Goodbye to Omi
[I'm posting this now because I want to wrap up the posts about my grandmother's death before I head back to the Holy Land. I think it's important that once I get there, I immediately get back into my normal routine and not dwell too much on my grief. Below is the speech I gave at her funeral, pretty much exactly the way I said it . . . except that you'll have to insert for yourself all the sniffling and tears and blowing of my nose. As you'll see, some of it was inspired by my own blog posts . . . . All part of the writing process . . . .]
According to Jewish law, when a person is buried on Chanukah, eulogies are not given at the funeral. The happiness of the holiday, and our remembrance of the many miracles of Chanukah, supersede the sorrow we feel at losing Omi. Rather than talk about Omi’s life, we are instructed to focus on the lessons we learned from her, the legacies she left to us in the form of our characters. I actually think this is very appropriate for Omi, because although her life was filled with tragedies, she herself always focused on the miracles – her own personal Chanukah-like miracles-- that saved her and helped her to go on. She herself opted for years not to talk about her experiences in the Holocaust, because she did not want my mother and uncle to grow up with anger against non-Jews. Yes, much of her life was determined by personal, military, and social upheavals, but when she was spending time with us, none of those things mattered. They did not define her, for Omi was determined always to define herself, and let no one and nothing else define her life for her. The events of her life were not her soul. And so today we will remember not the events of her life, but the beautiful, sweet neshama that was our Omi.
I’ve dreaded this moment ever since I was a little girl. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the feeling, that probably every child has about his or her grandparent, that Omi was very, very old. The truth is that she was livelier and younger, for longer, than most people, but I’ve long been acutely aware that Omi would not live forever, and so for as long as I can remember, whenever Omi and I took leave of each other, I was always careful to kiss her and tell her I loved her. I memorized the feeling of her cheek on mine, and the smell of her clothes that somehow always reminded me of kneidlach. I was afraid every time that this would be the last time I would ever see her. After I moved to Israel, I called about once a week, and after each conversation I’d say “I love you, Omi,” and she would answer, in her thick Polish accent and sweet voice, “I LOVE you too, sveethart. Kisses. Kisses. Bye bye.”
Part of the reason that Omi was an important figure to us was her connection to our family history in Poland. Her stories about her father and the five siblings she lost in the Holocaust always evoked for me an ethereal but lovely sense of the world that time and the Nazis erased. Without consciously doing it, Omi helped us remember that we are part of a chain, and that even though our lives in America and Israel in the 21st century may be very different from her childhood in the small, vanished village of Opatuf, the hundreds of years that our ancestors spent in Poland are still a part of us. They lived on through Omi, and because of Omi, they will live on through us.
I therefore wish to acknowledge – and I hope I’m not violating the prohibition against eulogies by saying this – that today we are paying tribute not only to the legacy of Omi, but also those of her father, Rabbi Yitzchak Natan Pomeranzblum, and five of her six siblings: Salme, Shprintze, Machke, Vivcha, and Mottel, and their children as well. Having perished in Treblinka, they were never eulogized either, but their memories were important to Omi and I think she would have appreciated our mentioning them now.
No discussion of Omi’s character would be completely honest without admitting that she was often difficult. In particular, she was stubborn as a mule.
But her stubbornness had several positive flip-sides, and it is those flip sides that I always admired in Omi and try to emulate myself. Yes, she was stubborn, but she especially had a stubborn faith in God and in tomorrow. I don’t think Omi ever had to CONVINCE herself that she would make it another day, that she would survive all the hardships that her life included. I think she just ASSUMED that she would. Surviving, focusing on today and tomorrow instead of yesterday, came as naturally to Omi as breathing. She was a go-getter, not just because she had to be, but because that’s just the way she was. She was so determined to make the most she could out of what she had, that whenever people tell me that I’m persistent or resourceful, I sometimes answer “Thank you. I get that from my grandmother.”
Very little could stop Omi, not even her lack of English and living in a series of different countries and cultures. I remember Omi calling to tell us about the wonderful things to do in Rockport, on Cape Anne, and my mother telling me that Omi had discovered Rockport by getting onto a random Amtrak train and taking it to a random stop. She’d wanted to explore, so she did. Take driving lessons when she was in her 50’s? Why not? Perhaps what helped Omi survive the Holocaust was that in her bones she had an outlook of “never say die.” How much time my mother had to spend stopping Omi from doing things like applying for a new job when she was 80 years old, or buying a ticket to Germany when she could hardly get around! I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few months, Omi looks around her in Heaven and says “You know, I think I will go to Germany. I think I will do it.” And if anyone tries to stop her, she’ll go to the Heavenly travel agent anyhow, just like when she was a small girl, around 6 years old or so, she walked across town by herself to sign herself up for school, because she wanted to get an education.
