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Listener Essay - The Magic Hands At The Table

  Carol Rudin Hegeman now runs Hegeman Consulting which provides grant writing services, grant writing training and training with a non-exclusive focus on elder care. She was Director of Research at the Foundation for Long Term Care in Albany for more than 30 years and lives in Columbia County.

My mother-in-law, the late Elisabeth Hegeman (known as Oma to us all,) was an amazing cook. I have spent my adult life trying to get close. But unless you were lucky enough to eat at her table, you would not know that she also possessed magic sleight-of-hand when serving food. Just as ventriloquists could throw their voices, Oma could transfer food from her serving bowl to your plate without seeming to do so.

You never saw a refill coming. It came whether or not you had previously just declared to all and sundry that you were stuffed beyond belief. Your plate would be empty or as empty as you could make it. You had just seen it empty. You looked away, maybe to take part in the conversation, looked again and there it was, a plate full again of something. Oma continued talking as if nothing had happened, but there was just a trace of triumph in her sweet and beautiful face.

It was such an amazing sleight of hand that you always ending up thinking ““Maybe I just thought I had finished my mashed potatoes.” However, you had indeed finished them. There was just more of it now than there was a minute ago. She hadn’t gotten up, you hadn’t moved and there was no sign of a moving serving spoon. Refill magic had occurred.

Over the years, we all learned that this magic was part and parcel of a meal chez the senior Hegemans, especially on special occasion dinners. We learned to cover our plates with our crossed wrists when we were done. This physical impediment to the refills worked unless, as you always did, you moved your hand to help a child or to accent a point. If so, the plate was again full. Willie Hegeman (Opa to us) supported Oma, saying in his German accent, “It won’t taste so good tomorrow. Better to eat it now.”

One day after a Christmas dinner, Oma, my sister-in-law, Gretchen Hegeman, and I were sitting around the cleared table just talking. One of us (I suspect it was me) finally asked Oma “Why do you always re-fill our plates like that.

Her face changed and she took on a distant look. Her words were something like this:

“In Germany, when I was growing up after World War I, there was rarely enough food to eat. If company came to eat with you, they knew to refuse seconds because any remaining food was intended to feed the host family for the next day. Extra food was on the table as a matter of pride, but it was not at all clear than it was really meant for the guests.

The only way company could accept seconds (even if they were very hungry) was if the hostess quickly slipped it on their plate. I watched my mother do that when there was enough food and I remember going to peoples’ houses and being warned never to ask for or to accept seconds even if I was still hungry and even if it was offered. If, however, food appeared on our plate despite our protestations that we did not want seconds, it was then OK to eat it.”

This little explanation was a true Christmas gift. I hadn’t realized the lingering power of habit after so many years and how habit carries on, in this case well after scarcity was no longer an issue. Even more important to me, the meaning of scarcity had never hit home on this very personal level. Although I knew about hunger and scarcity, and like most children of my times and culture, we had heard “Eat your food—think of the starving Armenians” and although I had well known that Oma and Oma grew up with hunger after WWI, it had never truly hit home as it did then. The story had power, the same kind of magic power as her serving spoon.

After that Christmas conversation, she used the magic spoon a little less frequently, but habits die hard and it was around for many years to come. However, I now try to remember that the bounty of our meals is not an entitlement but a gift. While the sleight of hand was never explained (How did she do it?), I am so glad that it turned into a priceless Christmas tale of insight and understanding.

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