An Unspoken Friendship

When I look again at Katie through my mind's eye, it opens wide and doesn't blink. That's how it was, I'm afraid. My sisters and I stared at her.

She looked unlike anyone I'd seen in my short life. Back then I rarely saw women her age wear slacks, but that's all Katie wore - rummage-sale pants and short-sleeved sweaters. Her iron-gray hair hung straight in a blunt cut, parted and held to one side by a bobby pin.

She wore wire-rimmed glasses before the 1960s made them fashionable, and her nose was pointed. If she had worn a tall hat, she would have completed my vision of a witch, and I was a little afraid of her.

''Nonsense!'' Mom said angrily when I confided my fears about her cleaning woman. ''Katie's a good, honest, hardworking person.'' I was careful never to question Katie's character again.

It was the organist at my grandmother's church who first recommended Katie to Gram. It proved a good referral; Katie, who was too proud to accept ''relief,'' worked quietly and steadily. She stopped for breaks only when Gram told her a hot drink or lunch was waiting.

When my family moved back to Gram's town just after I turned 6, Katie came to our house for spring and fall housecleaning. To get there she walked down a dirt road and across the bridge that tried to unite our small town in northwestern Minnesota. From there she walked a mile to knock on our door.

''Mom, why doesn't Katie drive?'' I asked one morning after she had arrived in the rain.

''She doesn't own a car.''

I was amazed. In our rural area, even the parents of my poorest classmates had cars. There was no public transportation except the Greyhound bus to somewhere else. Katie was a good worker, so why didn't she save her money and buy a car, I wondered.

At the end of a day's work, my mother or grandmother would drive Katie home to her squat, tar-papered house. As she walked slowly toward the door, she never smiled and never looked back. ''What's it like inside?'' I asked once as we waited to see that she entered safely.

Gram gave a small hoot before she answered. ''Piled to the ceiling with junk.''

It didn't make sense to me that my mother's best cleaning helper didn't clean out her own house - but I was beginning to realize that much about Katie was hard to understand.

IHAD seen Katie's husband, Bill, enough times to recognize him the day he knocked on our door and demanded to speak with Katie, but I was surprised he knew where we lived. Mom and Gram did not approve of him. My dad, who had known Bill years earlier, said that he was a fine house painter if you could persuade him to work.

I watched from the hallway that day as Bill talked to Katie near the wall she was washing. She was angry and tried to make him go away, but he kept after her. Finally, she unhooked her glasses from behind one ear and then the other and handed them to him. Her face looked as naked as the wall behind with the furniture pulled away. Bill left quickly.

''Why did Katie give Bill her glasses?'' I asked my mother.

''Because he was playing poker at the municipal bar, and he couldn't see the cards,'' she answered.

''But, Mom, Katie needs to see, too. Besides, they're her glasses. She didn't have to give them to Bill! Why did she?'' I persisted.

''That's enough,'' replied Mom in a sharp tone. ''Sometimes you need to mind your own business.''

I don't remember ever having a conversation with Katie, although I must have. Over the years I quit fearing her, realizing that even though she never looked happy, she wished me no ill. Sometimes I saw her in the dime store, and we greeted each other.

''Who is she?'' my young friends whispered when we moved along.

As I grew older, it seemed that she came less often to help my mother, but I still saw her around town. From blocks away I would recognize her stooped, plodding walk, swaying stiffly from side to side. She almost always carried a paper shopping bag, the kind with handles, and it swayed with her. Sometimes she appeared at the Dairy Queen where I had my first job; she would walk almost a mile up a long, unshaded hill to buy a small vanilla cone with nickels and pennies.

I was surprised when Mom said Katie had followed my high school activities in the local newspaper. How could she care how many debate tournaments my team won? What could it mean to her that I earned awards playing flute or was inducted into the National Honor Society? Those events seemed frivolous compared with the concerns of her life.

But somehow they mattered. One day, right after I graduated from high school, someone left a package at the Dairy Queen. On reused wrapping paper, written in the hand of one who rarely takes up a pen, was the message: ''To Lane from Katie.'' Inside was a package of new pillowcases, white with pink rosebuds printed on the fabric.

I never knew the reason for Katie's gift. She made no such gesture to my younger sisters when they graduated. I wonder what connection she felt to me and what unwritten message her gift carried. Maybe she realized I was about to begin a life far away from our little town and wanted to send me off with something pretty. Perhaps she imagined I would be a woman who never surrendered what I shouldn't, and she cheered at the thought. Or maybe she just wanted me to remember her kindly.

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