Before the Obituary

George and Sue Economou, back before they gave up smoking.

Once upon a time - for more than 55 years - there was George and Sue Economou. Both were teachers. He taught at Shasta High. She taught at Anderson Middle School and drove from Redding to work in a red VW bug.

I first met George at Shasta High School a few lifetimes ago when I was a teenager.  George - Mr. Economou to us kids - taught me to drive. He was also my P.E. teacher, and a beloved football coach. He was handsome, gruff, confident, wildly popular and had a great smile.

Decades passed before my next Economou encounter. I was working at the paper and had written a feature food story about a local Greek woman's spanakopita. The day the story ran I got an indignant call from George. He said his spanakopita was better than that woman's, that I should write about him. I said I couldn't do that, because it would be redundant. He said fine, then I should write about his baklava, something he made every Christmas season. And, by the way, his baklava was better than anyone's.

So that December a newspaper photographer and I went to the Economou's old Redding home and stayed through the whole involved baklava process, which takes several hours. I wrote about it and the story was published in the newspaper. No Greeks called to complain or claim they made the best baklava. That was the end of that.

One year later I got another call from George. He said it was time for me to write about baklava again. I said I couldn't repeat the story. He said that was OK, but the least I could do was come over and make baklava with him, followed by a Greek luncheon of Greek salad and avgolemono soup with George and Sue. So I did.

I kept that tradition every year until George died in May of 2011. By then I had George's baklava down to where I could hear his voice as I made it, even though he wasn't there. More butter, girl. Make sure the top's pretty. Don't cut all the way through. More nuts. More cinnamon. Easy on the nutmeg. More sugar. Let it get good and golden on top. 

One day before George's memorial service I enlisted help from family and friends to make baklava for 400 people. The Christmas before George died he'd given me his vintage Moule' nut grater, a crucial piece of equipment for getting all the walnuts the same, small consistency. It got a real workout that day.

The thing about the Economous was that when George was alive, he was The Guy. He was so damn charming and funny and captivating that he could hold court and entertain a room full of people by the hour. The Economou house was a lively place with a constant stream of guests, which included lots of former football players, guys who were now grandfathers.

All the while, Sue was there, smiling and laughing at George's jokes. The two were affectionate with one another, and were big on hugging, holding hands and kissing. They went everywhere together; to the country club, out to eat, to the Elk's Lodge, and to Mercy Medical Center, where they logged in literally thousands of volunteer hours. They were seemingly inseparable, which was best illustrated by a favorite Economou family story of the time Sue hopped on a plane to take care of her grandchildren while their parents were away. But Sue lasted only a few days before she left the grandkids with a neighbor and flew back home to be with George. She said that's how much she missed him. She couldn't stand even a few days without him.

George and Sue Economou were seemingly inseparable.

When George died, everyone wondered what would happen to Sue. Many people - myself included - guessed she'd fade away and die of a broken heart in no time. You hear stories like that, where one spouse dies, and the other is right behind them. Together forever.

Sue surprised us, in a lot of ways. She didn't die. Her son Mark came and helped organize and take care all the paperwork and bills, stuff that George used to do.

For a while, Sue was very sad, and complained about being alone, especially at night. But gradually, a funny thing happened. Sue blossomed. She stretched and grew and filled the space that used to belong primarily to George. We discovered a side of Sue that wasn't so apparent when George was alive; a funny side, a sarcastic side, a snarky side, a naughty side, a devil-may-care side.

Sue was fully Sue. Sister Shelly and I grew to love Sue so much that at some point, Sue said we should just call her Mama Sue. This was a big deal for us, since our mother died when we were 12. Sue never had daughters, and we'd never had a mother in our adulthood. We were a good match.

We watched many episodes with Sue at her house of "Bluebloods" and "Doc Martin" and "Call the Midwife" and other movies and programs. Because her family lived out of town, she spent Thanksgivings with us, and Halloweens, because Sue got such a kick out of seeing all the little kids in their costumes. We had to tell Sue that while it was a nice gesture to invite trick-or-treaters into the house, most parents weren't OK with it.

Shelly Shively, Doni Chamberlain and Sue Economou loved spending Halloweens together.

We hosted her 95th birthday at my house. Life was good. She was still living in the old Economou house alone. She was still [gasp - Lord helps us] driving.

Shelly Shively, Mama Sue Economou and Doni Chamberlain at Sue's 95th birthday.

