Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Lessons In Resilience

The day Sue told me that "Sue" wasn't her real name, I was shocked.  Sue explained that she was named Mary, but she didn't like the name and so she called herself Sue, and family and friends obliged.  The idea was revolutionary to me, that a person didn't have to be called by a name someone else decided on, that she could name herself and create her own identity, and demand that everyone else recognize her by this new name.

I was introduced to Sue during one of my very first shifts at Charly's, 8 years ago.  Jed had the night off but came in to make sure I could handle my first Friday night shift alone.  Sue was there, and it wasn't long before the two of them were engaged in one of their across-the-bar shouting matches, calling each other things like "little asshole" or "old bat" while I stared on in horror but the regulars continued their regular routine.

Later I learned that Sue had taken Jed in when he was three years old to raise him.  These days seeing grandparents raise their grandchildren is so common that maybe we forget that's not the way things are supposed to be.  Ideally, we raise our children to grow up to become independent adults who raise their own children and for all intents and purposes, we are done with that responsibility and can move on to spoiling our grandchildren.  It's not fair, really, for a grandmother to have to raise her grandchildren too.  Add to that that Sue and Jed's situation was born out of tragedy, the murder/suicide of Jed's mother and father, and their relationship suddenly made sense.

Jed was angry, and Sue was hardened by her life.  In fact, at Sue's brief funeral this morning, the pastor noted the very obvious, that Sue was "no stranger to grief." She outlived both of her children and her dear husband.  And although Sue was a solid, stoic woman, upon occasion she would open up to me.  She described losing a child as the hardest thing in the world, and something a woman never gets over.  You didn't have to know Sue long to know that something weighed on her.

But when I say Sue was tough and hardened by life, I do not mean that she never laughed or never smiled.  On the contrary, Sue was a joy to be around.  She was bossy and mean, but funny, happy, kind and generous.  She was quick to share her opinions but she never meant to offend.

You can tell a lot about a person by what they drink.  In a time when women drink mostly light beer, Sue, a woman after my own heart, drank Budweiser, always from a chilled highball glass with a sprinkle of salt.  Sue thought calories and carbohydrates and sodium were delicious. . . So do I.  When she was really in a good mood, Sue would drink white russians, a classic highball cocktail with an underlying punch, though Sue never kept her own moxie hidden.

Sue loved music and would commonly give me dollar bills to feed the jukebox with, requesting music by David Alan Coe, Charlie Pride, and the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up, Little Susie."  Each time the song would play, Sue would share what a controversy the lyrics were when it was first released.  Sue told the story over and over, a characteristic of the elderly, but I listened every time.  Working at Charly's when I had never really developed a relationship with my own grandparents, I found a love and respect for older people.  Three out of four of my grandparents had passed away fairly young, and I guess I sorta thought life ended right around 60.  But Sue and her friend Jerry Pence, along with some of my other favorites like Donnie and Jack, taught me that life keeps going for you if you keep going with it.  Their stories, their laugh lines, their energy made me think that if life is this good at 70, what must it be like to make it to 100?  And so developed my ultimate goal, to live to see that day.

I hadn't seen Sue in a few years.  I could tell you exactly when she stopped coming around - when the bar changed it's policy to prohibit smoking inside.  Sue said if she was gonna drink, she was gonna smoke, and she wasn't going to be getting up to go outside to do it.  The one time I found myself in Sue's house, I noticed the ashtrays conveniently located on every table and counter.  She wasn't kidding when she said she would smoke when and where she wanted to. 

It was difficult to be sad at Sue's funeral.  Perhaps the greatest tragedy in it all is that Sue died just 8 days before her 80th birthday.  That's gotta be like passing out right before the finish line. The gathering was small, as no obituary ran in the paper, only a brief announcement of services.  That sounds about like something Sue would request.  I learned of Sue's death only because some friends of hers, old regulars from the Charly's days, were in after all this time on Sunday and recognized me.  There was no question for me that I had to be there to celebrate Sue's life this morning.  An added bonus was to see Jed, after all this time so happy and healthy and in love with his wife and reverent with respect for Sue.

Times change and so does a neighborhood bar.  I know I often look back at the years with a little too much sentiment.  It's hard not to.  Others might see the regulars as characters in a story, but to me they are real people who contributed greatly to who I am, and how I've approached adversity in my own life.  I learned from people like Sue that life doesn't end for a mother even when her child's does.  I learned from Carlotta that life's not over with divorce.  I learned my greatest lesson, the one that truly changed my life, in a little bar in East Bakersfield:  The world keeps spinning, even when we are standing still, and the best thing we can do is learn to move with it.

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