Missing Muriel


My friend Muriel passed away in late September. She taught me many things, among them the fact that the elderly can get away with cursing in public and eating produce in the market. We shared hours of lively conversation and my love of Yiddish is almost entirely her fault.

I was reminded yesterday of her 80th birthday party, which Ash and I attended eight years ago. I've dug the blog post from that day out of the archives and have re-posted it below as a tribute to an unforgettable woman. The world was a better place with her in it and she is greatly missed.

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We attended my friend Muriel's 80th birthday party today and you might as well throw any images you have of an 80 year-old woman's birthday party, out the window right now.

When I met Muriel a few months ago, she was looking for someone to dig through her life's writing and organize it into some kind of structured and cohesive unit. It was a project she'd intended to complete herself, but she never got around to it and now macular degeneration is destroying her eyesight. That's where I come in. She likes to call me her archivist. I dig through her papers, transfer her memories to tidy word documents.

She's an amazing person, this tiny Jewish woman from Brooklyn, who still performs at the improve theater downtown, whose writing is both heart-wrenching and hilarious, and whose persona saturates any room she enters. Knowing all of this, I should have suspected her party would be unusual.

It began ordinary enough, except for the name tags. At the door, each guest was fitted with one of those "HELLO! MY NAME IS —–" stickers. Mine, of course, kept peeling back, but it did get me a nice smushy boob grope from a helpful friend. There were fifty or sixty people there, half of them family from New York (her sons and cousins with their families and a childhood friend) and the other half, very California, a vibrant and varied lot.

After a sumptuous meal, two of the women from Muriel's improv group joined her at the front of the room. "You all look dead." Muriel remarked, and I suppose we did, like the usual polite party guests, in our good clothes and on our best behavior. Using the little space on the carpet as their stage, the three of them began to put us through our paces.

"Stand up. Shake your hands over your head and then put them on your hips. Now, use your pelvis to trace your name in the air." A woman named Clifford instructed us.

"In cursive!" Muriel ordered. And then, as we watched, Muriel put her small hands on her hips and swiveled her pelvis to spell her own name, making a point to dot the eye in a particularly provocative way.

"And we do apologize to those of you with long names." laughed the woman whose name-tag identified her as simply Roz.

I'll tell you that the New Yorkers really did try, with small thrusts and jerky sideways movements, but they were no match for the yoga instructor, or the belly dancer, or Muriel's flamboyant male friends in the far corner.

Our next assignment focused on a chair, placed in the center of the room. Muriel's eldest son was the first to sit in it. The object of the game was to approach the chair and give the person in it a reason to want to get up. Simple, really.

*The execution is about to start. * So you want it shaved bald, right? * The last person who sat in that chair peed in it. * (and my personal favorite) The last person who sat there was George Bush.*

After a handful of improv exercises, the group was sufficiently warmed up for (and I hinted at it once already) the bellydancer. In the same way that I was quietly but deeply impressed with Muriel's ability to publicly write her name in cursive with her pelvis, I was envious of that full-bodied, thirty-something belly dancer's ability to inhabit her flesh. She danced for herself, she danced for the room, but more than anything, she danced for Muriel. At one point, she knelt down and wrapped the violet scarf over Muriel's head and her own. Muriel kissed the her on both cheeks, then stood up and they danced together.

I thought of my grandmothers, the one who died before I was born, the one who spent the last fifteen years of her life in a wheelchair and the one who died just a few years ago, consumed with bitterness and regret. I tried to see them there, dancing alongside Muriel, swept up in the bellydancer's violet scarf and I imagined myself there too , at 80, surrounded by those I loved, celebrating the things that mattered and refusing to allow age or propriety to dictate my behavior.

When the dancing was done, the cake came. We sang most traditionally and someone gave Muriel a cardboard crown. That's when the Klez band arrived, and after that, well, all hell broke loose. In a good way. And a better time had not been had by all since, well, who knows when.


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One Response to Missing Muriel

  1. Oh, how I wish I could be like that! I'm so repressed it's not even funny! But…if I can I'll become slightly loopy and eccentric once I'm older and don't have to be responsible anymore…
    I come from undemonstrative stock and I fight it all the time. I wish I had a mother, grandmother like Muriel…I've seen my grandmothers go to the grave; one quiet and submissive, the other with pursed lips after a very repressed life. My own mum, is slowly losing her memory and breaking dad's heart, and I want to see them kicking and fighting and surviving!
    I want to go irresponsibly and leave a plethora of wonderful memories!

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