A WOMAN TO REMEMBER
My cousin Polly died in her sleep on November 19, 2016. And I wept for all we had lost. Polly Wittenberg Rothstein was one month past her 80th birthday.
This is not a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal obituary. It is simply my remembrances of a cousin loved for who she was and for how she lived her life. Although she’s now lost to us all, our memories will keep her unique.
Polly and I were close as youngsters. As we grew older, though, and carried on with our lives we moved apart. Yet we remembered always the closeness that she and I experienced as children and that blossomed again each time we saw each other, no matter the number of years gone by.
My mother died when she was 40 years old and my dad, my older brother Stan and my grandmother, my mother’s mother, brought me up. I suspect that my Aunt Sylvia, Polly’s mother, took pity on them and would invite me to spend weekends at the Wittenberg home in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Aunt Syl was affectionate, beautiful to look at and fun to be with. Uncle Harold, a warm, amiable man was Aunt Syl’s husband and my mother’s only brother. They were a wonderful and intact family. Many years have gone by since Uncle Harold passed away and, just a short while ago, on January 20, 2016, Aunt Syl died. She was 101 years young.
Polly was the oldest of Aunt Syl and Uncle Harold’s three girls; Martha was the middle child and Judy was the baby. I loved them and I believe that they loved me.
The weekends I spent with the Wittenbergs were filled with laughter and long talks. At night, I’d sleep with Polly in her full-size bed. Their cocker spaniel, Queenie, slept between us. I remember one night, in particular, when Queenie suddenly sat up, looked at me, looked at Polly, looked back at me and vomited . . . over me. Yuck. The shrieks were heard all over Fairfield. I have many memories of my times at the Wittenberg home but that one, you will agree, was outstanding.
Most of all, though, I remember how stalwart and forward-thinking Polly was. Early on, she began an organization that fought for a woman’s right to a safe, legal abortion regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or income. One afternoon, we cousins were at Polly’s home in Purchase, New York after funeral services for another aunt of ours. When the chatting finally petered out, Polly’s husband, Jesse, told us about the right-wing politicians in Westchester county, New York who viewed her with hate as well as the death threats she received all because of her stance on women’s choice. Polly just ignored them and fought on. Jesse was so proud of her but what a shock to learn that people hated a cousin we loved dearly.
Polly had surgery in her 70’s due to an ongoing problem with her back. That surgery led to a stroke which left her almost completely paralyzed from the waist down. But it did not stop Polly from doing what she wanted. She traveled widely in and outside of the United States with her crutches, her walker and her motorized scooter. For example, she frequently flew to California to visit her mother, a recent resident of Laguna Woods, her sister Judy and Judy’s family. What’s more, she flew to Guyana to visit friends and bird count for the Audubon Society.
Polly loved animals, all animals. As far back as I can remember, she had dogs as pets. And birds! Oh boy. She bird-watched whenever possible. One summer afternoon at a family reunion my husband Ed and I held at our home, some of the cousins were talking in our den when without warning Polly, walker in hand, stood up and rushed outside to our deck. What was she looking at? A distinctive bird, naturally.
Polly took advantage of everything. And that included doing what she felt she should.
When Ed and I lost our surviving child, Stacy, to breast cancer, Martha drove from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Polly’s home in Purchase, and then drove the two of them to our synagogue in Basking Ridge, New Jersey for Stacy’s memorial. Then Martha drove with Polly to our home in Warren and along with many of our cousins, including the Wittenbergs, Goldsteins and Breslers, joined us in sitting shiva, a period of mourning for Jews. When they left that night Martha drove to Purchase, dropped Polly off and the next morning drove back to her home on the Cape. Some driving, huh?
I’m not certain Martha knew this but the next day, paralyzed as Polly was, she got into her car and drove to our house. Alone!
I must emphasize this. Polly drove by herself. Without her helper, Jay, who took her everywhere. Polly had even tied her left leg to the bottom of the driver’s seat in order to inhibit its jerking motion. Once settled into her car, she hurried to our home and sat shiva with us once more.
We insisted at the end of that evening that Polly not drive home in the dark; and so she slept in our guest bedroom. After Ed and the Wittenberg cousins who stayed over, Lewis and his wife Cathy along with cousin Jane’s husband Bob, went to bed we three—Polly, Jane and I—talked into the early hours of the morning about all things sad, wistful and cheery. And then, a few hours of sleep later and some breakfast, Polly drove herself home.
My cousin Polly is now gone. There is more, much more, but I will close now and remember her, quietly, gently and by myself.
Polly was beloved by our family and her multitude of friends. We will miss her.
And now it’s your turn.
Please tell me about the Polly in your life. What did she or he do that made the world a little brighter for us all?
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein