My Aunt Susi passed away this weekend. Her death follows the death of my grandfather just a few short months ago. I don’t know very many people who loved history as much as my aunt. She was a woman who had so much historical knowledge in her head. I wish I could have heard one more story from her.
My aunt was the eldest of the Baldwin children, followed by my uncle Jackson, and my mother, the baby. Uncle Jackson was lost at sea sometime in the 70s. He and some friends went out on a boat off of Key Biscayne in Miami never to return. He was only 26. I guess I always grew up with 26 being an age to survive. Luckily, I did.
While my mom was always the tom boy, trying to keep up with her older brother, my Aunt Susi was the academic in the family. She always told me that she would have rather sat inside with a good book than be out playing sports with her siblings.
My aunt was a wonderful writer. When I was growing up, we used to play a game every time that I went to visit her. We would pick elements of a story, like characters and setting, and then we would each write our own story with those specific characters and that particular setting. It was always fun to read our stories at the end of the night, and laugh about how different our two scenarios were even though we had the same characters and setting. More recently, we tried to play that game over email. For some reason, it didn’t have the same quality it did when we played together in front of the TV in the house in Keys.
I’ve heard that my aunt wrote books. Apparently, she had a whole series of novels written, but never published. I wish I could read them. I wish she could read this.
My aunt and I shared a love of the city I now call home; Washington, D.C. Aunt Susi loved DC, and lived in this area for many years. She got her start in DC working for an organization called Close Up in the 1970s. Coincidently, I made my way up to DC by working for a company named Envision, which hosts leadership programs for youth very similar to the Close Up programs. I guess you could say that the paths that led us to our “home” were very similar, though many years apart.
I recently wrote a blog post about my grandmother, Mamama. I explained that she was actually not my biological grandmother, but the only grandmother I ever knew. This was because my biological grandmother, Sue, passed away when my mother and her siblings were young adults.
About a year ago, I asked my Aunt Susi to tell me more about my grandmother, from the viewpoint of her eldest daughter. I wanted to share with you what she wrote for me as a way of “publishing” something written by my aunt. This is a story of family history I was not able to experience. This is a raw story coming from a woman who loved to write, and who loved history.
Mom – Mary Susanne Bonner Baldwin as I remember her.
Jacqueline, you asked what your grandmother was like. You’ll probably never know how long I’ve waited for that question from you, but with it comes so many thoughts and memories about a woman who I knew so well and yet not at all, that answering isn’t easy. She was my mother and that fact alone makes it complicated. She was a woman in her own right, the daughter of another woman, and even if you never met either one of them, or even heard much about them as you grew up, Mom and “Mommadot” are part of who you are, so I’ll try to introduce you to your grandmother as I knew her.
There is an old adage that contains a real kernel of truth: A son is a son until he takes a wife; a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of her life. Ah, if only I had had the chance to live out even a part of that axiom. I think the singular greatest regret in my life is that I never had the opportunity to know my mother as an adult; to be her daughter as an adult. For almost forty years I have missed her; wondered what she would say or think at a glorious moment or a hard corner. I have unashamedly envied my friends, envied Renn; because no matter what difficulties they had with their mothers as they grew older, they had a relationship I had been denied. They had someone who had their back in that unique way that only motherhood provides, whose love no matter how cumbersome or irritating is pure. (You have that kid, so hang on to it!!!!!)
Anyway, the point of all that is that I never knew Mary Susanne Bonner Baldwin as she grew up or as an adult. I only knew her when I was growing up as her child so some of this is second hand and colored by my perspective.
Who was your grandmother?
As I remember her she had two faces as I grew up. My very first memories as a small child were arguments between my parents. I just remember the shouting; not taking sides. Maybe my very first vivid memory, (I would have been almost four) was when your mother was born. I was in what was probably a hospital waiting room and they were talking about the baby being sick, (As I’m sure your mother has told you she almost died as an infant.) I remember offering my Raggedy Ann doll for the baby. Mom kept telling me what a good girl I was for the gift. (If you want to know the real truth I also remember being angry that the doll never came back even when the baby did and much later laughing with Mom as she admitted that they’d been looking for a way to wean me off Raggedy Ann!)
