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Hesped of Polly Geller
My sister Polly was the bravest person I’ve ever known. She was born into a world not ready for her and spent all her life trying to figure out her place in it.
Blue eyed and honey blonde, Polly was an adorable little girl. In every family picture, she looks out, pigtailed and smiling. It was a while before she realized that the world was moving a little bit faster than she was and from then on, she struggled, both inwardly and outwardly, to hang on.
Polly never shrank from a challenge, never said “I can’t do that.” She always tried and tried her best and then tried some more. If she were entrusted with a job, she would keep at it no matter what the obstacles. Very proud and protective of her place in the law firm where she worked for 18 years, Polly almost never took a day off – she felt both irreplaceable and at risk. At the end of one morning commute to her job in Manhattan, Polly broke her ankle getting off a bus but made her way to the office anyway. She didn’t want to let her employers down.
The world seen through Polly’s eyes must have been a terrifying place but you would rarely see the sadness that I know dwelled inside her. My sister would always move aside if she saw you coming, not because she didn’t want to interact with you. She was just afraid of being in the way. I think Polly always felt that she was somehow in the way. She tried to make herself invisible because she thought that was what people wanted from her.
The best way to provide for Polly was to ask her what she wanted and do the opposite.
“Do you want more chicken?” “No thank you.” But she really did want a second helping.
“Would you like to go to a movie?” “No thanks.” But she really did want to go to a movie.
“What time should we pick you up to go to Arline & Denny’s Chanukah party?” “Don’t bother, I don’t want to go.”
But she really did want to go, to do something, to be with people, even if she didn’t have the same social skills that others did.
Polly had no vanity and therefore approached the world with honesty, naiveté and a forthright manner. Not caring how you appear to others is emboldening. After 9/11, Polly would approach any police officer or fire fighter on the street and thank them for their service. She did not always get the response she anticipated but it was the only way she knew to approach the world – straight on and hoping for respect in return.
Of course, my sister’s life wasn’t all sadness. In Polly’s world, certain things were important and gave her pleasure. Star Trek gave her pleasure. “Law & Order” and “MASH” were important. Doing needlepoint was a pleasure. Knowing the entire lineage of the kings and queens of England was important. After all, our grandfather was a Londoner and our great-grandfather started the first Yiddish daily in England. Polly’s very name was British. (But people who asked her if she wanted a cracker risked her wrath.)
Which brings me to the subject of humor. Polly did not suffer bad puns lightly. We grew up in a household full of a type of humor, which elicited much laughter from guests but merely groans from us. If you came up short in the humor department, Polly would assume that you got your wit from the Victor Geller humor academy and would dismiss you with a sad shake of her head.
While I’m not sure having Deena, Maury and me for siblings gave her pleasure, but being an aunt and a great-aunt definitely brought Polly both pride and joy. In her way, she was a loving aunt to Avigayil, Rami, Yehuda, Batsheva, Aliza, Akiva, Yael and Shlomo, never forgetting a card and a wish of “Hippo Birdie” at each birthday. When the next generation came along, she said “I was always a great aunt and now I’m a great great aunt.”
Her favorite relative though was always Izzy. When Polly was about nine years old and I was 15, we were stuck together for a shabbos in Bnei Brak with relatives we had never met. I’ve shut the memory of it out of my mind but it must have been some long shabbos because Polly did not speak to me for the next three years. Silence. Not a word. “Please ask my sister to pass the ketchup” silence. And then, one day, I brought Izzy home and instantly regained Polly’s grudging respect. She started to talk to me again and we began to rebuild our relationship.
Of course, the people to whom Polly showed the deepest love and loyalty were the members of the New York Yankees organization. Polly was an expert on the Yankees and their most devoted fan.
