Marilyn Naparst, May 3, 1935 – Jan. 23, 2022
A Berkeley resident of 65 years, Marilyn Naparst died on Jan. 23 surrounded by her family at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, as the sun was setting over the East Bay hills. She had been an independent and spirited 86-year-old living alone in her beloved Craftsman home in North Berkeley until a massive stroke in August 2021. Between long hospitalizations we were able to bring her home with 24-hour care for six weeks, which included Halloween. That evening, we dressed her in Halloween finery, brought her to the front porch, and there she sat in her wheelchair with a bowl of candy in her lap for the many children passing by. Though she wasn’t able to talk, we’re sure that she enjoyed herself, because Marilyn delighted in children and in Halloween.
Marilyn (nee Avrushin) was born in Detroit on May 3, 1935, an only child raised by a team of three: her mother, Marion, her father Harry, and her maternal Aunt Bea. She grew up in a secular and culturally Jewish family, surrounded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. She graduated from Central High School and was one of the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Wayne State University with a double major in History and Sociology. Itching to escape Detroit during the repressive 1950s, Marilyn considered joining the Foreign Service, instead opting for a move to Berkeley to attend the social work program at UC Berkeley. She moved into an apartment on Durant Avenue with a friend from Detroit. Realizing that she’d prefer to teach over social work, she switched to the teaching credential program and graduated in 1960. While in school, Marilyn worked as a secretary at Cutter Labs and the UC Berkeley California Alumni Association. Shortly after arriving in Berkeley, Marilyn met Stan Naparst at a graduate student event. He was also a migrant from out of state, raised by Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, 6-foot-5, tall, dark and handsome. In 1959 they were married, and by 1965 they’d had three children.
In the early years, Marilyn ran a licensed daycare in her home. Once the youngest of us was born, she devoted herself to being a homemaker. A regular at the Virginia-McGee Totland Playground, she fell in with a small circle of friends – other moms of young children — with whom she stayed close for a number of years to come. Not content to just stay at home while raising us, she was an active volunteer at our public schools. Many an hour was spent in the pale green VW bus, ferrying us to pottery classes, music lessons, Hebrew School at Congregation Beth Israel, Camp Kee Tov, and delightful summer forays to Strawberry Canyon Pool where she’d give each of us money to buy a treat at the vending machines and would decline our invitations to come into the pool out of fear of mussing her carefully tamed head of very curly hair. Speaking of Marilyn’s hair, it remained mostly jet-black for the rest of her life. For those who wondered whether she dyed it, the answer is no! She just had good non-graying hair genes.
Little did Marilyn know when she moved to the somewhat conservative and sleepy university town of Berkeley in 1957 of the seismic cultural/social/political transformations that would take place just seven years later in 1964 inspired by the Free Speech Movement. Indeed, moving to Berkeley was destiny for this free and unconventional spirit called Marilyn. If ever there was a “Soulmate City” for a person, Berkeley was “it” for Marilyn. It was as though Marilyn and Berkeley came into their own and came of age together. It is thus no wonder that two of us children are proud members of the Facebook group “Your Mom Is So Berkeley.”
While busy raising us, Marilyn also managed to find the time and energy to dive headfirst into all that Berkeley had to offer. She became a potter and took painting classes. Her love of intense color shows in her many paintings. Obviously inspired by Matisse, she painted one portrait of Stan with a bright green beard, which I call “the lettuce beard.” She developed a vibrant clothing aesthetic that stayed with her for years, adorning herself with bright colors, dangly earrings, beaded necklaces. At times her choice of colors and patterns seemed to clash, yet she was always able to pull it off.
Marilyn joined a feminist consciousness raising group and was a continuous subscriber to Ms. Magazine from the very first issue. She and Stan brought the family to political protests and performance events of all kinds. She immersed herself in Bay Area experimental theatre. She loved music of all kinds, and in fact was one of the first person in her circle to discover new music. One day in the mid-’70s she came home holding a Reggae album, proclaiming excitedly “this is Reggae!” (mispronouncing the word with the accent on the second syllable). In the late ’70s she volunteered for a couple years at Center for Creative Growth in Oakland, an arts program for adults with developmental disabilities. At the dinner table she would regale us with heartwarming and humorous anecdotes, and we hung on every word. We thought her to be the coolest, prettiest, hippest mom around.
Marilyn was also an enthusiastic member of the legendary Berkeley Co-op. We children vividly remember when she stopped buying Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch after the co-op newsletter published an expose about sugared cereals. Much to our dismay, there was only whole-grain low-sugar cereal from then on out. At the time, we were crestfallen. Now we are all health-conscious eaters who realize that it was a profound turning point in our dietary histories. Speaking of which, Marilyn was one of the first to discover organic produce, long before it became fashionable. She snacked on nuts and fruits and sprouts, often saying that she was truly a vegetarian at heart. That said, a filet of salmon always turned her head. As did a Barney’s hamburger from time to time, too.
