Mama Sue Economou: Heaven-Sent

George and Suzanne Economou, a great love story. George died in May of 2011. Suzanne died in September of 2019.

The first time I wrote about George Economou was around 15 years ago for a newspaper story about his Greek baklava. That led to a deep friendship with George and his wife Sue Economou. Soon, twin Shelly became friends with them, too. They embraced us like the daughters they’d never had. We embraced them like the functional parents we’d never had.

I also wrote about George Economou after he died in May of 2011. For his service, I led a group of family and friends who baked hundreds of pieces of baklava, from his recipe, for his standing-room-only memorial at the Elks Lodge where he was a member and beloved bartender (who didn’t drink). To this day, whenever I make baklava, I can hear George’s voice: “More butter, girl!”

Noni Doni and her then-5-month-old grandson making baklava for George Economou’s May 2011 memorial.

And five years later I wrote about his widow, Suzanne, after she’d bravely moved out of the couple’s old North Street Redding residence, downsized and traded in her expansive three-bedroom 1938 home with a full basement for a small, one-bedroom 2009 apartment at The Vistas Assisted Living and Memory Care facility in Redding.

I confess that one of the reasons I wrote that piece then was I thought she wouldn’t last long, and I wanted to share her awesomeness with the world while she was still alive. Oh, how she loved the cards she received after that story!

Tuesday, I wrote and published Suzanne Economou’s obituary.

As devastated as I am that she’s gone, frankly, I am shocked she lasted as long as she did. Few people expected her to survive long without George, the love of her life. But she lived eight more years without him, which shouldn’t have been a surprise since she’d fooled us before, with dire trips to the hospital and into and out of rehab facilities. She was the incredible bouncing Sue, who’d popped back from the brink of death so many times. This woman was tough! In addition to living to tell about the Great Depression, World War II and the Vietnam War, she survived a plethora of ailments, like small pox, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculous, bouts of pneumonia, congestive heart failure, a fractured back and back surgery.

Suzanne Economou died Tues., Sept. 24, after suffering many weeks of a deteriorating condition that worsened by the hour, starting with one day in August when she called an ambulance to pick her up at The Vistas and take her to Mercy Medical Center, because she said she figured she was going to end up there anyway.

I now think she knew she was on the downhill slide toward her end days. But rather than die at the hospital as she expected, she was eventually released to a rehab facility, where it seemed she’d surely spend her final days.

Suzanne Economou with Janell Word, a former student and frequent visitor.

Wrong.

She returned “home” to The Vistas, this time with a hospital bed in the living room and a second round of Mercy Hospice services at the ready. (The first round was discontinued after she rallied and sprang back to life some months back.)

Hanging out with Mama Sue at rehab.

The Mama Sue backstory

I can’t remember exactly when Shelly and I started called Suzanne Economou “Mama Sue” but I know it was after George died, and that it was Sue’s idea. I think it was something along the lines of, “Well, you’re like my daughters, and I’m your Mama Sue!”

We once had a biological mother we called Mama, who died when she was 42, and Shelly and I were 12, but somehow it didn’t seem a betrayal of our first mother if we called Suzanne Economou Mama Sue. I’d like to think our mother would have approved of Suzanne Economou as her stand-in, kind of a tag-team mothering job, with our original Mama taking the foundational first stretch, and Mama Sue assuming our adult chapter.

After George died, Sue lived alone, and had no family in town. I lived alone. Shelly lived alone. So the three of us spent a lot of time together.

Shelly showed Sue how to carve her first (and last) pumpkin, which Sue said was too messy and a lot of work. But she named her pumpkin and displayed him proudly.

Shelly shared Sue’s pumpkin-carving prowess on Facebook.

We took her to movies, to plays, to restaurants, to Live at the Met Opera performances, to the Elks Lodge for taco night, and to family gatherings where Mama Sue was welcomed as part of our extended families.

Mama Sue was a kid magnet, illustrated at the 2015 Domke family Thanksgiving where this little girl took a shine to Sue. So Sue: a glass of red wine in one hand, a child in the other.

