When I first met Sue Economou – a pleasant, pretty retired school teacher – it was through her husband George Economou. I knew George as Mr. Economou, a Shasta High School teacher and coach.
I was a student in a few of Mr. Economou’s Shasta High P.E. classes. And he taught me to drive in the required Driver’s Education course, back when the school district offered students that kind of thing. Free driving lessons for everyone.
Mr. Economou was a gentle marshmallow bear of a man; gruff on the outside, tender on the inside. He was especially beloved by decades’ of Shasta High football players.
I didn’t meet up with Mr. Economou again until years later. I’d written a food story about a Redding Greek woman and her family recipe for spanakopita. My phone rang at work the morning the story appeared in the paper.
“Girl, I’m Greek and my spanakopita is better than hers,” Mr. Economou said. “You should write about my spanakopita.”
I told him I’d already written about spanakopita, so I couldn’t write about it again.
No pressure, but he reminded me that he was the reason I knew how to drive.
We settled on a compromise. I’d write about his baklava, which he made every December to give away as gifts.
A photographer came with me to Mr. and Mrs. Economou’s house in old Redding, just a few blocks from what was the original Shasta High School, which Mr. Economou was first a student, and then a teacher. He made the baklava. I took notes, and wrote about Mr. Economou’s baklava, complete with his recipe.
That was that. Until the following December when my phone rang. It was Mr. Economou.
“Hey, girl, it’s time to make baklava again!”
I explained that I’d already written that story.
“So what!” he said. “You can still come over and make baklava with me.”
That’s how the tradition started where I’d go to Mr. and Mrs. Economou’s house each December. We’d make baklava, followed by a lunch of Avgolemo – a Greek lemon soup – and Greek salad, featuring Greek oregano from a plant in the back yard, smuggled from Greece into the United States by Mr. Economou’s mother in the early 1900s. I have cuttings of that plant in my herb garden.
I fell in love with the Economous. Eventually they sort of adopted me and my sister. I also fell in love with the old-fashioned nut grinder Mr. Economou used to make the nuts just the right size, and his beat up old pan with the handles, in which he baked the baklava. That pan must have been 100 years old.
In time, Mr. and Mrs. Economou insisted that my sister and I call them George and Sue. So we did. Soon we were regular visitors at George and Sue’s house, the old Redding home in which they’d lived since 1956.
The thing about visiting George and Sue was that George was the most outgoing of the two. He was just one of those people who could command a room and engage an audience. Everybody loved George. He was funny, he was playful, he was opinionated, he was kind, and most of all, he loved his Suzanne.
Suzanne was George’s sidekick; more in the shadows.
George died five years ago, and when he did, everyone’s minds turned to Sue. George was her everything. George was the love of her life, the rudder that kept her afloat.
Everyone was afraid that this would be one of those heartbreaking stories where one spouse dies, and the other quickly follows.
Sue had a steep learning curve to get up to speed with the things George had taken care of. But she did it. She continued her volunteer work at Mercy Medical Center, and because she was lonely, she added a stint at the Discovery Shop. She’d meet friends at the Elks Lodge for lunch or taco night. She went to movies with another friend every Sunday. She filled nearly every day with something. She hated being alone, and night time was the most difficult for her.
But despite her grief and sadness over losing George, Sue actually blossomed and came into her own. Her family and friends saw a new side of her, a little more irreverent, a bit more opinionated and outspoken, than the Sue we’d known before.
Even so, her age was catching up with her.
She went from walking on her own to needing a cane for support. Then she graduated from the cane to a walker. She had one of those electric chairs installed so she could ride it down to the basement to do laundry. She still drove her car. She still went to wine tasting at Holiday Market each Thursday.
Friends still came over, including my twin and myself, who never tired of Sue’s insights and stories, to the point where we’d play a game with her we called Ask Sue, where she would give her opinions about everything from dating (call him!) and manners (what’s wrong with people?) to cooking (go out to eat) and bratty kids (that’s awful!).
She loved thrift stores, and was an avid collector of candles, stuffed animals, vests and books. She also adored her solar bobble-head characters that lined her kitchen window sill, where the sun would bring them bobbing to life each morning. Her coffee table and fireplace mantel were always decorated for every holiday and season, and the candy dishes were filled with the matching treats, whether for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter or Fourth of July.
Sue turned 94 last year. When she had difficulty getting out of her chair, she bought a huge maroon beast of an upholstered chair that could tilt forward and ease her into a standing position. When she struggled to walk up even one porch step, her son built a front porch ramp. She often said she wasn’t hungry, that she was just too “lazy” to go get food out of the refrigerator. She hired a guy to tear out the old pink tub and install a walk-in shower. She bought a special gizmo with a higher seat and handles for the toilet. She took to wearing a medical alert necklace 24/7, just in case she fell and couldn’t get up.
Sue was changing, and she was doing her best to adapt, and stay in her home.
I’ll bet you think I’m going to break the sad news that Sue died.
I won’t, because she’s very much alive. But she’s moved into an assisted living facility. It wasn’t an easy decision. It took about a year for Sue to warm up to the idea. And when she did talk about it, one of her biggest concerns was that she’d be with all “those boring old people” who talk about their aches and pains all the time; people who aren’t fun.
But as Sue told me on the day she moved into The Vistas, she knew it was time to leave her old house behind. As much as she loved her old home in old Redding — the one with the prolific dwarf lemon tree in the front yard, and her mother-in-law Economou’s oregano in the back — it was getting to be too much for her.
“I could tell,” she said. “And I wanted it to be my choice. I didn’t want my kids to tell me.”
Her name was put on the waiting list for an apartment to “come available” at The Vistas, and when the opening came, Sue’s son and daughter-in-law – Mark and Margaret – came to Redding to help Sue transition from the three-bedroom, spacious home she shared with George for 58 years, into a one-bedroom apartment at The Vistas.
On moving day, Sue sat in a kitchen chair in her new apartment and watched as moving men came and went, and boxes arrived, and the handyman hung up her TV bracket.
She just shook her head. I told her how brave she was, how much courage it took for her to make such a huge life change.
“I know. I can’t believe it,” she said.
The day she moved into The Vistas she had an important announcement.
Her name would no longer be Sue. From now on, everyone could call her Suzanne. She would have plenty of adjustments, so everyone else could handle this one simple request.
“Why not?” she asked with a shrug and a smile. “It’s a new life, and I’d like a new name.”
You’ve got it, Suzanne.