Susan Stevens Gelarden, 80, a wife, mother, grandmother, and faithful friend who said she escaped Maine as a teenager and spent years trying to return, died April 24 following a long grueling battle with breast cancer. It was her 54th wedding anniversary.
She was born at old St. Andrews Hospital and grew up in the middle of the former Goudy & Stevens shipyard in East Boothbay, where her father, Jacob A.(Tunk) Stevens, was a principal executive.
Growing up with cousins and friends, she loved to tell how their summers featured fanciful adventures exploring the woods and waters while winter included sledding down the long hill bisecting the town.
She attended the old East Boothbay grammar school, where her favorite teacher, Hope Updegraff, presided over the education of a generation of local children.
During World War II and the Korean conflict, as the shipyards were busy building wooden minesweepers for the Navy and later yachts and fishing vessels, she roamed the grounds chatting with workers. She would reminisce about how the workers in the old fabrication shop made eel spears for her and her pals.
After grade school and death of her mother, Eleanor Andrews Stevens, she was enrolled in Oakwood Friends School, Poughkeepsie, New York. She loved to tell about boarding the Portland-bound train in Wiscasset, switching to an overnight sleeper to New York City. After wandering around the big city for a day, she would board another train that took her up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie.
Prep school didn’t suit Susan and she ran away to Greenwich Village, married, and had two sons. After a time, she was divorced and moved her family back to East Boothbay.
In 1967, she met a Hoosier Marine on his way to Vietnam. After he returned, she refused his marriage proposal until he found work. When he talked his way into a reporting job at The Indianapolis Star, they married and she and her two sons, Sean and Timothy, moved to Indiana. Almost two years later, the family welcomed a daughter, Miriam Elizabeth.
In Indiana, an area she called “the flat lands,” she busied herself raising her family and volunteering in school and neighborhood groups. She was proud to join the board of advisors for the former Marion County Juvenile Court and Center and working as a volunteer bill proofreader for the Indiana General Assembly.
While working for a prominent Indianapolis interior decorator, she spotted a downtown house that reminded her of Boothbay. It was a classic center-hall colonial revival with cedar shakes and shutters. It had been abandoned after decades of providing shelter to residents who were down on their luck. Susan told friends she knew exactly how it would look after she oversaw its restoration.
For the next 20 years, the family worked to restore the home, worked on civic improvements and helped create a neighborhood civic group, The Old Northside Neighborhood Association. In a few years, the charming Victorian-era homes soon attracted other families fascinated by the unique architecture.
Meanwhile, she worked for a neighborhood printer until a neighbor started a business providing nurses to private and government facilities. Her neighbor asked her to join the new firm.
In 2004, with the children grown and nearing retirement, she told her husband she wanted to return to Maine.
“I spent my early years working to escape Boothbay and the rest of my life trying to figure out how to get back home. I am going home,” she told her husband. “I hope you come with me.”
Of course, he followed her lead but told her they could not afford to build a home on the shore. “But I can build you a home that is a whale of a lot closer to the shore than we were in Indiana,” he said.
The couple built a home on a wooded hillside not far from the line separating Boothbay from Boothbay Harbor. She quickly became involved with old and new friends volunteering for civic projects, including the St. Andrews Hospital Auxiliary thrift shop and the Friends of the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library used book store.
In the 1990s, while living in Indiana, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and elected to undergo chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. After spending five years taking a drug called Tamoxifen, doctors said she was cancer-free. They were wrong.
Eight years ago, her life changed. Medical specialists said the old cancer had returned and recommended a treatment regimen that included two bouts of surgery and hormonal treatment. As a final resort, they installed her in a clinical trial at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Those treatments extended her final years, but last fall, as the medications failed to stem her disease, she declined further treatment and entered the Maine Medical Home hospice program.
As the chemo left her system, she enjoyed several months of better health, leading her to tell friends she was flunking hospice. As she felt much better and got around with the help of a walker, she couldn’t wait to enjoy alone time in the kitchen.
Five weeks ago, the cancer began to take over again. Wendy Jackson, a caring hospice nurse, and home health aide Heather Roberts became regular visitors until the last.
At her direction, she asked to be cremated and buried at sea near Pumpkin Ledge, not far from Damariscove Island, near the spot where her late brother Peter was laid to rest.
Boothbay survivors include her husband, Joe, her stepmother and very best friend, Glenn P. (Sam) Stevens. In Indianapolis, her survivors include daughter Miriam Gelarden Levin, sons, Sean Gelarden, Timothy Gelarden, and daughter-in-law Laura Reed.
Her sister, Ellie (Emo) Stevens of Rapid City, South Dakota, survives, as do her sisters Melinda (Mindy) Stevens of Boothbay, Cricket Gage, Middletown, Wisconsin, Octavia Stevens of Buxton, Maine, Georgianna Stevens of Southborough, Massachusetts, and brother, Jake Stevens of Bath, Maine.
Grandchildren include Dr. Ian Gelarden, a pathologist at Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago, along with Jacob Gelarden, and Althea Knapp, both of Indianapolis. Four glorious great-grandchildren also survive
Instead of flowers, the family asks friends to please contribute to the St. Andrews Hospital Auxiliary and the Friends of the Boothbay Harbor Library.