Portland Belladonna: In Memoriam
I didn’t know Susan Bergier was ill. While I’ve had a passing acquaintance with her since I moved to Portland in 1979, and shared quite a few mutual friends, we didn’t really travel in the same circles. Still, we’d see each other at various parties or openings every so often and get caught up. She always took an interest in my writing career. The last time I saw her (I can’t remember when – was it last summer, the one before?), she told me she had sold her store, Amaryllis, and moved Down East – for love. She was radiant. She looked happy. She said she was starting anew.
Little did I realize the last time I saw Susan Bergier would be the last time I’d see Susan Bergier. She died this past December. She had cancer. And then cancer had her.
I found out about her death from Mary Allen Lindemann at her India Street Coffee By Design shop. Mary Allen and I have known each other since I worked atCasco Bay Weekly and she and her husband, Alan Spear, opened their first CBD on Congress Street some 15 years ago. She and Susan were close friends, and she – and all Susan’s friends, Mary Allen said – were appalled by the obituary in thePress Herald. “They didn’t even get her name correct. They referred to her as ‘Mrs. Bergier.'”
But it was more than that. It was the fact that there was not more than a passing mention of this woman who had such a great impact on the Portland community and the countless lives she touched. Mary Allen looked aloft, as though speaking to her friend. “I know what you’re thinking. We couldn’t even get this right without you, right?”
It took a minute for the reality of Susan’s death to register. It was one of those stunning moments that requires pause to process. I had been largely out of commission throughout the fall with a mother who, by turns, had been gravely ill and then in rehab, requiring daily attention. Most of my social portals had been closed for weeks and weeks. Getting any news from the outside was still something of a shock to my system, now that my mother was recovered and back home. News of this nature, even more so.
It took Mary Allen a moment to register the fact I did not already know about Susan, and we faced each other in awkward silence. I think I would’ve been OK if she hadn’t told me about Susan’s fall wedding, when she must’ve already been deep into her disease. I thought of that last time I saw Susan. Her radiance. Her moving Down East. For love. Mary Allen and I held tears in our eyes, apologizing to each other. Sorry for blindsiding. Sorry for being blindsided.
Even though we were not close friends, Susan was a part of the Portland landscape to me. When I first moved here, the Old Port – as us old farts are wont to say – was still the Old Port. There remained a hippie element to some of the businesses – the leather, pottery and glass shops; the bowl-and-board shop; the vegetarian restaurant, the Hollow Reed; the tobacconist, where you could buy rolling papers – but even then, businesses catering to more upscale tastes had started to infiltrate. Bridging the two worlds was Susan’s clothing boutique, Amaryllis, with its signature periwinkle-blue façade facing Exchange Street. Her window displays – featuring clothing that ranged from sophisticated and elegant to whimsical, ethnocentric, and sometimes downright goofy – reminded the women of Portland that living in Maine didn’t mean they had to be in a perpetual state of frump. Susan brought a little corner of New York and the world to us.
Well, I say “us.” I mean Portland. As a poet-student/waitress-playwright for most of my early years here, I did not shop at Amaryllis. In fact, the main reason I ever set foot in the store was to collect my then-roommate and best-friend-from-high-school, Deb Chapman, who worked as a manager there. Deb and I were both shopgirls in the Old Port during and right after college. She was heading for a career in New York fashion, and she was motivated and directed, working first at Joseph’s and then for Susan. I, on the other hand, was drifting and dreaming, working in a record store, reading James Joyce and smoking cigarettes behind the counter, waiting for some artist or musician to come in and save me from it all. (They did come in, but save me, they did not.)
I was struck by the way Deb saw Susan as a mentor, by how much she was learning from her. She’d talk about work with a passion I didn’t understand. I think everyone in Susan’s orbit shared that passion, which seemed weird to me, since I couldn’t imagine at that stage in my life how commerce could stir the soul. Books stirred the soul. Selling things did not.
But whether you were a customer or not, that Amaryllis window was an important Portland landmark. You watched that window like a billboard to know what was going on. I always knew that if I ever had the means (or the interest in my appearance), that’s where I’d shop.
And so it was fitting that when I finally was to be married in 1999, my dress came from Amaryllis. I was walking down Exchange Street with my friend Lesley, and we stopped in front of that window. Lesley had been one of my closest Portland friends almost since the beginning, and she was about to move to Tucson. We were on our way to have dinner or a beer when I saw a (almost goofy) bridal dress in Amaryllis’ window with a satin bodice and a tulle skirt, like a tutu. “That’s what I want my wedding dress to look like!” I announced. (OK, maybe we passed by the window after beers.) My friend begged me to try it on. Since she wasn’t going to be here to help me with my wedding, she’d at least like to see me try on one dress. So, in we trotted. The tutu made me look like one of the hippos in Fantasia, but Lesley had another gown – a very Jackie Kennedy/Audrey Hepburn number – waiting for me. I tried it on. It was me. The fact is was an Amaryllis dress sealed the deal.
The problem with living someplace as long as some of us old-timers have is that you get proprietary, you have a sense of ownership over things – and people. I complain a lot about how dandified Portland has become. I lament the Whole Foods and the condos and the frigging parking garage on India Street and the Hilton Gardens and the cult of celebrity chefs and the cruise-ship passengers asking if these quaint shops ever close for the season and the ilk of people getting in my way at Micucci’s and Standard.
John and I often talk about getting out of Dodge, that the time to move on has come, but we hold our ground. We hold our ground because Portland is the type of city that is always going to rankle or rile. I declared Portland beat in the early ‘80s and again in the early oughts, and many times in between, but if you want to see beauty in a place, sometimes you have to look for it or create it yourself.
If I may presume, I think that’s the way Susan Bergier saw life: She not only saw beauty, she made beauty – and that’s the legacy she leaves us with.
Elizabeth Peavey’s column appears here once a month. A Web site dedicated to Bergier can be found at www.susanbergier.com.