort food had never been so comforting.

***

Rachel Zients Schinderman’s work has been published in The LA Times, The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, The Manifest Station, and The Nervous Breakdown to name a few. Her parenting column “Mommie Brain” ran in The Santa Monica Daily Press for two years. She was born in Louisville, KY (yes, really), was raised in New York City (thanks Mom for moving us there!), and currently lives in Culver City, CA with her two sons, two dogs, two fish, and one husband. She is working on a memoir.

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§ 12 Responses to “Nothing is Certain: Death and Bagels”

  • Francine says:

    Love this piece.

  • Rosanne Skopp says:

    Hi Rachel
    Loved your piece. I recently did a bagel blog in the New Jersey Jewish News and I’m sure I’m your cousin…..your much older cousin! I’m from the branch of the family that spells the last name Zaentz. We do love our bagels!

  • Leslie A says:

    Fresh, raw, loving vulnerability. A bagel. An everything bagel! Thank you Rachel for such humanity expressed in your writing. Life, death, comfort. Beautiful piece!

  • Laurence Goldstein says:

    Sweet, There is a reason its called comfort food.

  • Jace says:

    So beautifully written, with all the tenderness and toughness of a New Yorker in the throws of heartbreak. Thanks for writing this — open-faced, with cheese — very bold.

  • Judy Kameny says:

    What a beautiful piece. So touching and evocative.

  • Dawn says:

    Thank you for posting. As a New York kid from the 70’s and a foodie I found this piece just delicious.

  • Peter Blumenthal’s says:

    Hi Rachel! Your piece really moved me, it’s comforting to read your words as it is so close to my life and memories. I grew up in 81st street RSD. Walking to school every day PS9 and then IS44 right by H&H bagels I will never forget the smell on the sidewalk. From the fan blowing the smell of the best oven baked bagels I’ve had till this day. A memory that will be with me forever. Thanks again for sharing!

  • I am a 79 year old transplanted New Yorker and while reading your piece, I was brought back to the Upper West Side. Although I was raised on Columbus Avenue and 67th Street, H & H and Zabars were always part of my life. Thanks for the piece.

  • Ellen Karis says:

    I had lived around the corner from H&H for a few years, it was a luxury like no other, to walk out of my door and within 2 minutes smell that delicious assortment of dough mixed in with salt, garlic, raisins, poppy, it was glorious…Whenever I went to my friends shore house in NJ, I always brought 2 dozen, it was the best house gift you can give a person..Thank you for sharing your experience and I too love carbs, I mean what else is really left..God Bless…

  • Marisa says:

    Thanks for sharing. I love bagels too. My family is immigrated from Haiti starting more than half a century ago, but I was born and raised in the US. Bagels bring back so many childhood memories (we ate them almost everyday), and my dad became friends with the local shop’s owner. I won’t eat just any bagel, and it’s sad that so many old school shop’s have closed.

    After suffering from eating disorders for years, it feels weird to eat like a normal person again, even indulge a little, but it is important. At the very least it shows me how far I’ve come from where I was. Soon I’ll be back to my strict healthy diet, but I’m glad I took a break, *while the gyms were closed*, and the world didn’t come crashing down nor did I gain weight (I walked and biked a lot though).

  • antonia deignan says:

    awesome piece. thank you for sharing.

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