by Judy Gruen
She had a personality as vibrant as her flaming red hair. She was full of life, full of love, and very, very funny. She offered common sense to the sense-challenged and blunt assessments of everyone and everything. She never met a poker game she didn’t like. Her accent was pure, unadulterated Brooklyn. She said “bee-you-tee-ful” and “Oh my gawd.” Her greatest pleasure was her family. Small-time gambling was a close second. Even when watching TV with her grandkids each Thursday, she bet a dollar with the kids about who would win the final round of “Jeopardy.”
She was Aunt Phyllis, and everybody loved her. She was my aunt through marriage – the younger (and only) sister of my husband’s late mother, Laura. Aunt Phyllis was a lifelong New Yorker, and we have never left L.A., yet we managed many visits over the years. She flew out to help celebrate bar mitzvahs, once with her eldest daughter Barbara, and came to our eldest son’s wedding. Sometimes, she came just to get out of the cold. You knew that a visit with Aunt Phyllis would keep you smiling and laughing. You just felt good being around her.
The snow had started falling hard and fast as the funeral began on Monday on Long Island. The rabbi who officiated said that this was the most laughter-filled funeral he had ever attended. He correctly observed that this was not disrespectful, but in fact a tribute to Aunt Phyllis for the laughter and smiles that were her special gift to her family and friends.
Aunt Phyl fought off cancer several times. As her daughters Barbara and Allison said, she never let it stop her; she just scheduled chemo around Mahjong, visiting her grandkids, and shopping. When Allison’s husband, Bill, invited Phyllis to accompany the family on a trip to Greece a few years back, Allison was afraid the travel would be too much for her. “I took Mom to her oncologist to get his opinion,” Allison said. “He said she should absolutely go and he’d reschedule her chemo. Mom just laughed at me as she went out of the room. She was planning to go no matter what I said. We had a great time.”
Aunt Phyllis had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She laughed at the pretentions of others and just as easily laughed at her own embarrassing moments, including the time she tried to eat the earplugs at a bar mitzvah, thinking they were mints. Years ago, she had us all laughing till we had to hold our sides as she retold a story about a long-ago summer trip when her husband, Victor, struggled to dock their little boat.
“I was yelling, Viktah, the boat is starting to move! Get off the dock! And he said, ‘I know what I’m doing, Phyl!’ He had one leg on the dock and the other in the boat, and I thought he was going to split in half! Of course he ended up falling into the lake. Oh my gawd it was so funny!”
In our small family, Aunt Phyllis was the last of her generation. She was treasured not only for this special status, but because while every family has its thorny relationships and its members who tussle, argue and grate, Aunt Phyllis was one person everyone loved, indisputably. Phyllis would tell you off if she felt you needed it, without drama, emotional blackmail or resorting to a punishing decibel level. She’d let you know you had been a jerk in her plain-spoken way. You never resented her for it because you knew she was right. She was her daughter Barbara’s best friend, and Barbara wrote about their special relationship in a column that was published in a local paper.
She had the wisdom that comes with age and that is increasingly in scarce supply. She never griped about difficulties or setbacks, always looking forward, never back. Her cancer began to spread in June 2013, and the prognosis wasn’t good. We had heard that even Aunt Phyllis was a bit depressed, and we called, hoping to cheer her up. She sounded a bit down, but still steadfastly refused to worry. “What good is it going to do, right? I’m just going to live my life, trust my doctor, stay as active as I can. I don’t waste time worrying.”
That is a form of greatness.
Phyllis’ proudest role was as a grandmother to Joshua, Natalie, Faith, Rafi and Leora. She babysat weekly for more than sixteen years, played with them, read to them, watched TV with them, cooked with them, and of course, taught them how to play Casino and Rummy 500. Every game was played for money. Natalie, 13, made a special “girl power” fist bump handshake to use with Grandma, just one more thing that strengthened an already incredible bond. Every year Phyllis went on the Autism Speaks walk with Barbara and her family. Even with cancer, Phyllis walked most of the mile each year. This was one thing she could do for her grandson Rafi, and she wouldn’t be sidelined. True to form, on New Year’s Eve, just weeks before she passed away, Phyllis danced with Barbara at a New Year’s Eve party at a local Jewish community center.
Thank you, Aunt Phyl, for all the love. For showing us how to live without blame or worry. And of course, for all the laughter. We miss you.
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