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Retired teacher finds perfect place to nest, paint in her home

If Susan Berry could have been what she wanted to be, she would have been a ballerina.

"But God didn't give me the shape to be a ballerina," Berry said, laughing. "He made me a bee."

Berry is fondly known as "Miss Bee" to the hundreds of children she taught during her 34-year career with the Troy City School System. She used the bumblebee as her trademark and, when she closed the door on a teaching career at the end of the 2003-04 school year, she retired to her own little hive where she's as busy as a bee and as happy as a lark.

"I loved every minute of teaching," Berry said. "Every minute of it and I brought home enough mementos to keep me ever mindful of those wonderful days and those wonderful children. I have one room devoted to the things that made my life such a joy. I go in there to sit and relish those days in the classroom. It's a wonderful, cozy feeling."

Miss Bee's little hive is "nothing fancy and it's not like anybody else's."

"It wouldn't be me if it was like anybody else," Berry said. "It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks about where you live. It only matters what you think."

Berry thinks her little beehive on the corner of Collegedale and Folmar is absolutely "delicious."

"I'm the only one around here that lives on dirt," Berry said, with a smile, and explained that the other townhouse occupants are renters.

Paul Watkins and Jerry Spurlock own the property "beside and behind" Berry and they have given her the title of Mayor of Collegedale.

"I kind of like being mayor," Berry said, laughing.

But most of all she likes this new phase of her life - the retirement phase.

"I'm feel like this is a time of new birth, a time to reinvent myself," she said. "Much of that is taking place right here in my own little place."

Berry's place is unique and simply "Bee."

"If a piece doesn't have a dent or a bump in it, then I don't want it," she said. "I want to be surrounded by pieces that have character. I want pieces that are 'delicious' like this old church pew. I got rid of my couch and started looking for a pew to put in its place. I could find pews that had been painted or varnished but I wanted an old pew - one that was weathered and worn. I looked until I found it and it's just delicious."

The wall of Bee's hive are covered with another man's trash, even a root that she found absolutely fascinating and the side of an old wagon that was on its way to the landfill until she rescued it. Now, it's a wall hanging with an Ethiopian mask attached that looks very much like the Christ.

Most of her furniture has been lovingly handmade and has "character" knots.

"I appreciate natural things," Berry said. "I appreciate God's handiwork that has aged naturally. God did a lot of that."

Berry likes to find treasures that blend so easily into her hive that they look as if they have always been there.

"I use cloth napkins and I found several hymnal racks that had been attached to the back of church pews," she said. "I bought all of them and use them to display my napkins."

An old wine cabinet now houses spools of yarn. Nothing is hidden because everything makes the hive a home.

Berry's bedroom is tucked away in the upstairs "tree house."

"I had a window added and wanted the bedroom to have the feel of being in tree house," she said. "So, I painted a tree in the corner and then realized that when I was in bed, the tree would be behind me. So, I painted a tree on the opposite wall and hung family photographs on it - making it a family tree."

Berry is an artist and a good one at that. Portraits of her children, Ivey and Boo, greet visitors at the door and several other portraits of family members occupy prominent places in the hive - even over the washer and dryer.

To have a place in which to paint until her heart's content, Berry closed in the back porch for a studio/home-in-one.

About 15 years ago, Berry had a brain tumor and an extended recovery period. A few years ago, an injury kept her in a wheelchair for several months.

"I realized during those times how difficult life can be when you are handicapped," she said. "I'm not getting younger and you never know what the future holds. I want to be able to live at home as long as I possibly can, so, I decided to make this one room handicap accessible, with bathroom facilities and all."

With all her treasures around her and her future secured, Berry is now reinventing herself and she's having a great time doing so.

"Every day when I get up, I'm so comfortable and happy where I am," she said.

"I come to the studio and paint. I'm seeing things in a different way now and I'm painting in a different way. I paint things, not as they are, but as they feel."

And, that's the way Berry is approaching retirement. She is experiencing life with feeling and "it just feels good."