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  • Felice Cohen

Papa: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

papa deli

At my grandfather’s funeral this past Wednesday, I walked up to the pulpit, lifted my cell phone to my ear and said to everyone, “I’m sorry, I really need to take this call.” Then, ignoring their shocked expressions, I spoke into the phone.

“Hi Papa! How was your trip? God, we miss you already. Yes, everyone’s fine, they’re all here and say hi. Yes, everything was as you planned, you made it super easy. What? No, I’m not wearing a skirt. Yes, we all rode here together in a limo. Don’t worry, Sidney had a coupon. Yes, we’ll give the driver a good tip. Sure, I’ll send everyone your love. Talk to you soon. Love you.” Then I hung up, looked out at the smiling faces of family and friends and said, “Papa says hi.”

papa color

A picture of Papa that my sister Jackie and I colored, 1978


In that brief moment as I pretended to speak to Papa, we all forgot our sadness, forgot that he was gone, because in those few seconds I brought him back to life. In truth, I brought my grandfather back to life five years earlier when our book came out. At 89, Papa was feeling the affects of old age and sufferings past, but the book sparked a renewed will to live, validating his survival and showed him he still had much to offer.

And even though he’s now gone, he still has much to offer.

In the last few years Papa and I spent a lot of time together sitting in his kitchen eating ice cream in our pajamas and talking about life or at speaking engagements to hundreds of school children. But of all the lessons Papa taught me about saving money and being a good person, the most important came from working alongside him in his Brooklyn grocery store.

I was eight years old when I first put on his white apron and stepped behind the counter to work the cash register. Papa trusted me to give the correct change. Working side by side, watching this larger than life figure slice pastrami behind the deli counter, reading glasses perched on top of his head, a smile on his face, never felt like work, just time spent with Papa.

Years later, trusting me once again, Papa handed me his life’s story. And in all the years I spent writing, editing and researching the book, it never felt like work, just, once again, time with Papa. The amazing thing is, all this time I thought the book was a gift from me to him, but now, I realize, it was Papa who had given me the gift. And the only way I can ever repay him is by continuing to talk about the man who, if it hadn’t been for his courage and determination to survive, I would not be here today.

Thank you Papa.

Here is a link to Murray Schwartzbaum’s Obituary in the New York Times

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