This was not an easy path to tread in our family. Before she was married, our mother had season’s tickets to seats behind the dugout at the Polo Grounds and our father, who grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium also was a proud NY Giant fan. When Willie Mays and the rest of the team betrayed New York City and moved to California, family loyalties reluctantly shifted to the hapless Mets. All except for Polly. Before there was ever a family photo on her walls, my sister hung a picture of Mickey Mantle. She wore a Yankees cap to work and carried her keys on a Yankee chain. And when she got sick, the Yankees sent her a blue teddy bear – whom she named Yoggi Beara. She kept him with her and held him tight during her last few months.
Throughout her illness, Polly was a brave patient. She did not complain when her vision was compromised or when her hearing diminished. She did everything that was asked for her because she wanted to recover. She never complained, not through surgeries, procedures, blood tests, chemo, radiation, medication. Polly placed her trust in Hashem and always assumed that, like the Yankees, she would make it to the post-season, that things would turn out well.
That’s how I knew that Polly’s illness had run its course. The last time I spoke with her was on Friday morning. I told her about Thursday’s exciting Yankee game. How they hit a record breaking three grand slam home runs and how they came from behind and won 22-7. My little sister said nothing. She didn’t cheer or belittle my surprise at their prowess. She didn’t react at all. If Polly no longer cared about the Yankees, I knew that she was ready to end her long battle with this world and move on to an easier one – one with a place for her.
Hesped of Polly Geller
Speaking about Polly is hard. It is hard because her life was profoundly difficult, because the obstacles she encountered daily were never fully within her control and were never her fault, and because she died far too soon after being born too early. It is hard to think about Polly and not be sad- in many ways because sad is not what Polly did and not how she went about her life. If we were sad for her she was never sad for herself- at least not outwardly- and I think that it is that knowledge- that she has had to overcome more obstacles than we can imagine and yet remained, to the end, optimistic, proud, and completely lacking in self pity- that makes understanding her life and death so difficult for those she’s left behind.
Polly was at bottom a deeply courageous and a profoundly proud person and I don’t think that we can ever know what she thought about the world around her and cards that she was dealt. But we know for a fact that she loved us. We know that we were central to her life in a way that few people could be central to anyone’s life. We, her family, were Polly’s life, and while we may not have not always felt like we were able to give back in equal measure what she was gave to us, (I, for one, am certain that I was unable to do so), we did know that we were loved and that Polly did matter, to us, in a way that was at times a challenge, at times a rebuke, and at all times a fact, as strong and resolute as she was.
Polly took being an aunt very seriously. I think that she took nothing else as seriously as her duties as an aunt, save her love of the Yankees. She remembered all our birthdays and called us every year with a chirpy “hippo birdie”! She never forgot. Not our birthdays, not Jack’s, not Dan’s, not Rose’s, Ryan’s or Wolf’s. She gave us shalach manot every year. This year she had bags for Jack and Dan as well. She was determined to be as great of a great aunt as she was a great regular aunt. I’m sure that if we asked him to, Jack could write an essay in French as to how she was a great great aunt.
Avigayil remembers Polly taking her to Fantasia on Continental and I remember her taking me to see Clue on Austin Street. (I think that in the version we saw everyone had done it.) I don’t think that Polly thought that it was the best movie ever but that didn’t matter. Being with us is what mattered and being a good aunt was paramount. I don’t know when she understood that she would not be having children of her own but she knew and so her role as an aunt would have to make up for some other things that she was not going to have. And no one would ever be able to say that she couldn’t do that. That she couldn’t be a great Aunt. That she could control.
No one could tell her how to love and she was never impaired, limited or otherwise deficient in her abilities to do so. She was, if anything, more capable that others in this regard and we, as her nieces and nephews, became the object of that determination and the means by which she could do something right, do it well, and do it total.
And then she became a great-great aunt. And watching Jack and Daniel and Rose interact with Polly over the past few years has reminded me of how we used to act around her when we were kids. The way they said hello and goodbye to her, running to give her a kiss and a hug, the way Jack would ask her how she was feeling and if she was extent uninformed by the knowledge of her limitations, and the extent of her illness – has been a pleasure to watch.