Eventually, Sue's age started to catch up with her. She suffered a few trips to the emergency room. She recovered from back surgery and a variety of illnesses that everyone predicted would be the end of her. The thing is, she always popped back. She was the incredible bouncing Sue, rebounding, fooling us all and springing back from death's doorstep every time.

At some point, she couldn't navigate the long staircase down to the basement to do laundry, so she got one of those motorized chairs that delivered her up and down the stairs while seated. She wasn't comfortable in her bed, and she had a hard time getting up out of a chair, so she bought a big maroon mechanical recliner that, with the push of a button, would rise Sue up, up, up into a standing position.

Suzanne Economou in her favorite mechanical chair.

She adored that chair so much that she abandoned her bed and started sleeping in the living room chair. She got a plastic shower chair. She had her tub removed and a walk-in shower installed. She got one of those medical alert necklaces in case she fell and couldn't get up.

She wasn't eating much, and when she did, the food was questionable. Food in her refrigerator sometimes expired and turned moldy. George and Sue's house became too much, and too big for Sue. So in March of 2016 she downsized and moved into The Vistas, a place she loved. She said that as long as she was starting over, she'd like people to start calling her Suzanne, rather than Sue. True to her other-oriented, outgoing nature, Suzanne made fast friends with everyone, except for one particular woman she doesn't like because the two of them had a falling out decades ago, but Sue can't for the life of her remember why. But she knows she doesn't like her for a good reason. I have no doubt she's right.

I also never caught on to calling her Suzanne, and she never corrected me when I slipped up and continued to call her Sue.

Christmas, my sisters and I visited Sue, who was so happy, and absolutely in her element, because, besides my sisters and myself, every seat in Sue's living room was occupied: her son, her daughter-in-law, her grandson and his girlfriend. Gin and tonics all around! Merry Christmas!

Sisters Doni Chamberlain, Bethany Chamberlain and Shelly Shively visit with Sue Economou at Christmas.

I'll bet you think I'm going to say Sue died. She hasn't. When she does, I've been asked to write her obituary, something I will be honored - but heartbroken - to do when the time comes.

It's anyone's guess how long Sue will last, but it doesn't look good. Within the last two weeks she's been admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, treated successfully with antibiotics, released from the hospital to a rehab facility and moved to another facility that seems a better fit for her. But she's weak, so weak she can't stand and walk to the bathroom, which means another level of indignity that she actually seems to have accepted. Her hearing has suddenly failed. She's having trouble breathing. She has no appetite, even for her routine nightly glass of wine, which, in itself is alarming.

Yesterday, Sue's daughter-in-law leaned over and whispered into her mother-in-law's ear that it was OK to leave, that Sue didn't have to hang on for everyone here. Just let go. It's OK. After all, there were so many people waiting for Sue: her mother, her brothers, many, many departed friends, and, of course, the love of her life, her precious George.

Don't you want to see them now?

Sue pulled the oxygen tube from her nostrils and looked directly at her daughter-in-law, then said one word before returning the tube to its place.

No.

In the meantime, there's a steady flow of visitors to see her, to the point where Sue said she felt sorry for her roommate, who I'd come to think of as Sue's de facto concierge, because the lovely woman was giving updates to visitors about the comings and goings of Sue's day. Monday I did a day-end tally of the number of people who'd all stopped by to see Sue: 12 people before 1 p.m.

Even now, at her worst, Sue's still sharp, funny and endearing. Every time she moves to a new facility, she makes new friends.

However, despite Sue's history of miraculous resiliency, everyone can sense that Sue may not be long for this world. One son and daughter-in-law - Mark and Margaret - who were here for Christmas, cut their trip to Nicaragua short and turned right back around to be here in Sue's darkest hours. They're staying with me. Her other son, Lee, is staying at The Vista's, in his mother's room, in Sue's absence. Another grandson and his wife are due here soon, too. I hope they hurry.

I have regrets. I regret not knowing Sue sooner. I regret not asking her to teach me to knit, because there was a time when Sue was the kind of accomplished knitter who created gorgeous, complex sweaters. I deeply regret the conversations I won't have with Sue, because she's now at a place of no return, where she can't hear well, and is so winded she can just manage a few barely audible words.

I regret not starting a column in which I would have featured Sue's wit and wisdom, especially when Sue came to life after George's death. I'd have called the column - "Ask Sue" because she has strong opinions and incredible insights about everything from child-rearing and manners to dating, politics and marriage.