Marilyn’s grandest artistic passion by far was dancing: Greek folkdancing, belly dancing, Flamenco, Zydeco dancing, and modern dance. Her love of Greek folkdancing spanned over 50 years. She was a regular at the legendary Aitos in Berkeley, Papa’s Taverna on the Petaluma River, Greek festivals throughout the Bay Area, and the weekly GreekFeet dance classes every Monday night in San Francisco until the COVID lockdown. She discovered Flamenco in her 50s and continued for many years as an avid student, sometimes performing with her fellow students under the stage name “Marilu.” Among the treasures found in Marilyn’s house are beautiful Flamenco and belly dance costumes, some homemade by her. When aerobics came on the scene in the early ’80s, Marilyn was one of the first devotees, attending classes constantly She loved going out dancing at Ashkenaz and La Peña. She once described herself as a “kinetic person” who just HAD to move.
Over the course of many years Marilyn studied with a veritable “Who’s Who” of Bay Area theatrical and artistic luminaries and institutions including Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theatre, trapeze with Terry Sendgraff, potter Andree Thompson, the Richmond Arts Center, Bob Ernst Lab Theater, Leonard Pitt, Irini Nadel, and her beloved Friday morning women’s group with Elaine Schooley at the John Hinkel Park Clubhouse. Not only did Marilyn take classes, she also performed. In 1981 she performed in Cinderella…If the Shoe Fits at the Intersection Theatre in SF and in Women & Other Girls at the Skylight Studio in Berkeley. In 1982, she performed in Roar. Her crowning achievement was to star in a play called Sunrise Over Chicago at the Blake Street Hawkeyes in 1984 – where Whoopi Goldberg had gotten her start. As Marilyn told it, after one show Whoopi herself came and gave her a congratulatory hug. In 1993 she and Stan traveled to NYC, where she performed in a series of shows directed by Ruth Zaporah. Most memorable was that it was Stan’s last trip to his hometown.
Not only an artist, Marilyn was also an arts aficionado, subscribing to various local companies and attending performances of all kinds: Berkeley Rep, Aurora Theatre, Zellerbach, Magic Theatre, Eureka Theatre, The Art House. She also loved going to the movies and museums and was a member of BAMPFA. She took special delight in subscribing to the Berkeley Playhouse for several years, seeing almost every family-friendly musical every created with my daughter and me. And inspired by a family connection to Kazakhstan, she discovered the Silk Road House cultural center in Berkeley and became a devoted regular, attending all sorts of films and lectures.
Once we were school age, Marilyn returned to the paid workforce in her late 30s and spent many years doing secretarial work, including at Gillick Printing, Andronico’s Park & Shop company headquarters, then becoming the first employee at finance company BARRA and eventually the office manager. When Stan became ill with cancer, she left that job in order to simplify her life. From then on, she worked in various secretarial positions, including The Nature Company, Berkeley Addiction Treatment Services, and a law office. She worked at the law office half-time until the age of 84, when the office closed due to the Covid lockdown.
Once we three children had launched as adults, Marilyn and Stan enjoyed their freedom by traveling. Their wanderlust took them several times to Mexico, as well as to Spain and Israel to visit me when I was living abroad.
When Stan died in 1994, Marilyn was only 59 years old, still with boundless energy and a long life ahead of her. She continued on world adventures, traveling to Morocco, to Greece on a music and dance tour, and to Turkey on a music tour. Having spent many years enjoying artistic pursuits, and casting about for a way to live meaningfully in her widowhood, she also found a new calling as a political activist. Stan had been very active politically, including as an elected member of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee and president of his union SEIU 616. So, it was as though she was continuing his legacy, AND in true Marilyn style, diving headfirst into it. She took a special interest in social justice issues pertaining to Latin America, and over the years made many a political mission trip with various groups to Cuba and other countries, which I referred to jokingly/lovingly as her “left-wing fact-finding missions.” She was particularly devoted to Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas and IFCO/Pastors for Peace. She made the jaunt up to Seattle in 1999 for the “Battle of Seattle” WTO protests and took part in many political protests and marches in the Bay Area. She was active in Code Pink – Women for Peace. One of her favorite traditions was to join the vigil every Monday afternoon in front of the Oaks Theatre building at the top of Solano, where a group of mostly senior rabblerousers would hold signs with slogans such as “Honk If You Support Single-Payer Healthcare” and sing political protest songs led by Hali Hammer. She could be found attending any number of political meetings at venues such as The Long Haul, Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library and the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship.
