Aunt Suzy and Mills

Published 9:12 pm Saturday, October 5, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

Since I’ve been home, relationships long gone and often forgotten are crystallizing, coming into focus. I knew they existed. But never gave much thought to the broader implications. My older cousins tell me how Mills Godwin Jr. was often in our neighborhood visiting my grandfather’s niece, Suzy Reid. Suzy was the daughter of John Reid, the oldest brother of my grandfather, James Thomas (J.T.) Reid Sr. Apparently he was Aunt Suzy’s favorite uncle. I guess that made us among her favorite cousins.

My mother often talked about the early and unique relationship between Aunt Suzy and the future governor. In later years, Mills served as administrator of my grandfather’s will.

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Aunt Suzy was one of only two black registered nurses working in turn-of-the-century Suffolk. The other was Nurse Davis. Suzy was a private duty nurse. So far the only client I ever knew she had was the Godwin family in Chuckatuck. I later learned Aunt Suzy helped raise Mills Godwin Jr. (born in 1914) from the cradle. Some relatives of Governor Godwin like Whitney Saunders remember her name but not much more. Mills would have been an adult by the mid-1930s, long before the birth of surviving relatives.

Suzy was well into her mid-70s when my mother took us to her classically furnished Smith Street home. Over the years, I learned she never married. She had a way of swallowing us up in her arms with the kind of love that seemed to squeeze any semblance of unhappiness from our little bodies. As she got older, a wheelchair replaced her lively gait. But time and illness did nothing to diminish that sweet combination of affection and excitement that washed over her face whenever we showed up. It is that image of her that’s etched in my mind’s eye, carved in my memory. I wouldn’t take anything for having her in my life.

While looking through some pictures around the house, I soon remembered Mills Godwin Jr. never forgot her either. The pictures brought to mind how, up until Aunt Suzy’s death, I saw him on a regular basis at Autumn Care Nursing Home. While visiting my grandmother, I’d walk by Suzy’s door. Curiosity drew me closer to see how he held her hand with such love and compassion. The look on his face reflected more than the gratitude of a man simply grateful to the woman who helped raise him. This connection was so much deeper. It was as if time stood still when she spoke to him. As if nothing and no one else existed. She was his and he was hers.

I stood near the doorway several times to watch his metamorphosis. On the way in he was the governor, Virginia’s favored son. But once in her presence, the unguarded little boy she cared for seemed to emerge. He lingered in every hug and kiss as if frozen in some moment miles and many years away.

Looking back on Governor Godwin’s legacy, I can’t help but believe a piece of Aunt Suzy went with him to Richmond both times. My guess is her loving hand, patience and abiding sense of fairness and equity took up residence in him, and consequently his policies. The results are hard to argue with. Integrated and inclusive modern Virginia as we know it owes much to Governor Godwin. Yet no one knows much about the hand that rocked his cradle, the woman whose love apparently helped define him, whose approval he sought out for the rest of her life.

As I think about the kind of man he was, I can’t help but see her familiar hand on his shoulder —the same hand he held with such love, care, patience and adoration in that room at Autumn Care.