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.