Oh, gosh, I wish you could have heard the spicy conversations we had after my divorce, and after every online date, when she'd ask to hear every single horrible detail in living color. She vacillated between a shocked, "No!" to throwing her head back and laughing.

But mainly, I'm grateful. I'm grateful that George insisted I write about his baklava, or I'd have missed out on knowing George, and especially Sue. I'm grateful I got a second chance to have another mother. Most of all, I'm so grateful for Mama Sue. Lucky me. Lucky all of us.

I miss her already.

But you know what? July 2 will be Sue Economou's 97th birthday.  Maybe come July, she'll fool us all, and she'll still be here, eating cake, wearing a party hat and blowing out candles.

Maybe, she's just not done yet.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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66 Responses

  1. Pamels says:

    Sad in ways, but so wonderful too. A person to love and be loved by- and mostly to laugh with.
    People get freer in ways as they age. And so much wiser with their experience. And she may surprise you on July 2:)?

  2. Tom says:

    Sue is lucky to have had you and Shelly in her life just as you are lucky to have had her and George in yours. I know she will be missed. I hope she makes it to July and you all can have cake and wine together.

    • You’re right. Our relationship with each other is — and continues to be — is an incredible gift. While it would be nice to have Sue longer, I wouldn’t want her to stay under the current circumstances, and her current physical state of misery. 🙁

  3. Karen C says:

    I love this story about a wonderful and fun couple. Thanks for a great eay to start the day. Over the years I have heard so much about them, sadly our paths never crossed.

  4. Beautiful. Amazing the way things work — a man’s baklava opens up a world of delightful friendship. Thanks for the smiles.

  5. Bob Higgins says:

    It struck me, right from the get-go, that the PE teachers always got the “student driving” job. I was taught driving from Joe Manatowa (gym is named after him) at EHS. (Just thought I’d throw that in)

  6. Beverly Stafford says:

    Lovely, Doni. George is waiting patiently, but let’s hope that you and your Mama Sue celebrate your joint July birthdays together. Keep her party hat at the ready.

    • Well, if she’s not here on her birthday, we’ll have cake and wine in her memory. As I said earlier, she’s so miserable now that unless she pulls out of this current state, I wouldn’t wish for her to last longer this way.

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        Yes, July is too far away for your Mama Sue to be of this earth. She has certainly proven to be The Comeback Kid, but maybe this is the time for her to find out what’s beyond. In retrospect, it would have been better if my own precious Mother had died two years before she did.

  7. Darbie says:

    Every person needs to have a Sue and George somewhere in their lives.
    The sense of wonder and joy for life is passed down from the George’s and the Sue’s. They teach us what is truly valuable. The friendship and love that we can feel from undiscovered corners.
    I’m so happy that they were there to be your people. That you have been there to enrich Sue’s life since George has gone.
    They’ve made a difference in the world that we can only dream of doing.

  8. Melissa Roberts says:

    What a wonderful story! Mr. Economou was my driving teacher as well. Life is a journey, and what amazing people to meet along the way.

  9. Linda Cadd says:

    What a beautiful, loving tribute to this woman, Doni. You’ve obviously been a faithful friend and I can’t imagine how an obituary could do her any more justice than this. For those of us who didn’t know Sue and her husband George, you make us wish we had.

  10. Deb Deb says:

    Such a tender, funny, loving column about your much-loved Mama Sue! What a treasure she is, to you and all who love her. I am glad you have had each other’s friendship, and will until the end.

    • That’s the way it goes. The more we love someone, the more it hurts when they leave. It’s a blessing and a curse.

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        I found a condolence card for a man who recently lost his beloved wife (she was also loved by the community). The card’s message was “Those who are easiest to love are hardest to forget.”

  11. conservative says:

    It would be great if someone would take the time and she would agree to record an oral history. Some of the questions I would ask:

    What was it like in the depression?
    Did you ever take a streetcar?
    What was it like in the war?
    How did you learn to drive?
    Do you have any great stories about your mother and father, like the first time they saw a car, what it was like to court a girl with a horse and buggy?
    When did your family leave the farm and move to the city?
    Did you know anyone who died of polio?

    • All great questions, but Sue is too weak to respond in long sentences now.