Perhaps the most stubborn thing about Omi was that no matter what God threw at her, she never lost her faith in Him. She often told me “God has been very good to me. Everyone else was killed, but he gave me beautiful children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Thank God, thank God.” She had a simple, childlike trust in Him. One of her treasured memories was of her father waking her up every morning, washing her hands over a basin, and saying Modeh Ani with her. I don’t know how many of you know this, but about 10 years ago, Omi had me give her weekly lessons in reading Hebrew, because she wanted to learn to read and say the blessing over Shabbat candles. Jewishly, she was not technically observant, or educated, but her belief in God’s watchful care was an inspiration. She told me several times that she thinks she survived the dangers of her life because her mother was looking out for her, like a guardian angel. Now Omi is with her mother and father again, and she is our angel.
It’s true that Omi suffered from certain emotional difficulties due to her history, but at the same time, in part of her heart, she managed to maintain a certain naivete which I hope that I have inherited. I often noticed in Omi the ability, when she was happy, to be PURELY happy, to bubble over with a pure, unadulterated delight. Usually this was expressed when one of us would come to visit her at her little condominium or at the Hebrew Rehab. When I visited, as soon as she saw me her face lit up, and she would shuffle over to me, in a beeline, not looking at or thinking about anything else, and for a moment it was like I was the adult and she was the child, running to me in spirit although her legs could not keep up, so happy and excited. The last time I saw Omi, she was in the urgent care unit of the nursing home, with an infection in her foot. Every time the nurses brought her a drink, I noticed that while she was drinking, Omi’s other foot would wiggle, like her body couldn’t contain her delight in the refreshing drink. In a certain part of her heart Omi was always a little girl, in such a charming and infectiously happy way. Perhaps that is why she was able always to forge ahead. She didn’t simply not let the turkeys get her down; a certain part of her blocked out the fact that there ARE turkeys.
(As an aside, I know most of you won’t get this except for the family, but . . . who is thinking about turkeys when there is a nice frozen goose that she could carry on her lap from Europe?)
I think it is telling that perhaps the happiest time in Omi’s life was when she got older. About ten years ago I was having dinner with her at her apartment, and she said “This is the best time of my life. I can relax, I can watch television. No one is bothering me. I take a walk when I want and I sleep when I want. Other people are afraid of getting old, but for me it is good. I have nothing to worry about.” Yes it is a sad statement about the stresses she endured for so many years. But it also taught me much about not being bitter, about looking on the bright side.
Omi mellowed as she aged, especially in her later years with the help of her doctors at Hebrew Rehab. I think this was when her true personality, her true neshama, started showing, unencumbered by all the fears and terrible memories from the past. Most people give up a little on life when they go into a nursing home. But often Omi told me “It is OK here. They are nice to me. I play Bingo. I am making friends. It is OK. I have everything I need.” Truly, Omi lived up to the Talmudic teaching: Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.
I do not wish to dwell on all the hardships I’ve been alluding to, in Omi’s life. I’d rather focus on how she overcame them. Omi was my hero. Yes, she was Polish and little and severely lacked formal education, but Omi could teach American feminists a thing or two about doing what you need or want to do, when you need or want to do it, and never doubting yourself. She survived a typhoid outbreak in Opatuf by acquiring medicine through clandestine means. She eluded the Nazis for a little while because, so determined was she to catch a bus out of town, that she broke out of her uncle’s window, after he locked her in the house to keep her with the family. She found love in a concentration camp. She immigrated to new countries not once but twice, and as an immigrant myself I appreciate just how much being an immigrant tests one’s strength. She opened her own business in Vienna and later lived alone and took care of herself right through her 70’s. She taught me more than a thing or two about being independent, and going for your goals. When it came to doing whatever you wanted, no matter what anyone else said, Gloria Steinem has nothing on our Omi.
Omi, I will never forget you. I’ll never forget the family dinners at your house with Uncle Norbert and Auntie Hannah and Danny and Aaron and Jeremy, and our regular trips to Rubins, and how even the waiter there called you Omi. I’ll never forget sitting with you on your beloved balcony. I’ll never forget the apple cake you used to bring to us on a black-and-white china plate, piled high and covered in aluminum foil every time. I’ll never forget you teaching me how to make blintzes, or the way you used to sing me to sleep with a German song about Reizele, or the way you played hopa hopa raitcha with Nathan. I’ll never forget watching The Young and the Restless with you at your house, or the way you used to pick me up from kindergarten in your little brown Honda. I’ll never forget your presence at our Pesach seder every year. I’ll never forget the way all your shoes had a bump where your bunions were, or the way you proudly bought a new suit and came to New York to watch me graduate from college. I’ll never forget how surprised you were to learn that it’s pronounced “hundred” instead of “hundert,” or how you called my father your “sonny law.” Above all, I’ll always remember how much you loved us, because no one loved us the way Omi loved her family.
I’ll be eternally grateful that when it was Omi’s turn to go, she had the privilege of dying with grace and dignity in a comfortable bed, with her children by her side, in a world-renowned nursing home whose staff had taken such excellent care of her in the past years. We should all be so lucky. Her life was hard, but it was a good life, and she was a good person, and I’m grateful that she had a peaceful death.
But it means that now the moment has come, the one I’ve feared for as long as I can remember. It’s time to say goodbye to our beloved Omi, and this time, it really is the last time. The last time to say I love you, Omi.
And I know that if she could, Omi would say “I love you too. Kisses. Kisses. Bye bye.”