You know your grandmother had an alcohol addiction. It was bad for a while after your mother was born. I’ve often wondered what kind of role almost losing your mother as a baby played in all of that… who knows????)
Anyway, and I can’t tell you exactly when, things got better and your mom, Jack and me, were just three kids growing up at 1340 Mendavia in the fifties. We had two pairs of strong grandparents and were, at least as I remember it, kind of normal as the fifties turned into the sixties. (One of MY VERY FAVORITE memories of your mother was in January of 1964 when she and Jack and I were seated on the floor in front of the big bed in the master bedroom watching the Ed Sullivan Show on black & white TV on a Sunday night and he was introducing a new group from England called the Beatles. I almost flipped out over John Lennon but I didn’t know who he was ……. Your mother did! (She was always ahead of me).
I remember Mom in many ways. You said you saw a picture of her as a child and that you saw a resemblance. I can buy that. You looked so much like your mother as a small child, and at least according to Granddan, Mom’s father, who told me outright that Bethany had always been his favorite grandchild because she so favored her mother as a child, that’s it’s more than likely that physically you carry some of her traits. You are a lot prettier than she was as an adult. Mom wasn’t a beauty but Dad told me once that he’d never known a woman who could light up a room just by walking into it like she could. She was elected “biggest flirt” in high school, and Dad seemed to be proud of that too.
So what do I remember?
I remember she taught me to read and to love books. I can still hear her voice as she read me “Winnie the Pooh”, something I’ll always associate with her. She introduced me to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and when I was a sophomore in high school in an honors English class when I was assigned to read things for extra credit she introduced me to a book that literally changed my life. I had skipped a grade so I was barely fifteen when Mom handed me Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”. To this day nothing has affected my life more than that book did. The irony was that my English teacher gave me an F for the report because she said the book was trash. (How wrong she was proved.) What I remember was Mom standing up for me and that book long before the rest of the world realized what a gem that simple story of childhood and racial justice had to tell.
Mary Susanne Bonner Baldwin wasn’t a saint. She wasn’t even very good at a lot of things you’d expect a mother to be good at, but she had pizzaz! She didn’t cook. (We had a maid for that…God bless you, Rebecca) and I don’t remember her ever doing something that made me think I have the best mother in the world! When I think about it she was pretty much what a woman of her generation was supposed to be, a MRS somebody. In her case she was Mrs Charles Jackson Baldwin. She dressed well, (she had good taste), and she did her best to oversee her children’s upbringing.
There are certain memories I have that stand out. She LOVED to travel. Somewhere along the line she and Dad were faced with the challenge of a costume party that reflected their deepest desires. (It might have been a CEO event). Anyway, there was a popular TV show, Have Gun Will Travel, that Mom cleverly borrowed from. Dad always saw himself as a cowboy so there was no question as to his outfit. She dressed herself in folding luggage with a half sphere on her head and they took away the prize!
Mom was also a woman born before her time. I think about it sometimes, Jacqueline. I should probably have been born before she was. All I ever wanted was a husband and kids. Your grandmother had an incredible talent when it came to interior decoration. (I think your mother inherited some of that.) The point is if your grandmother had been born later she would probably have had the chance to exercise her talent. It didn’t happen.
When I think about your grandmother I feel a sense of calm and resolution. I’m not sure exactly who she was. I don’t know why she drank too much. I don’t exactly understand how and why she loved your grandfather but I know she did. I’d like to believe that she was first in line to welcome Jack when he disappeared out of our lives and moved beyond. I’m more than counting on her to be there if I’m lucky enough to rise that far. I remember her as a good person, a woman who loved me and who I think would be delighted to know she had a granddaughter of your caliber.
Who was your grandmother? Just a woman who loved and was loved. That’s probably not an answer you wanted but beyond that what I can offer is probably frivolous. I loved the way she laughed and she had great eyes. She made a lot of mistakes but she never let me forget that she loved me so I’ll forgive her. I’ll miss your grandmother as long as I live. Maybe that’s how it should be because I think her greatest regret is that she never had the chance to know you.