Goodbye, Auntie Susie.

Sail in peace, Auntie Susie. (Second from left. Sandy, left.
Marian, second from right. Me, right.)

Just now I learned of the passing of someone very special—someone I've barely seen for the last forty years or so, but yet whose presence put a huge deposit in my memory bank. It's funny, these people who are part of your childhood; they stick with you forever, no matter how seldom you see them. There is no question that she held me in her arms and gave me a bottle when I was just days old; I don't need to fact check that. We moved away two years later, so all I remember of her is a lifelong series of special visits: her easy laugh and her full attention when we arrived at her  home in salty Marblehead after a long drive from Plymouth for day trips that would occur several times a year for many years afterward. Meeting her to browse the newly opened shops at Quincy Market in Boston with my mom, my sister, and her daughter Sandy. Her sitting at our kitchen table in Plymouth, drinking tea with my mom. (That, I don't remember. I was upstairs with the girls having a tantrum and throwing every single toy in my room at my sister; it was Sandy who hugged me and calmed me down.)

The last time I saw Auntie Susie was at my baby shower in 2014, when I was pregnant with the looming Lord Fauntleroy. It was a sunny May day, and my sister hosted at her newly-bought beach cottage—ah, my sister (may she rest in peace), who was just beginning to have cognitive and spelling problems but was as-yet undiagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Susie came down early with her daughter Sandy to help make the favors. The favors were just simple bunches of daisy stems in lovely, tall Dollar-Store vases. My sister had spent an obscene amount of money on my first baby shower, and I couldn't bear for her to do it again, so I had made every effort to go simple for this one. Susie lifted the day with her Glinda the Good Witch laugh, something she passed along to her daughter Sandy, a lifetime artist and art teacher who had remained my sister's very best friend since they first skipped rope in the schoolyard next door to our homes in Marblehead. 

Memory house.

Marblehead. My family only lived there for a relatively short time, but over the years our return visits made it an enchanted destination in my mind. Back in the first years of the 1970s, we lived in a run-down rented apartment across the street from the Butlers. We were struggling; my first crib was a drawer pulled from a dresser. We lived pretty much right downtown, where salty wooden clapboard houses are squashed together along winding old streets that lead to rocky north shore beaches, boating clubs, and over the years, increasingly expensive restaurants and shops. In my childhood, I remember a candy store in someone's downstairs, a lot of artsy shops, and a whole lot of fisherman types wandering around in jeans and flannels. Today, those fishermen have probably been replaced by yacht owners in Ralph Lauren. Still, I imagine some of the old families remain, like Susie's. 

Wayne Butler at work. 

Her husband Wayne was a New England boatbuilder with a chin-skimming beard, a flannel shirt, a striped train engineer's cap, and suspenders. He must have had a pipe. He spent hours in his backyard shed making wooden things: boats, crates, furniture. The workshop felt enormous back then; it probably wasn't, though, because there is little room for backyards in squished-up downtown Marblehead. I remember a Thanksgiving meal, an upright piano, a black cat named Twinkletoes, and watching The Wizard of Oz under the eaves in an upstairs bedroom when I was about six years old. Dusty, vague, warm, fleeting; these laser sharp split-seconds have never left my mind. 

Susie has been in failing health for the last few years, and Sandy has taken care of her with an awe-inspiring sense of love and duty. Last spring, Susie got COVID and had to leave the assisted living facility where she was staying for a short hospital stay followed by a two-week quarantine in the bizarre makeshift hospital Governor Baker had set up at the Boston Convention Center. She survived; she went home and seemed as strong as ever. But in her 80s, her health did continue to decline and her heart was not healthy. 

The physical heart may have been on a downslide, but the metaphysical heart beat until the end. The love in it never left. Here is the last message I got from her, just about one month to the day before she herself passed away. It was a condolence on the early and untimely death of my sister, who Susie knew as the lifetime best friend of her own daughter. Overwhelmed myself, I didn't write back right away, but when she didn't hear from me within two days, she wrote to me on Facebook too. She wanted to make sure that her love had reached its destination, that her comfort had hit its mark. It had. It is still there. Here's what she sent: 

"My most profound condolences. I cannot wrap my head around this passing. I am convinced that she is in a better life now but have a hard time with life and death.  Thank God you were there with her and brought her comfort and also you comfort.  I stayed with my mom when she died and it gives me comfort all these years ago. Although I know Marian is in heaven, I also know you have been to hell and back with your sorrow.  Love to you and family,  Susie"

Auntie Susie: You too have been to hell and back, but I know that if there is a heaven, you are in it with Marian. Marblehead was magic, and Aunt Susie, you made it so. You brought that magic to my life. Thank you for helping me to believe.


Little Sam said…
Oh my gosh what a beautifully written testimony to Susie. And what a gift to her family and friends left behind.
Soul Mama said…
Thank you, Little Sam. ❤️ It is easy to write lovely things about lovely people!