This is how we used to be, how we understood Polly as children, before we knew more and had less time and lived further away and had found it harder to know what to say, and exactly how to be the nieces and nephews that she believed us to be. She, as an aunt, was a tough act to follow. Jack, Dan, Rose, Ryan and Wolf were another opportunity for Polly to be the aunt that she was so good at being and it is all of our losses that she was not able to be a great great aunt for a new generation.
Polly was in many ways, the family encyclopedia. She did not forget anything, ever. If there was a discussion about what happened when to whom and there were differences of opinions we usually learned to trust that it was Polly who was right. She did not forget. Especially if it involved family. She was right. It falls on Avi to be the family historian now, she seems to know everything about everyone in the family going back to when she was, I think, two years old but not in the same way as Polly and not of course with the same breadth.
I talked to Avigayil last night and we mainly cried and talked about Polly and how wonderful she was to us and how deeply sad this made us feel, sadder than we expected to be, and how profoundly grateful to her we are for what she tried to do in her life and for the effort that she put into what she did. We also have memories, Avigayil, Aliza and I, more than 30 years of memories of Polly, the most indelible of which came in our role as children – as nieces and nephews, of walking over to Saba and Savta’s on shabbos, of reading Peanuts cartoons and doing puzzles and reading Life magazine and being with Polly.
Avi told me that she remembers being in Polly’s room in Forest Hills surrounded by books about the royal family and playing Polly’s 45 of the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine over and over. I still have no idea if that is a good song or not (I am told from time to time that it is in fact an awful song) but it reminds us of Yellowstone Boulevard, of running around Saba and Savta’s house, of Polly, of candy drawers and long seders and afikoman hunts. Seder will not be the same without Polly. Shabbat at my parents will not be the same. The Yellow Submarine will not be the same.
Finally there is baseball. To talk about Polly without talking about her love of baseball and more specifically her love of the Yankees would be a terrible incompletion. Polly and the Yankees. Gehrig, Babe, Di Maggio, Polly.
I was watching the first of episode of Ken Burns’s Baseball the other night when the narrator explained that female baseball fans in the late 1800’s were known as cranklets. Polly was a cranklet. She might have been the biggest Yankees cranklet to ever wear a retro Mickey Mantle jersey. She loved Don Mattingly. She worshiped Mantle. She watched every game that wasn’t on shabbat or yontif. She had every Yankee yearbook from 1971 to 1986.
I consider being a Yankee fan to be a great gift in that I get to root for a local team that isn’t an embarrassment and Polly was one of the biggest reasons that I became a Yankee fan. A few years ago she gave me her baseball card collection. She had every card Topps made from 1977 to 1983, all in mint condition. She would go to the stadium with me or Saba or Abba and watch, while listening to the radio on her Walkman. I don’t think that anything made her happier than being at the stadium.
I also don’t think that anything made her more unhappy than having to listen to John Sterling on the radio. She did not suffer fools gladly and she believed that John Sterling was a fool, and a clown, and refused to listen to the games on the radio. Polly was a hard one to pin down at times but her hatred of John Sterling attested to her seriousness as a Yankee fan and as a general arbiter of good taste.
I grew up watching the Yankees when they were on Channel 11 and I honestly do not remember how many of those games I watched with Polly, listening to Phil Rizzuto and Bill White talk about Piniella and Guidry and Winfield and Mike Pagliarulo, but I feel like there were many, and that she was my cool aunt who had a Snoopy doll in a Yankee uniform who loved the same thing that I loved. I consider my being a Yankee fan as a shared thing, as something that belongs to me, to Polly, and also to Abba. It may not be the most profound thing in the world, but it’s mine, it was hers, and baseball never dies.
We will miss you Polly. We will make sure that you are remembered by us and known and understood by our children, even those yet to come. The extended Geller, Metal, Gorodezter, and Porath families were central to your world and we will make sure that you are a permanent part of ours.