Harlan and Sukey Brumsted at Bob’s Lake
From lower left, then clockwise, Jimmy, John, Dave, Sukey, Harlan, and Alan Brumsted
I came to know my mother’s best friend, Sukey, when my parents attended Grandma Lela’s November funeral in Monticello. The edict had come down from my pediatrician that it might not be a good idea for such young children–I was six and my brother was a toddler–to go to a funeral. As a result, we both ended up in Sukey and Harlan’s house on Cornell Street in Ithaca. Sukey had been in my life since my beginning, but this stay was my first solid memory of her. I was full of wonder, not used to a household so dominated by four children of the male species. The house smelled of boys–that mixture of dirt, washed and unwashed clothes, and creatures, living and dead. Sukey was in perpetual motion in the house; it seemed like she never sat down and was always doing laundry. I didn’t always know what to do with myself during the visit, so I often found myself climbing upstairs and going into the room of the oldest boy, David. She was one of the people who taught me to float–at Flat Rock, no less and she did try to teach me how to sew, a session which ended in tears on my part, because I didn’t understand what she wanted me to do.
Harlan was in Natural Resources and his son became a collector of butterflies and moths, carefully pinning and mounting them in what I remember to be display cases. The other boys were less formed at that point, especially Jimmy, who was my brother’s age. One of my most embarrassing moments during my stay came when I was playing with the boys outside. I didn’t know how to play with boys, so when Alan and some of the boys from the neighborhood pantomimed peeing on their bicycles, I pretended I had a penis, too, and copied them. Alan thought this was hysterical. “Did you see what she just did?” he laughed and I was mortified.
Mom and Sukey’s relationship dated back to their days as Cornell students and sorority sisters. One day Mom was sitting on the wall next to the campus store and a friendly girl walked over to her and said “hello.” That was Sukey Call. Mom became the little sister to Sukey’s big sister in Delta Gamma. Sukey took Mom to Batavia, New York to meet her family and see the family farm, which was originally a dairy farm and now grows veg crops. Mom has categorized the Calls as friendly, confident, and highly intelligent. When Sukey showed Mom around the farm, she lamented the days when she grew turkeys, but she was close to her family, and that impressed my mother. After they graduated from Cornell, they both came back to Ithaca with their spouses. A letter from Sukey to Mom at the time is signed, “Love, Sukey,” and talks about Harlan attending Cornell to achieve his PhD in Natural Resources.
Sukey was always considered to be a wonderful hostess and there was no difference with me, even though I was six. I’d been shocked when I heard that my Grandmother Lela was dead, and, all of the sudden, here I was in this vivacious woman’s house having a completely different experience from a funeral. Her most unique physical characteristic was the way her conversation was punctuated with laughter. She would throw out her hands to greet you and laugh, and then say hello, and then laugh again. One day she took me for a ride in the car and I said, “Mrs. Brumsted,” and then I asked her a question. She said, “Just call us Sukey and Harlan,” and I always did after that. That marked an important moment in my life. Even though her relationship with my mother would always come first, I realized that this was the family that wasn’t biological, but still was family and I would always be a part of that.
In many ways theirs was a relationship based on similarities. They moved through their lives in tandem. Both of them had majored in different subjects in what was then called Home Economics at Cornell. They were both allowed by their parents to go to school where they wanted to and had parents who expected them to do well. When you walked into a room and they were there, they were among the best-looking people and you were able to hear their voices above the din. It has always surprised me that such dominant personalities meshed, but it was always a working friendship. Sukey was Mom’s “big sister,” so not surprisingly she started having children first, but two of her children were the same age as me and my brother. My mother and Sukey were literally so close in timing with one of their pregnancies that Sukey took over my mother’s bed in the hospital, where Mom had given birth to Barth, to give birth to Jimmy. Significantly, the two boys were to become friends.
Every Christmas Eve our families met after church at the Brumsted home, which was now a palatial stone house in Cayuga Heights. Everyone was dressed up because we had just come home from church and back then people wore their very best on such occasions. Of particular note was the clothing Harlan and my dad wore. They always paid attention to their appearance: Harlan was the only son of a haberdasher (an older term that Harlan used meaning a seller of men’s clothing) in Batavia and my father was so tall that my grandparents had his clothes made for him by a tailor. The suits they wore fit perfectly and their ties were silk and exquisite, maybe not what you would expect from two small-town boys.
The Christmas Eve exchange has as much to do with food and drink as it did with good conversation. Harlan served an array of drinks including spiked eggnog, whiskey sours, bloody marys, gin and tonics, and vodka tonics. He took great enjoyment in listing all his offerings. His whisky sours were the best I’ve ever had. Our food included Christmas cookies from both families, crackers with herring sauce or cheddar cheese atop, and shrimp. Our family exchanged grapefruit from Florida, all sectioned by my father in preparation for Christmas morning, for a breakfast ring from Sukey. This Christmas I was very aware of Sukey’s passing when breakfast came around.
When both couples were in their fifties, they accompanied each other on a plane for Munich that left out of New York City. It was the occasion of my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary and Sukey’s sister, Liz, was designing a professional kitchen in Munich. When they got on the plane, the stewardess informed them that the seating arrangements had been based on the passengers from a previous flight, and that even though they had tickets, they needed to sit down immediately to make sure they stayed on the plane. Thinking quickly, Harlan said, “Well, that’s good to know, because my wife is pregnant.” She still looked good enough to pass for a much younger woman, but she was furious with him, right on the spot.
Once they arrived at the hotel, they took time to recuperate and then all three couples joined together for dinner at the hotel. A German man named Herman, who had rented my parents’ apartment, arrived in a tux with a bunch of Gerber daisies and a menu that he had designed himself. Of course, he did this to celebrate the anniversary. The Brumsteds helped us mark a number of important dates. They were present at my brother’s wedding in Ohio, the location of which made the number of guests from New York rather skimpy. Sukey participated in my father’s funeral in a way that was uniquely hers. When I was getting ready to iron the pants that my father would wear when he was laid out, Sukey grabbed them, saying, “I have a lot of experience ironing men’s pants.” She said this with verve and a laugh. At the graveyard, when no one knew what to say when the minister asked for comments, she piped up, “He was a great dancer!” , which was a perfect summation of my father.
As in every relationship, there were some disagreements. One went back to an incident that occurred at Shackleton Point. From what I remember it was my birthday, but my chief memory of the day is that Alan bit me. I might have been six or seven. When we were visiting Sukey at the hospital during the early part of her illness, somehow that topic came up and apparently it was still a matter of contention. “Alan did not bite Kathy,” Sukey said with high irritation. At the funeral, I mentioned the incident and Alan said, “I probably did bite you.” He was with his daughter and she said that she was known as a biter when she was a toddler, and to emphasize her point she opened and shut her mouth, showing her perfectly straight white teeth several times. That day in the hospital, when the topic came up, David and I just rolled our eyes at each other, as in “Here we go again.”
In the last months of Sukey’s life, Mom went to visit her and I sometimes came along. It was a strong relationship that had lasted throughout their lives. Initially she brought flowers, but at the very end she just brought herself. One of the last things that Sukey said to Mom will always stay with me: “Friendship doesn’t end at death.”