I’ve mentioned in previous articles that my grandfather was an accomplished writer. The lady I thought was my grandmother was an artist, dancer and model. My mom grew up in the most Bohemian of atmospheres. It created an air of sophisticated secrets I would come to call the “skeletons of my mother’s closet.” The people in this story are long gone. Their legacy lives on through children and grandchildren. This is my perspective of what I was told and ascertained over the years.
The story begins in New York City in the 1930s when it was primarily a city of immigrants and where, for many, poverty was a way of life. My grandfather was handsome, with black hair and a mustache. He met a young woman named Irja, a first-generation Finnish immigrant, and they had a child, my mother. The child was of golden hair and fair eyes, the apple of my grandfather’s eye. Her mother was simply that, the mother of his child, and in time they fell in love with other people. My grandfather, with a woman named Agda, also from Finland. She and her young daughter had come to live with them. Irja fell in love with a gentleman from Columbia University. She found herself torn between her passion for a man, politics and a toddler.
When she left the first time, my grandfather and Agda took care of this toddler, my mother. When she came back to claim her, my grandfather fought for custody and won. Over the years, I pictured every side of this story one could imagine, and I’m sure there are truths to each. Irja insisted she was forced out and had no choice but to surrender her parenting rights. Agda had a different story, as did my mom. For what it is worth, in those days I can’t imagine a judge not awarding custody to the birth mother, so I would guess the truth is in the middle.
My grandfather began a career as a mystery writer. He even won The Edgar Award. My grandmother became a fashion designer and artist. They had a nice life, complete with the literary scene parties and the New York fashion scene. They lived in a three-story home in Forest Hills and had a summer home on Fire Island. They had a son. My mother had fond memories of her father, and few memories of Irja. Though Irja visited for the first nine years of my mother’s life, I was told that when Irja would come to visit, my mom would hide under her bed. It would take a tremendous amount of coaxing from my grandfather and a promise that no one was going to take her away. Only then, she finally would come out and say hello.
The brighter side of my mother’s childhood brought some silly stories that on occasion she would share with us at bedtime. Since my sister and I shared a room we’d beg my mom to tuck us in, sing songs and tell us stories of her childhood. The darker side of my mother’s childhood had a few well-kept secrets. I won’t go into them, but I will say they challenge every aspect of security and safety parents are supposed to provide for their children. “The cast of characters” in my mother’s dark stories include people I knew of and nameless strangers, but both shared some of life’s finer character flaws like infidelity, alcoholism and abuse. I used to get the willies just hearing about some of the things that went on in my mother’s life, but now I use that knowledge to further sharpen my perception of people.
My grandfather died of a heart attack when I was 10. A few years later, sitting at a Bat Mitzvah reception for a “friend,” I overheard one of the ladies at my table say to her son, “You could help your cousin get into law school one day if need be, couldn’t you?” As I listened, I realized she was talking about me. Moi? Cousin? Who, what, cousin?
After realizing I had no idea what she was talking about, she stopped talking. I excused myself and went to my mother’s table and said, “Mom we need to talk and we need to talk now!”
By the end of the reception, the woman I had always referred to as Grandma was no longer related to me by blood. The woman I had referred to as grandma’s friend “Irja” turned out to really be my grandmother. A man I had always affectionately called uncle turned out to really be my uncle, and the “friend’s” Bat Mizvah reception we were sitting at turned out to be my “real” cousin. Let’s just say my great-grandfather had an incredible libido. That may explain why a lot of people in the Catskills circa 1920s resembled each other. It’s a good thing I was only 15, because I might have ordered champagne.
Did any of this change the way I felt about those people? No, it actually was nice to have more family. I never stopped loving the grandma I called Agda, and did so until the day she died. But I did start calling Irja, Grandmother. It was the right thing to do. Years later when I got married, I invited both “grandmas.” They were both escorted down the aisle. I was honoring both women. With over 50 years of history, do you think they could say hello to each other? Not in this lifetime. Now I know how the expression “women never forget anything” came to be.
Shortly thereafter Agda suffered a stroke and it looked as if she wasn’t going to make it. She was hooked up to tubes and machines. She wouldn’t move on to the next place and my mother couldn’t let go. I went into her hospital room, combed her golden hair — even in her seventies she had beautiful hair. I held her hand and told her she could go and be with Grandpa. That God was waiting for her and she could leave, it was OK. I promised her I would take care of my mother, told her I loved her and said goodbye. She died in her sleep that night.
As the years progressed Irja and I developed a beautiful friendship, with frequent visits and fabulous stories. I tried to walk in “her shoes.” I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in poverty — her mom took in laundry for a living — and Irja was in foster care at various times. One thing she didn’t discuss was her mother, my great grandmother, and the fact their relationship was severely strained when Irja gave my mother up. Sadly, they never fully repaired it.
As I mentioned, everyone is gone now and the time I speak of is so long ago. For Irja it was a time when her passion was for a newly found way of political free thinking and a passion for a man who shared her views. They fell in love, married and she went on to have two sons. She once told me her first son was her replacement baby — the replacement for my mother.
I don’t have the answers. Lust, love, baby-making have been going on since the dawn of time. The question stems from the age-old dilemma: Do we honor our feelings at all times, or do we do what is right and appropriate? I am not in the position of giving an answer. I am only human and have made my share of mistakes. One thing to think about: As incredible as passion is, it can also be fleeting, and the ramifications can last a lifetime.
Jennifer Danny is a Santa Clarita resident.