While busy with work, political activity, and various artistic pursuits, Marilyn always found time for friends and family. In fact, being in the presence of loved ones always sustained Marilyn like food and water. While she loved us three children very much, she adored her three grandchildren beyond measure and was completely devoted to them. Delighting in the close connection with her one grandchild in the Bay Area, she didn’t let the 3,000-mile distance get in the way of connecting with her other two grandchildren, either making the trip to NYC whenever she could to visit them or gleefully hosting them at her home. Marilyn was a true extrovert who had a hunger for human connection.
Living alone for over 25 years after Stan’s death, she spent much of her time out of the house in order to seek out those human connections, whether it be brunch at Café Leila with friends, a political meeting or march, or going on outings with family. In truth, Marilyn had an openness and spontaneity about her that was rare and would happily say “yes” to just about any invitation.
She dated a few other men over the years, yet none ever matched the experience of rootedness and companionship that she had found with Stan, who called her “the light of my life.”
While being an unconventional and free-spirited soul, Marilyn also embodied some very traditional values. She arrived punctually, returned phone calls promptly, balanced her checkbook every month and kept meticulous files on everything. She always brought an offering to social gatherings, and called to say “thank you” very soon afterward. She knew her way around a Singer sewing machine and made many clothes, including pants in the early ’70s with impossibly wide bell bottoms, still in her closet and hopefully in fashion again someday soon. She was practical, too, convincing Stan that they should buy a house rather than rent, leading to the 1965 purchase of the family home, which remains a cherished “member of our family” to this day. And she served homemade family dinners every night until Stan died, albeit sometimes augmented with Rice-A-Roni or Hamburger Helper.
There are many superlatives that come to mind when thinking about Marilyn. She was often the funniest person in the room, with an exquisite sense of the absurd. She was a captivating storyteller who would break into laughter while sharing a funny anecdote, so infectious that everyone else would start giggling along with her way before the punchline. She was generous to a fault, returning from her international adventures with a veritable treasure trove of tchotchkes, which she would lay out on the living room floor for family members to take, and arriving at my doorstep on weekend mornings laden with bags of treats. She had a very soothing touch and may just have missed her true calling as a hands-on healer or body worker. Marilyn held strong opinions about almost every matter, including those of consequence such as water rights for indigenous people in Bolivia and those perhaps not of so much consequence, such as the ending to the song Let it Go from the film Frozen. By the way, she didn’t like the ending, and would share that opinion every time the film came up in conversation. “Wonderful!” and “Terrible!” were possibly the most oft-repeated words in her lexicon, sometimes in the same sentence.
It wouldn’t be a fitting tribute to Marilyn without mention that, well, she wasn’t perfect. Born with a sensitive temperament and shaped by challenging life experiences, Marilyn was a person of great emotional intensity who sometimes said and did things that rubbed other people the wrong way. Usually these actions were an attempt to seek out greater human connection or to be heard. Marilyn just wanted to love and to be loved; she just didn’t always have the skills to meet these needs in the conventional ways. Some folks slipped away after being in her presence during those not-so-good moments and not-so-good days. Yet for those of us who stuck around – and there were many – it was always worth it, because the joy of Marilyn on a good day and in a good moment was a pretty intoxicating elixir.
Though the solitude of the lockdown was devastating to Marilyn, she found ways to cope, with constant double-masked shopping forays to Trader Joe’s and Andronico’s and Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market, jaunts up to Solano Avenue to window shop and talk to every single person with a dog or baby, and socially distanced get-togethers with family. She also discovered the wonders of TV, becoming an avid fan of The Voice and American Idol. Never a tech wizard, she found Zoom challenging, but was able to participate in occasional video calls with family and social events, including weight-lifting calls with me. And she relished daily phone calls from us children.
Marilyn is survived by her daughters, Lise and Diana; son, Tom; grandchildren, Monica, Noah and Lila; great-granddog Maddie (whom she always greeted with “oh my little sweetheart”); first cousins, Pat Treeful, Nancy Slutsky, Joel Gayman and Miriam Kottler; various other cousins; and many comrades/friends in the arts and social justice worlds.
Donations in Marilyn’s memory can be made to Planned Parenthood, Ms. Magazine, Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas, IFCO/Pastors for Peace, Ashkenaz Music & Dance Center, La Peña Cultural Center, KPFA, Silk Road House or the Sierra Club.
Marilyn’s memorial service and celebration of life are yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, feel free to celebrate in her honor. Dance to Greek folk music. Buy something at an independent bookstore. Say hi to someone in line at the bank or grocery store and get their whole life story while telling yours. Attend a political march. Say “yes” enthusiastically to an invitation.
Many have described Marilyn as a “force of nature.” May Marilyn’s memory continue to bless and inspire all who knew her. We will greatly miss her raucous laugh, passionate spark, quirkiness, joie de vivre, spontaneity, adventurousness and, most of all, her generous loving spirit.