She didn’t want me to write about her in my blog when she was alive. She was too self-effacing.
She didn’t want me to interview her because she felt she had never accomplished much. She’d never had a job, she once told me, other than helping her husband with his business and raising their three children in suburban New Jersey. She thought of herself as ordinary, not worthy of a WOW profile.
But now that she has passed on – she died last week in her apartment in Santa Monica, California, at the age of ninety-four – I will write about my friend Iris and tell the world, at least my small corner of the world, what an extraordinary person she was and what she meant to me.
She can’t stop me now.
Iris and I met here in San Miguel de Allende one evening in the spring of 2016 at the Bellas Artes cultural center, waiting in line to attend a lecture of some kind. We were early for the event, strangers, standing side-by-side, so we began to fill the waiting time with chat.
We found we had New Jersey in common; we were both “Jersey girls.” She’d raised her family in Morristown, where my parents were originally from; and I grew up in northern New Jersey, in a small town called Hillsdale.
We also discovered we had birthdays coming up in May. We realized we were both stubborn old Tauruses. We laughed about that.
She was eighty-seven at the time we met (I, seventy-one). She’d been a widow for about ten years, living alone in the San Miguel home she and her husband had bought in centro some thirty years before, when her husband retired. I told her I was new to SMA, and my apartment in Colonia Allende had recently been burglarized, so I was looking to move closer to town, to a safer area.
She highly recommended an apartment complex, Villa Martha, across from her casa. So on Iris’s suggestion, I moved there, and she and I became neighbors and, soon enough, pals. We held “movie nights” at her house every Saturday (she was a whiz with the DVD player and had an impressive library of award-winning films), and once a week we made lunch for each other, either at her place or mine. (Her specialty: spaghetti with bottled tomato sauce. She wasn’t much of a cook.) Sometimes we splurged and had lunch at our favorite nearby restaurant, Nectar.
We talked a lot, about substantive things. Iris was well read and well informed. She read good books and she kept abreast of world events. She was down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, unsentimental, clear-eyed about life, and smart-smart-smart. She was self-confident but also self-effacing and totally lacking in self-pity. In all the time I knew her, she never said an unkind word about anyone, nor complained about anything – least of all her advancing age and declining health.
Her life path – so unlike my own – had obviously shaped her: She’d gone from being an adored daughter, growing up in New York City, to an adored wife of many decades, to an adored mother and grandmother. It seemed to me she only knew love.
And I felt I was the beneficiary of some of that love. She looked at me the way my mother used to: with a tinge of wide-eyed awe. And, like my mother also did, Iris listened to whatever I had to say as if it was the most important information she might hear that day. She never interrupted or lectured or judged me. She made me feel seen and heard and valued. What a loving gift. What a role model she was.
As her health declined, Iris and her family decided it best for her to move to California to be close to her son, David, who works in Hollywood. So she got an apartment of her own in Santa Monica and traveled back to her home in San Miguel as frequently as she was able, the last time being last February when she came with her son to check on her house here.
I missed her full-time presence, but we stayed in touch in the interim via e-mail. Her e-mails to me were always terse — like telegrams, I used to tease her. Such as this one: Dear Bonnie, I think of you often. Hope you feel well. All good here. Love, Iris.
She maintained her stubborn independence and self-sufficiency right to the end, as I hope with all my heart to do.
This week I received an e-mail from Iris’s son David, which should not have surprised me – after all, she was ninety-four and very frail — but nonetheless stunned and deeply saddened me. David explained how Iris had died at home:
“Despite excellent medical care, her blood cell numbers finally could not be kept high enough, and she felt her time had come. She was comfortable and pain-free, surrounded by wonderful care and love. At 94, she still retained all her mental sharpness and sense of humor, and she was capable til the end of making her own decisions. We feel even in the sadness of losing her that her death was a good and a positive one, very much of a piece with her life.”
David went on to say, “this almost goes without saying, but she was an exceptional person who will be deeply missed.”
In Memoriam: Iris Staenberg – May 5, 1929 – June 29, 2023
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I painted this simple watercolor for Iris and sent it to her in Santa Monica last year. She responded with this effusive (for her) e-mail: Dear Bonnie, I found treasure in my mailbox today! Thanks so much for thinking of me and sending your work to me. I will get it framed and hang it where I will see it every day and keep thinking of you. All is the same here. How are you? Love, Iris