On the Occasion of Miriam Center’s 96th Birthday
If we’re very lucky in this life, and we eat our fiber and floss our teeth and dodge bullets and avoid the kinds of drugs that kill, any one of us might live to see 96.
But not everyone will get away with it wearing a gold sequined turban.
Though I’ve only had the good fortune to know Miriam Center in her years that most would refer to as golden, I’ve never seen her fail to slay with her fashion statements. She’s always elevating her look with some kind of entrancing accessory, be it a jaunty fedora or an Hermes twilly, even if she’s just lounging in her sunroom.
“Some-tahmes you need a little sumthin’,” she’ll say, answering a compliment with an eye twinkle and a shrug.
As illustrious as her style is, it’s the stories that have made Miriam a Savannah icon, both the ones she shares about life in Savannah and the tales other people tell. (If no one’s gossiping about you, you’re not doing it right, dahlin’.)
I’m always finding out amazing new things about her, such as the tidbit that she was the realtor who sold the recently departed Alvin Neely his sumptuous Hall Street mansion in the early 1970s—for an unspeakable $25,000, brick turrets and all. Or that she could sing all the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me” as a kindergartner at Trinity Methodist Church, much to the tsuris of her Jewish immigrant parents.
I might not have discovered this if not for her friend Aberjhani, another poet of much renown and the internationally-lauded author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and 2020’s tremendously relevant Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. Miriam had missed his stunning—and due to his predilection for solitude, rare—performance at last month’s storytelling event celebrating the launch of George Dawes Green’s new book, The Kingdoms of Savannah. (It’s a thrilling page turner full of sharp-witted female protagonists that is also a loving lament for our city’s layered past and the glossy PR product that it’s becoming; why haven’t you read it yet?)
Aberjhani figured if Miriam could not come to the literary reading, then the literary reading would come to her. He arranged a small gathering last week a few days before her 96th birthday, allowing me to revel in the presence of this elusive gent twice in a few weeks. (I first came upon Aberjhani’s work in 2016 while researching the racist namesake of the Talmadge Bridge, and while I have enjoyed a robust email correspondence with him ever since, I had only met him in person once before.)
Adorned with the aforementioned shimmering headpiece, Miriam sparkled as bright as ever as she greeted the Poet and a handful of other guests into her art-filled living room. Her longtime love John Patterson poured champagne as Mark and I introduced ourselves to Rebecca Herdmann, who many know as the gregarious lunchtime greeter at the Crystal Beer Parlor, as well as Robert Keber and his wife, Dr. Martha Keber, a retired Georgia College professor who has penned several in-depth histories of Savannah’s forgotten neighborhoods.
All of them made references to Miriam’s poetry, and it took me a bubbly-soaked minute to understand that Aberjhani had convened a small reunion of the Savannah Literary Journal, a belletristic periodical published from 1993 to 2001. Back then the city actually funded a diverse and welcoming scribal community called the Savannah Writer’s Workshop that included Zona Rosa queen Rosemary Daniell, Savannah State University professor and local theater legend Ja Jahannes, and dozens of other talented types; apparently, John Berendt even showed up at a few readings while he was writing The Book.
Miriam contributed several poems to the Journal, among them “Mama,” a meditation on her maternal grandmother, and “Renaissance Man,” dedicated to beloved artist and musician Larry Connaster, who died of AIDS in 1996. Listening to these elders discuss this once-flourishing local literary scene with such reverence made me envious and sad that I’d missed out on another Savannah bygone era that I hadn’t even known about. Though I probably would’ve been too intimidated to appreciate it anyway.
In his mellifluous voice, Aberjhani recounted how he’d met Miriam—who had already gotten a divorce and studied transcendental meditation in California—at an open mic reading in City Market and shared a memory of her at one of Alvin’s famous parties, emoting on the grand staircase in a black leather pantsuit.
It might’ve seemed like an odd pairing—a white woman befriending a Black man almost 30 years her junior—but they forged an easy, collegial rapport on their shared experiences of losing loved ones and leaving Savannah and coming back. On the subject of helping Miriam publish her scandalously true-to-life novel Scarlett O’Hara Can Go to Hell, Aberjhani confessed “one of the greatest secret pleasures of my life has been to see someone reading the book in a restaurant or on a park bench and watching their eyebrows suddenly jump.”
After this moving tribute, Miriam waited a beat and laughed. “OK, now I can go to Bonaventure and jump in the hole!”
I don’t know any other 96 year-olds who will find any excuse to crack a death joke. Then again, I don’t know any other 96 year-olds. Obviously, Miriam is one in a gazillion, lucky and fearless and relentlessly curious about life. And it’s weird, I don’t think of her so much as older, but as just having been here longer.
At 50—the age I am now—she’d sloughed off convention and went out West to find herself, returning, as Aberjhani says, an “evolved version of that same self.” She’s been climbing the fabulous staircase of her own spirit ever since, to paraphrase the great Jane Fonda.
Teetering as I am on the mountainous, potholed spine of middle age, it’s tempting to believe I’ve reached my peak, especially with the way my low back creaks when I put on my shoes. But as Miriam might say, “that’s bullshit, dahlin’.” Having friends several generations ahead is the most convincing admonition that there is still plenty of time to become more and many things—a poet, even, or a singer in a rock band, or maybe just someone who doesn’t give a damn what other people think.
It also goes the other way. As Rebecca and Robert discussed a possible revival of the Journal, Mark invoked another departed Savannah legend, Bobby Zarem, who used to counsel that the best way to stay inspired is to “make young friends.” And not just “let’s visit the old folks” obligatory sit-arounds—real friendships, where you cackle and day drink and talk honestly about sex and death, then squeeze each other a little too tight when you leave because goddammit they’re not going to be around forever.
After singing Happy Birthday, it was time to disperse. I told my new literary friends I wished I’d met them when we were all younger, and surely we’d see them at Miriam’s centennial celebration in four years. (Her actual birthday is Aug. 10, which she plans to celebrate with her grandkids and Maine lobsters brought in by her son, Scott.)
Aberjhani noted to me later that at 65, he is the youngest remaining member of this poetry posse, and while I may have been the baby in the room today, it might be time to be the one making young friends. After all, he poetically pointed out, “someone has to be around long enough to one day say they met us.”
That night Mark and I ended up at Moodright’s, which is not a bar I normally frequent because the patrons all seem to be young enough to be my children. But we’d gone out with one of our actual children, and there happened to be some young writers at the table asking for advice. Suddenly, it was time to step from being the “young friend” to the role of a wise-ish elder, which felt weird and not like something I was ready for at all.
I stammered and shrugged, worried that I would seem uncool and frumpy. But then I remembered how I felt about Miriam, and I realized that what was important was not that I was older, but that I’d been here longer. And while I remain intimidated by most literary types, I have indeed been at this writing thing long enough to tell a young person the only thing I know about it: “Just keep going.”
I guess now it’s time to start trying to pull off sequins.
It’s your story, tell it with style ~ JLL
Savannah Sideways is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.