Jennifer Danny | Reflections on Lessons from Irja

Jennifer Danny
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Today I write about my grandmother Irja. She passed away in 2004. She was my mom’s birth mother, and she lived to be 91. My mom only lived to be 65, and ironically, Irja died about a year and three months after my mom’s passing. 

That’s an awkward way to say it, “passing.” I suppose it could have a metaphysical meaning of passing through this life as we know it and into the next life that we will know one day. And if you really think about it, passing sounds so temporary, so I guess it does really make sense because if the physicality of life on Earth really is temporary then the next place must allow for the more permanent spirituality of the soul. 

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, in my late teenage years and until the day she died I had the great fortune of having a fabulous friendship with Irja, which included many visits up north to Berkeley where she lived. I always brought my mom with us when we visited, and sometimes she would fly up on her own and drive home with us in my “Beverly Hillbillies Green Minivan.” I don’t know why Mom called it that. She once said, “You never know what you’re going to sit on when you get in Jen’s Jalopy.” 

Our visits with Irja would consist of lunch and chatter. Two intellectuals and one wannabe — me — all the while as my son chased Irja’s cat around the apartment. My daughter would sit in on our conversations and relish in the opportunity to be privy to mature-speak amongst ladies. The topics usually revolved around the self-imposed liberalism of a former bohemian, my mom; a not-so-left, not-so-right middle-of-the-pack, me; and a socialist Berkeley-ite, Irja. My husband — ever so patient — would wait until a break in the debate and excuse himself to go to the horse races at Golden Gate Fields — conveniently located 15 minutes from Irja’s apartment. 

Irja was a free thinker, and her apartment had so many incredible memories of her life. Her poetry adorned the walls, along with newspaper clippings of her acting in the theater, or a photo of her in costume. In the 1980s she was asked to be in a documentary called, “Acting Our Age.” She and her fellow senior citizens talked about some of the issues they faced as they grew older. 

She knew my fondness for literature and she gave me a first edition of the book “Ship Of Fools” by Katherine Anne Porter. She also knew that I collected glass bottles so she gave me a beautiful vintage Liberty bottle, which I have to this day. One time she and I discussed at great length Isaac Asimov’s “Guide To The Bible” and by the time we got to “Deuteronomy” I realized I was no match to her intellectual insight. 

The last time I saw Irja alive was in the summer of 2003. That visit was hard because it was the first time I had seen her since my mom died. I promised myself I wouldn’t lose it, so of course as I walked in and hugged her, I started crying. I couldn’t control my tears, and my makeup ran down my face. Such is life. My family was with me and we decorated her room with some photographs and pictures that the kids had drawn. By that time she had moved to an assisted-living house that had four residents. Her attendant asked if I could go to the local drugstore and get a few toiletries, which it was my pleasure to do. While I was at the store I noticed a beautiful potted orchid plant. Coincidentally a huge, magnificent orchid plant had been sent to my mother’s memorial so this smaller version had symbolic meaning to me. I purchased it in the hope that it would brighten Irja’s spirit and so she could see the flowers bloom and be reminded of us. It was to be our last visit; three months later I received a phone call that she had died. 

The orchids from my mother’s memorial lived in my entryway until late spring of 2003 when I decided to try my hand at having a green thumb and plant them in the front walkway of my house. I dug the hole deep enough according to the directions, and I fed them the requisite orchid food. 

I decorated the area around them with various things that my mother would’ve liked. To the left I put an iron dragonfly, in the center I placed a porcelain turtle and I had an antique angel statue that could double as a birdfeeder. Behind the orchid plant peeking through the leaves was another angel; a child accompanied this one. It reminded me of my mother and any one of her children or grandchildren having a splendid time in the garden. 

For many years my orchids bloomed, and one day I was outside and a praying mantis was sitting on the wall near the orchids. Let me preface this first: What I’m about to say is a true story. I talked to the praying mantis, thinking it was a gift or a messenger from mom. I told it I didn’t want to solve my brother’s issues anymore, that his addiction and financial problems were not mine to solve. I said that it wasn’t my job to take care of, that she was the mother and I was the older sister. I swear the praying mantis looked and me and shook its head. 

OK, I admit, I videoed it and showed it to my dad. I said, “Papa, look at this, what do you think?” 

He told me to stop “‘expletive’ talking to praying mantises.” 

After that the orchids never bloomed again. 

Shortly after Irja died I received a package in the mail. It was from her son Dan. It was another Liberty bottle. Inside the bottle was a little piece of paper that had the name “Jennifer” on it. He told me prior to her dying Irja started to write the names of the people who were to get her keepsakes. This Liberty bottle was green and to this day sits next to the one she had given me prior. 

And if per chance I’m home in the late afternoon when the sun shines through the kitchen window, the path of the light beams through the green bottle as if to say, “Hello.”

Jennifer Danny is a Santa Clarita resident.

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