Readers’ voices with Joan Axelrod-Contrada: Granola bars to the rescue

  • The late Fred Contrada and his wife, Joan Axelrod-Contrada, in Jamaica. Courtesy photo

For the Gazette
Published: 1/19/2021 3:53:28 PM

My late husband, Fred, had such a zest for life, he rarely felt the need to cut a hike short for something as mundane as lunch.

I, on the other hand, was like Pavlov’s dogs. One o’clock would roll around, and my drive for food and drink swept over me like a tsunami. My stomach rumbled, and my inner 2-year-old vanquished all vestiges of my adult self.

“I’m starving,” I’d whine. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“Not at all,” Fred would reply. “There’s a red-winged blackbird in that tree over there.”

What, no Greek omelet or chicken caesar wrap? I’d rack my brain for ways to get my creature comforts met without clipping Fred’s wings in the process and come up dry. Finally, one day, a lightbulb went off in my head. I started carrying granola bars in my purse.

Fast forward 25 years and two kids later: Fred and I started planning a trip to Jamaica. Our guidebook clued us in about how tourists needed to treat street hustlers with respect. Ignoring them was considered rude.

Me, rude? I’d grown up with a mother who worshipped Emily Post’s etiquette decrees. Mom taught me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” She’d squeezed her index finger and thumb together and run them like a zipper over her lips. Keeping quiet had long felt more like an exercise in self-control than any kind of slight.

Mom rarely talked about her own father, a wino on the streets of Lynn, Massachusetts. She blamed his drinking on “hardening of the arteries,” a form of dementia that supposedly took away all memory of his last drink. Ultimately, he ended up in a nursing home with the lyrical name of Blueberry Hill.

For years, when I passed panhandlers on the streets of Northampton, I saw my grandfather. Ignoring street people seemed like the best thing to do — certainly better than chiding them to get help or giving them money for booze.

Then, after our trip to Jamaica, I saw life anew. Maybe I could do something else with those granola bars. I embarked on my “Granola Bar Experiment” with some trepidation. What if everyone wanted cold, hard cash instead of a snack? I braced myself for rejection.

Surprisingly, Kashi’s mocha almond granola bars proved a hit. Only a few people turned them down, and, mostly, because they didn’t have the teeth to chew them.

All those years of turning my eyes to the window displays to avert the gaze of panhandlers flashed before me like a scene through a funhouse mirror. How had my altruistic values become so distorted? Although Fred and I contributed to organizations that provided food and housing for those in need, I tensed up and avoided them whenever I saw them on the streets.

Fred’s legacy lives on in those granola bars. As a reporter for the Springfield Republican, he often interviewed panhandlers downtown. They trusted and opened up to him. For me, the mocha almond bars have become a way to not only take care of myself but also to offer a little snack and conversation to others. Recently one of my recipients warmed me from head to toe with her enthusiastic, “Those are my favorites!” Mine, too. No one deserves to be ignored.

Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a children’s book author as well as a freelance writer and editor who lives in Florence.




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