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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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.