Grace Suft had A CERTAIN JE NE SAIS QUOI
Grace Suft had a certain je ne sais quoi. (Bear with me while I practice my French.) I think of her as my other mother. I know her children and grandchildren were much closer to her, and I would never presume to be part of the family. But, still, with Mother’s Day right around the corner, this is a good time to tell you about Grace. Because she always had time for me.
We moved to North 11th Street in Phoenix when I was five. My father was the brilliant, charismatic rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, and my mother was a beautiful pianist, Juilliard-educated, who did her best to raise five children. She brought us music, dancing, and fun, but we were often on our own to figure things out.
It just happened that the new neighborhood was filled with parishioners, and, lucky for me, just down the street were the Sufts — Walt, Grace, Judy and Jimmy. Judy babysat for us. And I used to stop for Jimmy on the way to the school bus. Sometimes Grace would ask me in for breakfast, which on at least one occasion was pancakes. I had three siblings by then, and our house was a bit chaotic, so pancakes on a school day made a big impression on me.
There was a lot going on in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean. The woman across the street was crazy about my father, and even though I didn’t understand, I could sense my mother’s distress. Grace was like a light house, and I felt secure just knowing she was there. Because even then, I knew Grace cared about me, and I loved her.
We moved across town after a few years, and I didn’t see Grace much while I was growing up. My parents were divorced while I was in college, and Mamá moved to North Carolina the day after I was married, to be near her parents. We saw each other once or twice a year over the next 40 years.
When my husband and I and our new baby, Annie, moved back to Phoenix from Minnesota, I used to take Annie to the garden at All Saints’. She would sleep on a quilt while Grace took charge of our little group of volunteers. We would trim, weed, plant and feed the flowers. When Phoebe, my second child, was born, I continued to volunteer, and loved that time with three awesome women — my stepmother, Carol, Phoebe’s Godmother, Diana Hayward-Butt, and Grace.
We worked hard, stopped for Teatime, then worked some more. Grace taught me most of what I know about flowers and, without saying so, that hard work is fun if you’re doing something you love.
Grace became my other mother and my confidante. She remained a woman of her generation, but never judged me. I remember telling her I was going to ask for a divorce. She said, “Well, honey, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I think it’s important for a woman to have someone to go to, if she’s going to leave.” You see, Grace had been through that herself, and knew what I was in for.
Five years later, I remarried and moved to Tucson. Grace and Diana came to visit Gene and me one weekend in 2005. Grace was 90. had macular degeneration, and couldn’t hear very well. We had a tri-level house, and I worried about her on the stairs, but she went up and down like Loretta Young. She rode the tram into Sabino Canyon and walked around a number of local sites without a single complaint.
I saw Grace occasionally when I was in town. One May morning in 2006, I was driving Grace to church, and as we were waiting to turn left into the parking lot, a woman (who told us later she was praying at the time) rear-ended us going 40 miles an hour. My glasses flew off my nose, and after a pause to recover, I looked over at Grace, afraid of what I might find. She was looking right at me and said, “Are you OK, dear?” Grace was resilient.
You know how, when you haven’t been with someone in a while and you have a little trouble seeing them clearly in your mind’s eye? Well, it was never like that with Grace. Her slim figure, bright blue eyes, beautiful smile and gorgeous, perfectly coiffed white hair have always been easy for me to picture. She was witty, irresistibly honest, and had an amazing gift: she made you feel special.
Grace was flexible, a marvelous trait in anyone, but especially in an older person. I could call at the last minute to see if I could come by, and if she was up, she always said, “Sure, Honey. I would love to see you.”
Grace was a listener, a happy listener, because she was truly interested in others. And while maintaining that Stephens College elegance, Grace got such a kick out of things. When she heard something funny, she would slap her hands together and laugh out loud. And she had terrific stories. I once asked her to tell me about something exciting she had done, and she described learning to fly a plane. Yes, Grace was a pilot.
When I came up to Phoenix on business, I often spent the night with Grace. One night after dinner, I had my iPad out, and she said, “Show me how that thing works.” So, I showed her how I could access my calendar, my contacts, my email and the internet, and how I could play Words with Friends with my sister in Seattle. Grace took it all in and said, “Boy that’s neat; I think I was born too soon.”
When Grace was 96 and still beautiful, I remember sitting outside with her at dusk, watching the peach-faced lovebirds at her backyard feeders. She could barely hear, and I was a blur. We just sat in each other’s company, bathed in the joy of being alive.
You see, Grace had faith. She had faith in herself, faith in you, and faith in God. And it gave her a glorious sparkle. And when she took your face in her hands and looked you over, you knew you were loved. She was that wonderful.
Grace lived to be 101. And I have to say that the thought of death is a lot more appealing, knowing Grace will be there to greet me in the afterlife.