      But I’ve heard many of Sue’s stories about everything from childbirth (for her, it was a breeze), and her divorce from her kids’ dad (a very courageous thing to do in those days), to being treated for TB for two years in a sanitarium where she literally never left her bed, and had to leave her little boys with a brother. But you’re right; it would have been better to do an audio/video version. I’ll add that to my regrets.

  12. Richard Christoph says:

    Doni, thank you for such a poignant and beautifully written story about the Economous and this update on Sue. It was my pleasure to have met them at Mercy during their volunteer years there, and I had the privilege years ago of working with George’s Mom when she had broken a hip and required PT. She spoke virtually no English and George translated questions and instructions, teaching me along the way to say Ti Kaneis (how are you?) and Kala (fine). Always thereafter, when seeing either or both George and Sue, we would exchange Greek greetings and a big grin.

    Some folks just exude goodness and Sue and George made our world a richer and better place.

    • Oh man, that’s great to got to meet Mrs. Economou! And yes, George was always trying to teach everyone Greek, and was exasperated by our mispronunciations.

      You and I are among the lucky ones to have known George and Sue.

  13. Peggy says:

    Lovely story beautifully told Doni.

  14. Patrick Buckley says:

    And Doni, having met George the same way you did as a sophmore at Shasta High, I would like to add to George’s life and times. In addition to his Greek culinary prowess, golf was his game. His PE classes all received probably their first introduction to the game. Joe Franco was the golf team coach but George was the teacher of golf to the student body. George was a fixture of morning golf at Riverview. I play saturday and sunday mornings and had the pleasure of many rounds with my good friend George. I’m going to leave out the handsome and gruff, however he was confident, wildly popular, with a great smile and vital to the end. After golf George would meet Sue in the restaurant for breakfast. I haven’t seen Sue since George’ s passing and I enjoyed reading her side of the story. We miss them both.

  15. Toni C. Perkins says:

    Love this story. George and Sue lived a wonderful life. They were wise to nurture their love and to nurture friendships and family ties. Your friendship with them means so much. As we age we choose friends more wisely. Friendships are dynamic and play an important role in keeping us sane and healthy. You, family and other friends have contributed to the richness in Sue’s life as she has done for you. Thanks you for sharing your story.

    • George and Sue DID have a great life! They made the best of every situation. And they both collected friends, and new friends, often younger friends. At this point, Sue has outlived many of her dearest friends, but she continues to make new ones.

      She’s young at heart, and she is fun, positive, open and curious, which makes people seek her out like moths to a flame. As one of the staff at the last facility said, he wished he could bottle and sell whatever it was that made Sue the way she is.

  16. Joanne says:

    Wonderful story about awesome people. Thank you !

  17. Patricia Bay says:

    Awesome…simple awesome!!

  18. Janine Hall says:

    I have had the pleasure of knowing George and Sue since the early 80’s. Both such wonderful characters. George would buy a really nice Christmas present for Sue and run home and give it to right away. I would ask Sue later how did she like what George bought her. She liked it, but said then there was not a present on Christmas. I finally told him, I will sell this to you but you have to come back on December 24th and pick it up. I still remember that so well. Love the memories.

    • Janine, I love that story!

      I remember when I met the Economous George said that he’d bought Sue a watch for many occasions, and he had a huge collection. I wanted to do a story, but they were afraid someone would read the story and break in and steal them

  19. Sheri Gallinger Carpenter says:

    This has to be one of the most beautiful columns I’ve ever read, and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it. I was a student in Mrs. Economou’s 7th grade class in 1973-1974, and one of the things that impressed me most about her was her exquisite handwriting. Using what is now considered old-fashioned chalk against a black slate chalkboard, she would employ long, fluid strokes to write her class notes; and at the ripe old age of 13, I made it my mission in life to memorize and replicate every single element of Mrs. Economou’ s version of the alphabet. (I can still remember her Qs.) You must believe me when I tell you that I think of Mrs. Economou frequently – if not every day, then every week. I think of her every time I sign a check. I think of her every time I write a personal note in a greeting card. I think of her every time someone comments on my lovely handwriting (not to be boastful, but it happens quite often). And I remember her beautiful smile as if it were yesterday. I’ve so often wondered over the years how she was doing, and I’ve wanted to thank her for giving me a gift that has (so far) lasted a lifetime. For that I’ll be eternally grateful and hold her dear to my heart. I wish peace and joy for her now and always. Hugs to you and your family.

