February 9th, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Germambie


When I was growing up in Schenectady, NY, my family lived eight blocks from my maternal grandparents. They were a major part of my formative years, especially my grandmother, who got stuck with the nickname “Germambie” due to the fact that as a child, I couldn’t say the word “grandma.” In later years, after my sisters had children, she became known as “GG,” which stood for great-grandma. And let me tell you, people, the woman really was great.


She and my grandfather had one of the most amazing real-life romances I’ve ever heard. Her parents didn’t approve of him, so they were secretly married for TWO YEARS, while she stayed at her parents’ house and slept with her wedding ring under her pillow. Once they were finally together, as far as I know they were never apart until his death—at home—from cancer in 1976.


Germambie was a gifted concert pianist before her marriage, and when the Depression hit, she gave piano lessons to neighborhood children to help support the family. My grandfather, who had gotten his law degree, went to work for GE, and stayed there the rest of his life. Together, they raised my mother and her two siblings in a household that prized learning and music and intellect, but also specialized in the world’s worst puns.


As well as being a pianist, Germambie was a master-weaver, a published author, and a life-long learner. In her sixties, she went back to college and finally finished her Bachelor’s degree. In her seventies and eighties, she audited class after class, and went to aerobics at the local Jewish Community center until she was 89. She walked there, by the way. She traveled to places as far away as Sweden and Poland in search of knowledge and, in the case of Poland, her family roots.


After my grandfather’s lingering death, which she dealt with mostly on her own since there was no such thing as Hospice then, she founded an organization called Haven, which helped the dying and their families. It eventually grew so large that she handed it over to a board of directors, and it continues her work today.


For her 80th birthday, Germambie went up in a hot air balloon. For her 90th, she wanted to go white-water rafting, but since she had broken a hip the year before, her doctor said it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. She lived in the house she and my grandfather shared until a few years ago. At 96, she finally couldn’t live on her own, and was moved out to San Diego to be near my parents in a wonderful adult home where she was treated like the queen she was. This coming April, she would have been 100.


But she is unlikely to make it to that anniversary. You see, Germambie is dying. Today, tomorrow, next week. Maybe even a couple of weeks. But soon now. The family is flying out in two’s and three’s to San Diego to say their final goodbyes as she slowly slips away from this world and closer to the next.


For the most part, this isn’t a sad thing. She had a full and wonderful life, and has said that she is ready to go. As her short-term memory disappeared, and with it her ability to keep busy and interested, her life has become more and more frustrating. It is time. For her, death will be a gift, and—no doubt—the start of a new adventure; she wouldn’t have it any other way.


For me, and for her family, it is a mixed blessing, as these things always are. We are happy for her to be free of the burden that her life has become. But we are sad for ourselves, that we will no longer have this glorious, amazing, shining woman in our lives. We remember the family dinners, filled with laughter, and the way she baked a perfect apple pie, with just enough cinnamon (although we always said, “not enough cinnamon” as an on-going family joke).


For me in particular, this loss is beyond measure. My grandmother and I always had a special relationship. Maybe because I was her first grandchild. More likely because we were both “oddballs” in the family, drawn together by our love of writing and gardening. She was the bedrock on which my life was built, and her passing shakes my world to its core. Most of all, she was the one person who always believed in me—even when no one else did, including me. Everyone should be so lucky at to have a Germambie in their corner.


As it happens, I was already preparing to go to San Diego next week, to visit with the family for a couple of days before going on to the Pantheacon convention in San Jose on the 18th. Now my sister and brother in-law from Schenectady will be traveling out with me, in the hope that we will arrive in time to say one final goodbye to this remarkable woman who touched all our lives so deeply. And if we’re too late, at least our family will be together; to mourn, to celebrate, and to remember.


So I say to Germambie: hang on if you can; I’m coming. And if you can’t, then may you go easily along your path to the Summerlands. There you will get your well-deserved rest after almost a hundred years of living your life to the fullest. There you will be reunited with your beloved Efrem, and hold his hand in yours again as you walk in a place of peace. And when you are ready, I believe, you will move on to live yet another lifetime; one which will no doubt be filled with love, and laughter, and learning. And it is my hope that, when the great wheel turns, I will find you there, and meet you once again. We will be strangers to each other, but I am sure that I will know you. Because wherever you are, and in whatever lifetimes, you will always hold within you a piece of my heart.


Goodbye, Germambie. Thank you for all the gifts you gave me. I love you. Go in peace.