Susan Mary Riley, We Will Miss You

Susan Estrich
May 23, 2012

It's her voice that I keep hearing in my head. "Susan," she would say, in that quiet, commanding tone she had, before explaining something to me: how to deal with the Irish boys in politics in the '80s, what to do about a friend's son having problems, or how I definitely, absolutely needed to start buying real estate.

We met back in 1979, when women were still a rarity in presidential politics, even in the ambit of the Senate's most famous liberal, Ted Kennedy. I'm not sure what her title was in the 1980 presidential campaign (she worked closely with campaign manager Paul Kirk, whom she'd known for years), but it may as well have been the person who knew everything. She had two babies: one really a baby, Julia, and the other, Anne, 3. To this day, I don't know how she did it. Her then-husband was working on the campaign, as well, but Susan was really doing double duty — and she never lost it.

Maybe it was being a former nun.

To be honest, I was a little put off when I heard that. I didn't know any nuns, present or former. My language, particularly then, was not polite.

Susan said: Well, how else was a working girl from Chicago going to get an education?

And it was clear that come whatever or high water, Susan Mary Riley was going places.

But as I look back, I know it was more than that. Not religiously — that I don't know. But definitely spiritually. Definitely in terms of the best values of the church: charity, compassion, caring.

Susan took care of everyone. Friends, friends of friends, anyone. When our friend Francie went to Russia with money strapped to her waist to pick up the three Russian-speaking orphans she was adopting, there was no question of who would go with her, with cash strapped around her waist, as well, plus a toddler and two rambunctious boys for the long flight home, eating bananas (can you guess?) like they'd never seen fruit: Susan.

She nursed everyone. She was always there. You could pick up the phone after years to get help for a friend who needed it, and she was on the case.

She knew how to give and how to love. It was her native tongue, the point of all the advice I hear in my ear. She was right about most things: the real estate, the politics, the story behind the story that explained the inexplicable.

But most of all, she was right about what matters most.

Her children. Loving them. Campaigns are mostly full of married men (with kids) and single women (who don't have them). Campaigns are tough on families. Susan worked as hard as anyone, but it was always clear what — who — mattered most: the girls.

It was 10 years before I had children of my own, but knowing her two girls and our friend Francie's 3-year-old, Tali, was what really turned me into a mother-to-be. Some mothers hold their children tight, not wanting anyone to share in that special bond. Susan, bond-secure and wanting me to understand that the love of a child is God's greatest gift, shared her girls with me. In the years we worked together, she taught me many things, but none more important than that.

I kept in touch, but not as well as I should have or would have liked to. Her girls, when I saw them, would sometimes roll their eyes when I asked about their mother, the way girls in their teens and 20s often do. But when she died, her oldest — a Facebook friend of my daughter — changed her status to "Susan Mary Riley I will miss you so much."

If I told you the whole story, of the late diagnosis and all, you'd say she took better care of everyone else than she did of herself. Of course. I can't imagine her any other way. Do as I say, not always as she did. Just because she was so smart doesn't mean she was always smart about herself. Maybe she wasn't selfish enough. Maybe that was what made her as special as she was. Maybe it was the nun in her, to the end.

I was Auntie Susan before I was a mom. At Susan Mary Riley's feet, I learned about people and politics, about housing markets and real estate investing, and about determination and perseverance. But most of all, I learned about the love of friends and family.

Susan Mary Riley died on May 21, 2012.

I will miss you so much.

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