Ethel Weiss is celebrating her 100th birthday today. I think she’s the only person I know who’s 100 years old. It’s not that I know her well, but I have known her for a very long time. She owns and operates a small store in my childhood neighborhood called Irving’s Toy and Card Shop. Irving is the name of her first husband who passed away many years ago. I remember Irving and her second husband, Abe, but mostly I remember Ethel.
The store is right around the corner from my elementary school, Edward Devotion (or “Devo” as we now call it). Every day after school, my friends and I would go into Irving’s on our way home. Even if I didn’t want to buy anything, I’d go into the store to say hello. My favorite snacks were button candy, ice cream, and Snickers bars. I remember buying my Slinky, Gumby, Silly Putty, and Duncan YoYo there.
Ethel knew everyone’s name and and always had a smile to greet us. She still knows exactly where everything is. I felt safe with her. She would have you total up your purchases and count your change out loud with you. What is most heartwarming are the beautiful things she used to tell us kids (which she has made into a poster “Thoughts for a Happier Life”), such as:
Don’t Try to Be Perfect” — “Just Do the Best You Can”
“Practice Random Acts of Kindness” — “Be Interested in Other People’s Welfare”
Who ever thought that a small store owner would have such a long-lasting impact on us?
So, today I bicycled over to Brookline to wish her a happy birthday and pay tribute. A celebration was scheduled for 1pm, but I got there before the crowd and was able to talk with her for a few minutes. I told her that she is a legend and an inspiration, and that all of my classmates from Devotion, Kehillath Israel (our Hebrew school across the street), and Brookline High send their love and best wishes for a wonderful birthday. Her T-shirt said “Kiss Me, I’m 100”, so I did of course kiss her.
Soon, the numbers of people began to increase. I stood back to take it all in. It was very touching to see the neighborhood come together for this: completely multicultural and cross-generational. People walking by took notice. It’s not everyday that you see someone celebrating their 100th birthday. I accentuated the historic moment when I could, telling people that she’s the only 100-year-old business owner in the U.S. That impressed people. Even Ethel’s grandson didn’t know.
The incredible cake was made by a guy who works at a party store and who, naturally, used to go into the store every day after school. The top decoration was impressive and the inside was half chocolate and half carrot cake. All of it was delicious.
We sang “Happy Birthday” to her and lots of pictures were taken. Ethel just continued to smile through it all, clapping and saying how appreciative she was. Cantor Sheila Cline distributed print-outs of lyrics she had adapted from the tune of Hello Dolly, and we all sang “Hello Ethel”. The celebration was very simple, warm, and incredible fun. The whole time I was there, I kept feeling so grateful for having known Ethel and being a part of this historic occasion. It was hard to leave.
There have been a lot of things written and said about Ethel these past couple of years. One of my favorites is a video made in 2011 by Steve Burns: http://youtu.be/EQHcYuXGzJA
What are your memories of Ethel? Please share!