On my grandma’s shoulds and my wants
by Sarah Seltzer



In my grandmother’s last few years, as she grew frail and spent more time sitting on her four-poster bed with the New York Times scattered across the quilt, we fed her ice cream. We would take a spoon and soften some Haagen Daaz vanilla. We’d bring it to her bedside before she went to sleep and watch her sip it, elegant as always.

The sugar and fat was meant help her digest and relax; judging by her smile and the dainty relish with which she slurped, she enjoyed it.

But her words never indicated this.

Here’s what she would say before she ate it: “I’ll take some ice cream now,” with a tone on that word, “take” that equated the dessert she was about to swallow with the medicine she’d often be obligated to. She was only doing it because it was good for her, she wanted us to know. Because she should.

She never asked for seconds and we only occasionally coaxed her into it. This was the case no matter how much she was pleased by the first round.

When she fussed over meals, we used to ask her “grandma, what do you want for dinner?” But she didn’t seem to know how to respond in kind with that tricky “want.” She would say instead “I should eat some fish,” or “I should have,” or “maybe some…?” Never: I would love. I’m in the mood for. This would make me happy.

We weren’t fooled — she was a person! Bad food and boring food depressed her. “Yech,” she would say over a piece of healthy plain fish or vegetables.  If only she’d been able to verbalize her appetites.

My grandmother was woman of a certain generation, born to Yiddish-speaking parents who gave her elocution lessons as a child, desperate to be seen as cultured, liberal Americans. Slimness and restraint were written into her code of living.

Somehow this woman, our matriarch, a force of nature, never got fully comfortable with articulating many of her desires explicitly. She would indicate things passively, or with a slanted aggression. But upfront, no. Propriety, generosity, duty: these were the only motivators she acknowledged to have moved her actions. She had cravings, we knew, but she had been told at some point not to speak them, and she took that advice to heart.

For over ninety years.

Two generations removed, I exist on the opposite end of the spectrum. Self denial, asceticism, these things are not my style:  I eat macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers, and ice cream, whenever I feel like it. I nap when I’m tired. I have a big mouth and it offends people. I stick my neck out; I am “political.” I am not elegant, ladylike, and certainly not dainty.

And yet, and yet. I can say yes to ice cream all day long and feel smug about my liberation, but occasionally I get a nagging worry that I’m saying yes to too much, to too many experiences,  not because I actually want them, but because I am not supposed to want them, as a woman, as a girl. And so I’m saying yes to prove a point, to proclaim that I’m not like my grandmother and all the women who came before me and come at the same time as me, too, the ones who primly order their fillet of fish and their white wine and abstain from displaying true appetite.

I think: perhaps that constant defiance is just the flip side of being like my grandmother was. As women, can we ever unpeel the layers of “shouldn’t” and “should” to figure out what we truly want?

Besides, I am not always that different. Yes, with my own family, I can badger and cajole and convince all to take a detour to my favorite ice-cream shop. But beyond that bubble when my own wants come into conflict with someone else’s desires, my willingness to state them aloud, my ability to even know them, starts to wane. Sometimes when I’m with a group discussing plans for dinner, I hear: “Sarah, we don’t need you to present the pros and cons of every option. We need you to actually say what you’re in the mood for.”

And I am baffled as to how to answer. Because I’ve been thinking only: what should we eat? What might my dining companions want? I have no idea what I crave. I have pushed it too far beneath the surface.

This does not happen every time, or every other time, but it happens.

I am a woman in the 21st century, a feminist, and strong, raised by strong women. Is it so much to ask that I be able know my own desires and then to state them as though the words themselves were destined to simply sit in the air, and be–as though no rules or expectations stood in the way of their mere existence?