Look! It’s Susan!
“I think I hear the Susans!” my mother said in hushed excitement as we approached the house.
And, indeed, the party, set to begin at 6 p.m., was already in full swing when we arrived at 6:15. Women, many with greying, short-cropped hair, were mingling on the porch, drinking wine and howling uproariously. Our ascent of the steps drew a loud “Welcome!” from the host. “I’m Susan,” she announced. “Who are you?”
“Hope,” I said, not quite anticipating the consequences.
“Ha! Not a Susan!” came her recrimination. “You can lie about that if you want.”
She kindly beckoned us in. After all, at least I had the grace to bring a Susan — my mother, Susan Hagedorn. Okay, she was the invited guest, but when I heard that someone on the island was throwing a “Susan party,” I knew I had to go.
How many times do you get to attend an event where everyone has the same name? It certainly would never happen for me — you could probably fit the number of Hopes on Block Island into the front seat of a car. So I grabbed my chance, figuring I’d offer my services as a journalist as compensation for being born a not-Susan.
Why a Susan party, you ask?
“Every time you turn around on Block Island you meet someone named Susan,” explained Susan Bush, host of the party.
“It’s true! It’s true!” sounded a chorus of nodding Susans.
“Go to exercise class, and there’s a Susan,” Bush continued. “Go to a board meeting, and there’s a Susan. When it seemed like there was in excess of 10, I thought it would be fun to get us together.”
Ten? At my count there were at least 14. There was Susie Weissman, Susie Wright, Susan Matheke, Susan Coffin, Susan Stover, Sue Black, Sue Torrey, Sue Littlefield, Sue Hagedorn and Susan MacGill, Susanna Goodman, Susan Chapman (some of Susan’s guests from California) and, of course, Susan Bush. Susan Sellers and Susan Schaller were no-shows but an extra Susan — Susan Clark — arrived as a late surprise.
Naturally, the conversation initially revolved around, well, Susan.
“I never found anybody under the age of 30 with the name Susan,” said Bush.
“Thirty?” questioned Hagedorn. “I bet it’s 45.”
“I was Susie all through school and then it was like, ‘I’m too old to be Susie,’” said Torrey.
“I never changed, I’ve always been Susie,” said a Susan I’d gotten too dizzy to identify.
“Actually, I was born Ann,” said Torrey. “I don’t even know if my husband knows that.”
According to Wikipedia, the name Susan is a form of Susanna derived from the Middle Egyptian word for the lotus flower. It was first recorded on an 11th Dynasty sarcophagus dating from about 4,000 years ago. In Hebrew, the name is related to the lily flower and the root means “joyful, bright or cheerful” (adjectives you could use to describe this current gaggle of Susans). In 2012, the name ranked 781st on the list of baby girl names in the United States — a shadow of its 1957 glory, when it held the No. 2 spot. This was evidenced by said guests, who ranged in age from late 50s to early 70s, with a few outliers.
“There were five Susans in my class all the way through,” said Hagedorn.
“My whole time growing up there were six or seven in every grade,” said Littlefield.
“In high school, I lived in a dorm with 20 girls and six of us were named Susan,” echoed Black.
For some of the women, the version of Susan they went with was a simple matter of distinguishing themselves from all the other Susans. For others, it was more emotional.
“I was Sue for a long time but I consciously chose Susie when I came here because it sounds like a cute person,” said Weissman.
“Oh, the way my father said it: SuuuuSAN!” said Hagedorn. “I shudder every time someone calls me Susan. I assume I’m in trouble!”
Then came the other nicknames, Suz, Snooze, Suey, Soozzle, and with them, more riotous laughter. Asked if they would have chosen any other name, people shouted, “I never thought about it!” and “Rose!” Then, out of nowhere, “Jezebel!”
As the evening wore on, the party got rowdier, yet somehow more intimate. I floated around eaves-dropping on small clumps of Susans spread across the porch, repeatedly asking people to remind me of their last names, but failing miserably to keep track. The talk moved onto more diverse subjects like cell phone reception (terrible!), mildew (everywhere!), health care reform (finally!) and the Argentine tango (?) — conversations as varied as the professions that emerged: nurse, yoga teacher, artist, town clerk, owner of a record label. Deeply personal stories were being told everywhere I turned and they were accompanied by compassionate, “Oh, I know’s” and “That happened to me, too’s.” Who knew sharing the same name would mean sharing so many other things?
As the sun began to set behind the trees, MacGill told the crowd about a party she goes to every October for Libras.
“It’s a funny thing — after about 10 minutes you feel like you’re in a room with all your sisters,” she said. “When you start a story people can finish it for you because they would have reacted exactly the same way you did.”
“Do you think it’s the same with Susans?” I asked the group.
“It looks that way!” four or five of them said at the exact same time.
As the party moved toward dinner, I decided to take my leave. I had interloped long enough. A fair distance down the road, I realized I could still hear the hum of the Susan party. And then, quite clearly:
“Who stole my wine? … SuuuuSAN!”