Many evenings we came to Mama Sue’s North Street home, a place she loathed facing after dark in George’s absence. We sometimes spent the night – slumber parties – which she loved. We watched a lot of movies, and endless episodes of “Blue Bloods” and “Downton Abby” and “Doc Martin” and “Call the Midwife”. Truth is, Sue would endure almost any program if it meant we’d hang out with her. We ate popcorn and ice cream and pizza off lap trays in the darkly paneled TV room where George and Sue used to watch the news and televised golf.

She was up for anything, even waiting in the dark for a lunar eclipse.

Shelly and Mama Sue, waiting on North Street for the lunar eclipse.

Mama Sue often joined me and Shelly and our families for the holidays, such as the time my son and daughter-in-law rented a huge tent in the back yard for Thanksgiving, and Mama Sue was there, bundled up, taking it all in.

a tented Thanksgiving 2015 at Josh and Kat Domke’s house.

And the Thanksgiving Eve Mama Sue joined Shelly and my daughter in Sacramento to hear Shelly’s son play in a honky-tonk bar where Sue danced with the leader of the band. And the next day they all went to Mimi’s restaurant for Thanksgiving, which Mama Sue pronounced one of the best Thanksgivings ever.

Saeri Domke, Shelly and Aaron Shively and Mama Sue Economou at Mimi’s Cafe in Sacramento, Thanksgiving Day 2011.

She especially loved Halloween, and couldn’t understand why parents wouldn’t let little trick-or-treaters into my home so she could check out the costumes and greet them in person.

We celebrated many birthdays with her. Here she was when she turned 95.

And when she turned 97.

And finally, in July, when she turned 98.

She loved any excuse to celebrate, obvious by George and Sue’s North Street coffee table, which Sue decorated every month, and made sure it was well-stocked with overflowing candy dishes. When Sue transitioned into assisted living, she brought along the wreath that she’d displayed on her North Street porch that pretty much summed up her attitude: “Celebrate Everything!”

Christmas was one of her favorite holidays, and she had the decorations to prove it. She also indulged us with selfies, and was always photogenic.

Christmas 2018, sisters Doni and Bethany Chamberlain, Shelly Shively, and Mama Sue Economou.

She was so full of life, so much fun and so full of laughter, even as her life diminished. She loved red wine and cheese puffs and coffee in the morning with a cookie. Most of all, she loved visitors. As they left, she’d say two things: Thanks for coming! Come back!

Her genuine goodness, optimism and joyful outlook were constant, even as her memory failed her from time to time. A few months ago, I took my 8-year-old grandson to see Sue, and during the drive there, I prepared him for the possibility that Sue might repeat herself, or ask the same questions, which was exactly what happened.

Sue: You’re such a handsome boy!
Grandson: Thank you.

Sue: You’re such a big boy!
Grandson: Thank you. 

Sue: How old are you?
Grandson: 8. 

Sue: You’re such a handsome boy!
Grandson: Thank you. 

Sue: You’re such a big boy!
Grandson: Thank you. 

Sue: How old are you?
Grandson: 8. 

Sue: You’re such a handsome boy!
Grandson: Thank you . . .

On the way home, I apologized to my grandson if the visit was frustrating for him.

“That’s OK,” he said. “I kind of liked it.”

And who wouldn’t?

That’s what it was like to be in the presence of Suzanne Economou. Always smiling. Always uplifting. Always interested in others. The worst part about visiting her was knowing she’d be sad when you left.

In addition to the grief of losing Mama Sue, Shelly and I both harbor deep regrets. Shelly regrets that she didn’t fulfill Sue’s wish sooner (before oxygen tanks entered the picture) to smuggle in one cigarette, just so Sue could try one, for old time’s sake. Shelly also regretted not finding a wedding for Sue to crash, something Sue joked would be a lot of fun.

Me? I regret not featuring Sue in her own column called “Ask Sue”  because I know it would have been a hit. Sue had the answers to all life’s questions, big and small. She was like an elderly Magic 8 Ball to whom you could pose any vexing problem. Jobs? Relationships? Clothing? Etiquette? Movies? Food? Children? Politics? Religion? Grandchildren? She had all the answers. And she was almost always right.

She was an interesting blend of opinionated but mostly positive. No matter what we told her, she always took our side. I’m convinced if we’d confessed we’d robbed a bank, she would have defended our motives as somehow justified.

She didn’t like to hear profanity, but I’ve never heard her laugh as hard as when we took her to a movie where one of the character’s names was Motherfucker Jones.

