Although we have already stepped into 2016, I want to pause to honor the memory of Gertie Epstein, a special woman, who was in her late 80s when she died last year.
I was, at least, a head taller than Gertie. Somehow when we are together, however, I found myself continually needing to look up to see her. Gertie demanded that level of attention.
I last saw her almost two years ago. She started the conversation by rattling off her current ailments. It was as if she needed to hang out the dirty laundry before we could move on to topics that were more fun to explore. As she went through her list – which was long and included cancer – I was struck by her upbeat tone. But that was classic Gertie. Her zest for life came through even as she described diseases that were likely to overtake her vitality.
Gertie spent the first 70+ years of her life in South Africa where the spoken and unspoken rules of apartheid defined the fabric of daily life. Her late husband Simon, a man with a wide smile and the capacity to speak multiple languages, was from Eastern Europe. His entire world was wiped away in the Holocaust. Somehow, after escaping Poland and surviving the brutal siege of Leningrad, Simon ended up in South Africa. When he and Gertie crossed paths, he was immediately interested, but she could not be bothered. He was persistent, but so was she. That changed when he enticed her with tickets to the ballet. Gertie asked him to wait 15 minutes so that she could get ready. And that was the start of a lifetime together.
When they were in their 70s, life became more difficult. Simon’s health was declining. Increasingly, it was too unsafe to drive at night in Johannesburg. Gertie and Simon decided to leave South Africa and follow their children, who had left 17 years earlier for America.
Except for two suitcases filled with essentials, the couple sold nearly everything they owned. Gertie recalls how calmly they separated from items that had been a part of their lives. Then, it was time to give up their car.
“When we sold our motorcar, I could not stop crying. That’s when it hit me. I was about to lose my independence.”
Unlike South Africa, when they moved to the Boston area, they would no longer be in their own home or have access to a car. Happily, it didn’t take Gertie long to discover that she could still live fully.
The Epsteins moved to a senior housing community with an apartment that was handicapped-accessible. Help was now a mere pull cord away. Just outside their door, they were steps away from a hot lunch, a caring community, and a resourceful staff.
Gradually, Simon felt secure to explore what the building offered. As his world expanded, so did Gertie’s. She described her newly acquired free time with a mischievous grin. Gertie, who often referred to herself in the third person, said:
“Finally, this was Gertie’s time to live!”
An MBTA station was just a short walk from their apartment. Gertie loved to hop on the train and explore all that Boston had to offer.
So much changed as the years passed. In 2006, Gertie was widowed, and all her sweet stories about Simon were in the past tense. She no longer had the energy to ride the “T” or even leave the building too often. But she still exuded a glow that enveloped everyone around her.
Gertie was a joy to know. The spirit that was her life force never waned. She was interesting and interested. She was also wonderfully clear about who she was.
I was struck by how Gertie avoided a tendency that I had seen in others. It was not unusual to ask some older women about their past and discover that they measured their personal success through the accomplishments of their husbands, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Gertie did not describe her life in relationship to others. Sure, she could showcase her family like the best of them. She had been married to a loving husband, and she was extremely proud of the achievements of her entire family.
But, refreshingly, Gertie also spoke about her own identity. It mattered to her that people knew who she was, whether she was alone or with her family.
When they had first moved into the senior housing community, many neighbors got to know Simon before they met Gertie. (She was no doubt enjoying an adventure downtown!) When she returned to the building, people would be eager to meet the woman who they knew only as “Simon’s wife.” Gertie was always quick to set the record straight, announcing:
“That’s not my name. I am Gertie Epstein.”
When she was a patient in the hospital where her son practiced medicine, she politely reminded his colleagues that she had a name, and it was not “Mark’s mother”.
Gertie, showing me how she responded to anyone in the world who was confused about her identity, spoke each word as if it was a separate and boldface sentence.
I. AM. GERTIE. EPSTEIN.
To be fair, she did acknowledge that Simon had played a key role in her ability to feel personal pride.
“Simon made me who I am.”
It took only seconds for Gertie to realize that she had not completed her thoughts.
“Simon may have made me who I am, but then I took over and kept working on it!”