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Faith, humor are secret weapons in woman's hard life

Scribbled on the cover of my telephone book is a fading quotation: "In Hell they want ice water. _ Katie." I laugh to myself every time I see it, unable to remember the context of Katie's remark, but confident that it must have been funny.

When Katie lived with my elderly mother as nurse, cook, housekeeper and companion, she spilled out dozens of original quips every day, which I always vowed to jot down but seldom did.

Her sense of humor, one of her several assets, served not only to entertain my mother, who was frequently querulous and demanding, but also to bolster Katie's spirits when life became difficult.

Katie is a very special soldier in a great army of valiant women who tend the elderly parents of those of us who cannot or will not perform this duty, but who prefer to keep our mothers and fathers at home rather than in nursing homes.

During the last years of her life, my own widowed mother employed several such "housekeepers," and I grew to regard them with interest and respect bordering on awe for their courage and resilience.

Katie was the last of these women. It was Katie who summoned us one night after Mother's last _ and fatal _ fall.

Years earlier, after Mother's first fall, when she broke her hip and required full-time care, we ran an ad in the newspaper and discovered a large number of women willing to take on the responsibility of living with their patients and caring for them 24 hours a day.

They came with compelling life stories. Some of them had no address; they lived with their employers, storing their belongings in their cars when they moved on to the next job.

One of Mother's helpers was elderly herself and had an implanted pacemaker. Many had left abusive husbands.

Most had limited education; their experience as homemakers provided them with the skills necessary to their profession. Unlike hospital workers, they had no medical insurance. Illness was expensive, often devastating.

Mother was too exacting, too critical, for most of these hard-working women. They soon left and had to be replaced. But Katie was determined to stay. More than once I found her dejected and unhappy over some remark Mother had made, but she refused to quit. She had to pay for her car, as she laughingly put it.

It was this quality of determination, coupled with her inventive humor, that set her apart from the others, a quality that has made her such a remarkable woman.

She was the youngest in a family of six children. Born in Tennessee, she moved with her family to Ohio when very young. She remembers crying because she did not want to leave the farm.

At 12, she began to work, taking care of four boys for 50 cents a week. Before reaching the 11th grade she left school, and at 19 married a sailor "with a gal in every port."

After he fathered her three children, she "gave him his hat an' the door didn't hit him in the rear." With no help from husband or family, Katie raised her three children by waiting tables for more than 21 years. "I was poor as a church mouse," Katie said. "Anytime I got something, I sure appreciated it."

When her children were grown, she moved to Florida. A few years later she was severely injured in an auto accident that required back surgery and left permanent damage. Despite her physical limitations she began taking care of the elderly. But bad luck followed her when Hurricane Elena destroyed her mobile home.

Soon after that disaster she began working for my mother for five 24-hour days each week. In the beginning Mother was able to do many things for herself, but at the end she needed help for everything.

Katie's days were long and tiring. Mother loved books, and Katie helped her look up words and locate places on Mother's maps. They had long conversations about far-off places and about ideas, conversations that lighted a spark in Katie.

She began to think about going back to school. After Mother died, it didn't surprise us when Katie announced her intentions of continuing her education.

And on Dec. 17, 1989, she received her certified nurse's assistant license. All this was accomplished while working full time with her elderly patients. Mother would have been proud.

"My luck is changed for the good," Katie says confidently. After completing a typing course, she plans to take a computer course, preparing for the day when her back won't allow her to care for elderly patients any longer.

Katie lives comfortably in her cheerful mobile home, surrounded by potted plants and shrubs. She has few savings because she can't say no when her children need money.

Katie has not remarried, but she never complains of being lonely. "I have the Lord on my side," she says. "That's all I need."

I asked Katie what she would like to say to other women. Here is what she told me: "I only went to the 10th grade so you know I didn't have too many marbles in my basket. I had to learn the hard way.

"Going back to school was a trip for me. Was it hard! Anyway, I made it. I cried a lot at night. So you see, you can do anything you want to if you make up your mind to do it. . . . And I met so many women in class that were in the same boat as myself. Trying to get a better education.

"And trust me, the Lord had his way, too. He led me down the long, narrow path and said, "Kathleen, you must not give up.' So you know what? I didn't. Thank the Lord. You don't have to go to church to pray. He was there around the clock."

It is evident that Katie's religion plays an important part in making her the generous, upbeat person we so admire. There is something wonderful about this extraordinary woman. Despite all obstacles, she remains unselfish and kind and possessed of a sense of humor that defies adversity.

As she says: "The Lord doesn't have time to do everything. You've still got to pull up your own socks!"

Alice Levine lives in Clearwater.