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Poppa

By Johanna Gillman

I was twelve years, old the baby in the family. Lilly and Theresa, my big sisters, nineteen and twenty-one were always out with their friends, so I went everywhere with Poppa and Momma. I usually made a fuss, but one look from Momma—boy, did she have a look when she was angry—and I shut up.

It was December 12, 1935. Aunt Bertha, Poppa’s sister, invited Poppa, Momma, and me to Sunday dinner. Momma didn’t wanna go. “Joe, you know Bertha’s selfish and stupid; you yourself told me she smashed your violin when you were kids just because she couldn’t get her way. She puts on such airs with her fancy clothes and dyed-blonde hair.”

Poppa said, “Yes, I know Rose, but Bertha’s my sister and once in a while I need to see her.”

Poppa owned a restaurant on Broadway and 17th Street in the city. We lived in Brooklyn, so Poppa had to take the subway twice a day. He worked from four in the morning to ten at night, cooking and serving his customers with a joke and a smile, even when he was dead-tired. Then, to make extra money, for my dancing and piano lessons, he worked most weekends behind the hot-dog counter at Nathans in Coney Island. Once in a while, when Momma felt like it, we went for lunch. There he was, sweat pouring down his face, yelling, “Hot-dogs, French fries,” serving them so fast I could hardly see his hands move. When he noticed us, he grinned and waved with a hot-dog.

If I was very good, Momma let me stay up late and walk Poppa home from the subway station; “Poppa, why do you go to work so early in the morning and come home so late?” “Eenele, I must get to the market early to buy the food for the restaurant.” As we walked, he always held my hand, patted my head and listened to every word I said.

“Poppa, Momma wouldn’t let me play with my friends, because she wanted me to help her in the house and Poppa, she yelled at me because I only got a ninety five in arithmetic instead of a hundred.” He always calmed me down saying, “Momma just means well.”

Aunt Bertha’s dinner was so good even Momma seemed to enjoy it. Poppa ate everything, with doubles of the brisket, ignoring Momma’s, “No, Joe, enough is enough.” After dinner we sat around the table, telling stories. But soon, Poppa said, “I don’t feel so good, I’ll go lie down a little.” He was white and sweaty so Momma helped him lie down on the couch in the living room and brought a damp towel to wipe his face. I ran from the table and sat with them. Bertha yelled from the dining room, “It’s nothing, nothing, Joe, just a little indigestion from my cooking. You’ll be fine in a few minutes.

But in a few minutes, he wasn’t fine, and complained about a terrible pain in his left arm. Momma yelled to Aunt Bertha to call a doctor, but Bertha yelled back, “Where am I going to find a doctor on a Sunday night? Just wait a while, he’ll be all right.” Momma was very angry now and decided to take Poppa home and call Dr. Astrakhan who lived right across the street from us. Aunt Bertha kept yelling that Poppa would be all right.

Poppa could hardly move but Momma and I helped him into his coat and got him out of the house to look for a taxi. While Momma ran up and down the street yelling “Taxi! Taxi!” I helped Poppa lean against a lamppost, he was groaning terribly now.

It took a long time before Momma found a taxi. The driver helped us settle Poppa in the back seat. He was getting whiter and wetter every minute. I could see Momma was very worried. She asked the driver to stop at the next drugstore, where she said that the druggist might know a doctor nearby.

It was a small, dirty, drugstore with very hard light. Momma sat Poppa down on a chipped white metal stool next to a tall scale, yelling to the druggist for help.

“Please, call a doctor, my husband’s very sick, please, do something?” I stood on the scale, sobbing, and held Poppa up on the stool while Momma tried to get the druggist to move faster.

It took almost an hour before the doctor came. He listened to Poppa’s chest with his stethoscope and said, “He’s having a heart attack.” The doctor took a needle from his bag to give Poppa an injection and Momma started screaming. She hated doctors and was frightened. “No injection! No injection!” The doctor ignored her and jammed the needle into Poppa’s arm right through his jacket and shirt.

Poppa slumped over. I tried to hold him up, but he was too heavy for me and slid to the floor. I kissed his face, his hands, begging, “Poppa, don’t leave me, Poppa, come back, please come back!  But he was gone.

Momma hit the doctor with her fists while she sobbed, “Why did you do that? Why did you kill him?” The doctor looked at her and said, “What do you want lady, he would have died anyway. That will be ten dollars.”

I sat on the cold floor with Poppa’s head on my lap, my head on his forehead, my tears running down his face, “No Poppa, no Poppa, no.”

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