A Tribute to Susan Kenia Ciavolino: 1934-2021

Written by Marco Ciavolino

MarcoSueA few weeks ago, my mom was taken to the hospital for an infection. She was improving, steadily, and we were planning to move her back to Broadcreek Manor Assisted Living. Then on Monday Laura called me and told me mom had relapsed. Tuesday morning, she called me and told me mom was unresponsive. I grabbed my clothes and headed north from Atlanta. Around 11:30 I got the call from Laura, “She’s gone.”

I am told that we all generally only know three or four generations. Our parent’s parents, our parents, our children, and possibly our children’s children. I really do not know anything about my great grandparents. My journey starts with my grandparents, Reba, Nathan, my mom’s parents, Mike, and Bessie, my dad’s parents, who passed the spark of life to my parents who passed the spark to me and my sisters and us to our children.

But beyond the miracle of life, they passed smiles, gifts, touches, experiences, generous provisions, all which were woven into our lives, through our experiences, and our thoughts and our conversations that become part of the experience that is passed on to our children and friends.

Today we celebrate such a life. The life and work of Susan K Ciavolino, mother, friend, artist, educator, entrepreneur, American Sign Language Interpreter, wife, and grandmother.

And during her life she moved the influence forward to our spouses, Susan, Bob, and Josh, and the next generation of children, Rocky, Michael, Jordan, Elizabeth, Amy, Emily, and Jonathan influencing them by weaving her creativity, energy, and love of learning into their lives.

My mom was born in NYC to deaf parents and grew up in the deaf community. Her father was a typesetter for the New York Times, her mother, a home maker, and active leader of the deaf community in New York. My dad’s parents were deaf as well and this was how my parents met.

I do not know much about her early childhood, though she occasionally shared stories of the mischief she and her sister Joan would get into and the creativity her deaf parents used to keep them in line, like checking to see if lightbulbs were still hot when they were supposed to have been asleep hours ago.

My mom’s path of independence started in High School when she attended the Music and Arts Highschool in NYC.  Young women did not do this in the 1940s. They did not smoke in the bathrooms (she did) and wear jeans (which she did). She loved art and creative work and pursued it with and focus and engagement that spanned her entire life.

She was married shortly after high school and I was born in 1956, followed by Gina, and then Laura.

Our births were an expression of her independence. At a time when nearly all women were put to sleep and handed a baby a few hours later, my mom demanded a fully natural childbirth. And even accosted the anesthesiologist who tried to put mask on her.

Our memories of our early years are filled with a so many creative people with whom my parents interacted including artists, musicians, businesspeople, theatre productions, and political activists. During my very early years we lived on one of the first socialist communes in the country with Dave Dellinger, one of the Chicago 7. We had frequent parties and gatherings of so many interesting people.

My mom provided an engaging and creative environment for us with trips, summer camps, crafts, and so much more.

Her independent spirit continued the creation of a great store called “Little Orient.” We have some items to this day from her store. It was filled with an astonishing array of decorative items, paper items, toys, wonderful oriental candies, and a million other items. The stores were very popular, and we spent many hours helping her with stocking shelves and organization.

She steadily taught art and pottery and she herself was a master potter and sculptor. You can see some of her works displayed here today. She painted, did calligraphy, and crafted all kinds of jewelry. In each pursuit she proved herself a patient and enthusiastic teacher.

After her divorce she moved to California and began working in Senior services.  Later in life she earned a Bachelors in Humanities from Thomas A. Edison College and a Masters Level Certificate in Gerontology from UCLA. She was a Senior Citizen Activities Director and Interpreter of American Sign Language which she continued to do when she moved to Trenton, NJ. For many years she ran a great program for seniors in urban Trenton and worked as an American Sign Language interpreter for the police and emergency services before retiring and moving to Bel Air.

As Gina, Laura, and I began to grow our families Gma Sue, as she was called, was a popular visitor. Always encouraging, always ready to teach a skill, or do a craft, or bring some amazing gift to our families.

My sister, Gina remembers, “One very early memory of my mother includes the both of us wandering in a neighborhood forest.  Because of my point of view, she must have been carrying me.  As we ambled along she showed me leaves from different trees; we talk about the colors, the smells, and the shape.  One leaf, the Ginko, is my favorite!  I don't see it in any other part of town. It is the the one leaf I am looking for.  I always thank my mother for introducing me to leaves.”

Laura’s son Jordan said, “I remember staying with Grandma in Trenton. Her house was so alive with art and tchotchkes, and of course Ping, her cat. In reflection, I think it was on those trips that I learned from her how to advocate for myself. In particular, I remember we were standing in line this one time, and someone tried to cut in front of us. She asked him what he was doing, he said, "I'm really busy," and she retorted, "aren't we all, back of the line." I will miss engaging with her sharp wit.”

Those who knew my mom well know exactly what he is talking about.

My mom was a fighter. She had some tough times including multiple instances of cancer, loss of vision, diabetes, and joint replacements. She rose from all that to accomplish so many great achievements in her life.

In her later life, right up to until four weeks ago, she was a rabid reader and listened to and read hundreds of books. She loved detective stories.

So now we reach the end. The patterns she wove into her children and grandchildren and our spouses are being passed on daily through our friendships and interactions. The behavior and demands that seemed annoying at times are now something we love to be annoyed about again.

And for Gina, Laura, and I - this is the end of years of caring for them. Laura, handled my parent’s affairs like a Harvard attorney, reading every contract, dotting every ‘i’, managing every program, and extending their limited resources to years of care. I was largely the boots on the ground, midnight emergency room runs, drives to WV and NJ, and a dozen other emergency issues. And Gina, often physically distanced, spent 1000’s of hours on the phone with them playing games and talking.

We would also like to thank the extraordinary medical and emergency services professionals that surrounded my mom. Upper Chesapeake and Harford Memorial always provided expert care and food that my mom did not complain about. The ambulance crews were always prompt and professional. The rehab centers all performed extraordinary work to bring her back each time. And Broadcreek Assisted Living, where she spent the last 3 years, made her final days a joy. And, for the compassion and professionalism of McComas Family Funeral Homes for their expert shepherding of us through this complex time.

So many times, over the past 10 years I sat in the emergency room hearing the doctor say, “I’ve read her DNR statement, are you ready to make a decision?” And how I struggled with the pressure and the guilt and anger of having to make such a decision. And yet now, I would sit there a hundred times more just hear her voice again, feel the touch of her hand, or see her mischievous smile.

But now, at about 11a on Tues July 13, she was released from this world into the hands of her Creator and Savior.

And standing in the presence of so many friends, my mom is part of who I am, and you all are part of her life because you are our friends and she largely made us who we are.

My mom’s body will soon be transported to California to be buried with her parents, sister, and brother-in-law and we will all move on to memories of her influence in our lives.  We love you mom.

Thank you all for joining us today and celebrating the amazing life of Susan Kenia Ciavolino.