Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Zorthians: Memories of Altadena's eclectic couple

Serendipity, and Reflections Upon Life:


Altadena’s most eclectic couple

[Nyerges is a naturalist and outdoor educator. He is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Foraging California,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com].

It was just one of those days. I had a few hours before my next appointment, and I was driving towards the direction of home and there was the cemetery where my parents had been buried. I hadn’t said “hello” for some months, so I pulled in and began looking for the spot.  Right away things looked a little different. A road had actually been removed and it was the road that took me right to their tombstone.  So I had to drive a little further away, as I was a bit disconcerted.  And a movie was being made with the various lights and crew, a distraction from my inner communion with my parents.

Still, after some guesswork and wandering, I found the tombstone and kneeled before them to chat a bit. As usual, I just shared some news and thoughts that were swirling in my mind. My mother seemed to respond first, as if she was more alert. Conversation ensued.  My father slowly awoke, and passively joined the conversation.  Was this all in my mind? Who cares? It was real enough to me, to be there with my memories of them, to feel their presence, to listen to what I think they would have said.

I sprinkled some sage on their stones, and then I walked back erratically to my car, always amazed at the diversity of tombstones and messages over such a long period of time.  I understood the solitude, and the sacredness, of the cemetery, this place of timelessness where the dead and the living meet.  Regardless of whatever hurly-burley is happening in my life, in the cemetery I realize that the physical life has its limits, and will one day end.


Nearly to my car, I happened upon the tombstone of two old friends, Dabney and Jirayr Zorthian.  I knew Dabney much better, for she often attended my field trips and we would have long conversations after Jirayr died.  I knew Jirayr most through his reputation, and from our many phone conversations.   Why had I happened upon their grave this day?

For those of you unfamiliar with the Zorthian family, Mr. Zorthian had long been considered the most famous eccentric artist of Altadena, and the parties held at their sprawling foothill property were legendary.  Everyone has a story about the Zorthians.

The “last words” engraved next to Dabney’s name were “I want to know.”  What a perfect thing to express!  I want to know.  She didn’t state that she wanted to know a specific this or that, just   that she wanted to Know!  The quest for knowledge, and the drive to do more and try more, was such a signature of Dabney’s.  In our conversations, she often asked many questions, always listened sincerely, truly trying to learn and to know.  Our conversations seemed like true communing, unlike so many of today’s conversations where one party is not listening and is just waiting for the talker to stop so they can say what they are waiting to say.

Jirayr’s tombstone said “Make my heart my mind.” Beautiful!  I took that to mean that Jirayr’s quest was to think with feeling in all that he does.  Even though most of my interactions were somewhat commercial and mundane, I found him to be a creative thinker, thinking outside of the box and finding creative solutions to problems.  

His tombstone carried a second phrase also: “Give me a pleasureful life.” Indeed!  Jirayr didn’t wait for someone to give him such a life, but he pursued pleasure in his art and parties and interactions with other. I don’t believe that he experienced any shortage of pleasures.

Though I doubt anyone would ever inscribe a phrase about pleasure on my tombstone, the fact is that I’m not Jirayr, and it did seem appropriate for him.  As I stared at the phrase, it made me think of all the pros and cons of pursuing pleasure, the excesses of pleasure, but also the simple pleasures of life which money cannot buy.

As I sprinkled some sage on their tombstone, I felt blessed to have had some interaction with one of Altadena’s most unique and eclectic couples.  And I could not help but feel the shortness of life, that one should never wait in the pursuit of knowledge, that one should pursue new knowledge with every breath, and that one should also do so by allowing the heart to be the mind.  In death, Dabney and Jirayr imparted their final lessons to me, and it made me again acknowledge that they indeed had a most wonderful life.

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