    • Gosh, what a tribute that you think of her whenever you write something. She speaks often of her teaching days, and she loved the kids. I will tell her what you’ve shared with me. I know it will make her happy.

  20. Josephine Toms says:

    Such a beautiful story. I cried my eyes out…I lost my 96 1/2 year old mother in September. Sue sounds like an amazing lady, reminds me of my mom. I feel truly blessed to have had my mom for so many years, but the pain of losing her will be with me forever. Enjoy every moment!!

  21. Barbara Braun says:

    I was a student of Mr. Economou’s at Shasta for soccer and badminton. He was a great teacher and had a lot of patience with sometimes unruly students. I also knew Sue from her volunteering as an election worker. They were definitely one of the cutest couples ever! I loved running into them in the Mall and chatting with them. I think they both would say they had a wonderful life together with their family. Prayers and positive thoughts are coming her way!

    • They WERE the cutest couple ever! I agree! And Sue is still adorable. The other day I asked her her secret to having so many loyal friends and she just gives this cutie smile, eyes crinkling, and shrugs up to her ears. She’s irresistible!

  22. Jean Kinf says:

    Wonderful article. She may have known my mother Winelle Rhodes who also taught at Anderson elementary. I would have loved to have known her

  23. AJ AJ says:

    How wealthy we all are for having George and Sue in this world, and how blessed you have been to have had a ringside seat.

  24. Debbie says:

    Thank you for sharing Sue and George with the rest of us. Their love and friendship, along with your splendid tribute, is heartwarming — and — a reminder how special dear ones are GIFTS that enrich our lives.

  25. April Peltier says:

    I don’t know Sue (but it sounds like I’d Love her) and… I don’t even know you that well… but I just have to say “I LOVE YOUR WRITING “!!!!!

  26. Linda Jones says:

    After graduating Shasta Colkege I moved onto Sacramento State. I lived in an apartment in Fair Oaks behind Sunrise Mall. My neighbor was George’s mother. She was a delightful lady and a scotch drinker – ick! But, I would join her on occasion. Such a small world!

  27. Mark Lathrop says:

    Reminds me of my Grandma…My mom used to tell me I had to go to grandma’s birthday because it might be the last one she has…that was when she was around 80. She lived to a couple months shy of 103. I was glad to have so many memories of going to grandma’s house every year.

  28. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Wonderful tribute to your friend Doni. A 97 year old friend of mine spent time at Vibra and went home. When he did PT, he did twice what he was asked to do. Having people like you and Shelly in her life is a real gift.

  29. Cate says:

    George and Sue made our world better. Many lives breathed easier because they lived. Perfect 🙂

  30. CandaWilliams says:

    Beautiful article about a remarkable lady. I love her answer to her daughter-in-law when asked if she’d like to join her loved ones-NO! That’s Sue for sure. She’s the energizer bunny, and even though her batteries are getting low, they obviously still have some life left in them. Great memories of movie night at Sue’s when Doni and Shelly fell asleep and Sue and I sat up and watched the whole movie. She’s a hoot. Always loved talking with her. She really does ooze wisdom. Love you so much, Sue! xoxo

  31. Bud Linggi says:

    Donni, I am a guy, that is learning, late, what I have missed at being a little nonsocial and not having met more older folks out of my circle. Now, I are one.

    My joy of motorcycling and my being a military veteran brought me into the small world of escorting deceased veterans remains to wherever they wanted to be interred. Not having made the effort, I did not learn the hardship some of these guys and gals have endured resulting from their active duty.

    Thank you for your story and giving us a little nudge to become more informed about the ordinary, citizens around us… Bud… Been there done that, Gone Fishin’

  32. Jorgi B says:

    Beautiful tribute to Sue, Doni. I didn’t know her, but she sounds a wonderful person. I would have loved to have known her.

  33. Robert says:

    Every person needs to have a Sue and George somewhere in their lives. The sense of wonder and joy for life is passed down from the George’s and the Sue’s. They teach us what is truly valuable. The friendship and love that we can feel from undiscovered corners.

  34. Beth Ashby says:

    I really enjoyed reading about Sue Economu. She is a real survivor and we can learn from her survivoral lessons. We can quit feeling sorry for ourselves and follow her example of finding JOY.

  35. Kirsten Plate says:

    What a lovely story. It reminds me so much of “my” Sue, who was my date at your house after your spirited performance at Shasta College some time back. However, I now visit her at the cemetary, and miss her daily.

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