In the last days before Mama Sue’s death, she talked in the present tense about being on her family’s porch, where her mother was giving her and her brothers haircuts, and since Sue was the youngest — the only girl among seven brothers — her hair might end up looking like a boy’s. She pointed around the room to people we could not see, including a “nice man,” and a little lost girl sitting in a brown chair, waiting for her mother. Out of the blue, a few days before slipping into a deep sleep, she smiled and said she’d caught a whiff of something that smelled so, SO good; a strange statement since she’d lost her sense of smell decades earlier.

The week she passed, Shelly and I had two nights when we both spent the night with her. We called it our slumber party, reminiscent of the good times on North Street. We watched chick flicks, and had vodka tonics, which we gave to Mama Sue in tiny sips, dropper-style, with a straw.

The night Mama Sue died, Shelly and I stayed up well after midnight retelling Mama Sue memories, many of which we plan to share at her celebration of life next month. But in case you can’t make it, here are some highlights:

• A few years ago Mama Sue joined Shelly and me at my former boyfriend’s wedding where guests received ticket vouchers for two glasses of wine each. Sue started collecting unwanted tickets, and let’s just say none of us were feeling any pain at the wedding, but it was a rocky time on North Street later that night.

• Shelly learned, about two years into bringing Sue fresh eggs, that all along Sue had been throwing them away, because she thought backyard chicken eggs were questionable.

• Sue and George volunteered at Mercy Medical Center for nearly 40 years, even when Sue was in her late 80s and relied upon a walker to get around. One day as she approached a hospital door for her volunteer shift, a physician who worked at the hospital breezed through without holding the door open for her, letting it shut behind him. After Sue made it through the door she yelled across the room, “You ass!”

• She was driving down Eureka Way when a carload of teenagers zoomed by, hands out the window, middle fingers held high. Sue – a former junior high school teacher – sped up and passed them, flipping them off as she went.

• She and George used to poke marshmallows through their fence to the daycare kids next door, like feeding baby birds.

• A few years ago, during an art reception I’d help cater, Sue pounded her cane on the floor and yelled, “That’s enough!” after a woman came back again and again, heaping plates with massive amounts of food.

• Mama Sue’s fashion choices were dominated by knit shirts, elastic-topped pants, vests and slip-on tennis shoes. A Kleenex could be found in every vest pocket.

• Before losing her drivers license (which was renewed when she was 95), she once admitted to accidentally clipping the side mirror off a parked car – or two – while she drove, but couldn’t remember which car, or even which street.

• If you wanted to see Mama Sue get really angry, just try to sneak into the kitchen and wash any dishes. “Stop that! I’ll wash them tomorrow!”

• She noticed everything: a new outfit, a new purse, new shoes, a different hair style, if we looked tired or stressed or if we’d lost a pound. But if we gained weight, or wore jeans (she wasn’t a fan of jeans) she didn’t mention it.

• She set the table for special meals days ahead, complete with festive napkins and napkin rings and pretty dishes.

• She went through Kleenex and Dollar Store packaged cookies like there was no tomorrow.

• She wasn’t religious, but she loved to collect angel figurines.

• She didn’t like cut flowers, because they died too soon.

A few days before Mama Sue died, when her eyes were closed, and she’d stopped speaking, I told her that I’d be open to a sign from her after she left this life, if she wanted. I asked if she could please make it something I could easily recognize; something unmistakable.

The day following Mama Sue’s death I was walking to my back door, not exactly thinking about her at the moment, but just feeling deeply, profoundly sad. That’s when it hit me; the most wonderful smell; floral, but like no flower I could place. It smelled strong, but not overpowering. It smelled real, not artificial. The thing is, my pathetic work-in-progress backyard has no flowers. Not one.

I don’t know if that was a sign from Mama Sue, but I’m choosing to believe it was. And wouldn’t that be absolutely perfect? A woman with no sense of smell, delivering something exhilarating and pleasing to me when I needed it most.

Heaven scent. Heaven-sent.

###

You can read Suzanne Economou’s obituary here. A celebration of life for Suzanne Economou will be held on Nov. 22 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Redding Elks Lodge. Memorial contributions may be made in Suzanne Economou’s name to Mercy Hospice, 1544 Market Street, Redding, CA 96001.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. 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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