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Tea and sympathy and a growing-up friendship

(ran PT, HT, CI editions)

Catherine was in mourning when I met her, but it was a long time before I discovered why she wore black all the time. I knew someone she loved must have died, and it was not unusual in our old neighborhood to see women in mourning clothes; it was the custom then.

We were very close friends when I was 12 years old, a borderline adolescent already beginning to rebel against all the rules and regulations of childhood. I was often lonely in my belief that no one was at all interested in me and my growing pains.

But scornful as I had become of all the rules for polite behavior, I remembered my mother's warning about children being terribly bold if they asked personal questions of adults, so I didn't ask Catherine why she was in mourning. Besides, I was afraid of losing my newfound friend, and worried that she might send me home if I were a nuisance and not on my best behavior.

I do not remember why I was on the roof of the apartment house across the street on the day I met Catherine. My friends and I often ran up the five flights of stairs to the rooftops to lean over the shoulder-high ledge and call down to kids on the street below.

Perhaps I lingered for awhile after they left, because I remember being alone when I noticed the young woman dressed in black who sat so still in a canvas beach chair that sunny day. I was curious, because she looked as though she had been crying. I had enough grace to realize I might be intruding on her privacy if I spoke to her, so I turned away toward the rooftop door to go back downstairs.

It was Catherine who looked up and saw me. She must have needed to talk to someone, because she beckoned to me, and patted the chair alongside her own to invite me to sit down. She asked my name and where I lived, and before long I was telling her the story of my life.

Catherine was Irish, as was my mother. I had three younger sisters, I told her, and we lived in the apartment house across the street. On and on I went, and Catherine listened to all this chatter as though I was the most important person she had ever met.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" she asked. Since this was my mother's standard invitation to friends, I was delighted to be considered a friend and accepted. So Catherine and I had tea and mocha cake that afternoon, and I told her all about my bossy Aunt Lizzie, about Sister Mary Dolores, who was a holy terror at school, and how my mother could read tea leaves. She listened to everything, and I was enormously flattered by her interest. I thought Catherine was indeed a superior person.

The next day I saw her coming down the street in the late afternoon, dressed all in white except for the black sweater she wore over her nurse's uniform. This time I couldn't resist a question. I asked if she was a nurse, and she said, yes, she worked at Bellevue Hospital in lower Manhattan. I noticed she was carrying a cake box in her hand, and I fervently hoped it was a mocha cake, and I'd be invited to tea once more.

I was, and before long afternoon tea with Catherine became a very important part of my life. My mother was worried that I was becoming a nuisance, and I worried about it too, for a little while. But, Catherine was always glad to see me, and seemed genuinely interested in all the nonsense I thought was important to share. I didn't feel lonely anymore.

One day, while she was setting the table, she stood there in the kitchen with a teacup in her hand and said, "You know Jim went into every room in the house before he left for work that day." Then she told me about her husband. She and Jim were married in Ireland before they came to America. "We had very little money, but Jim found work on the subway as a conductor, and I was hired at Bellevue. We were very happy."

Her voice took on a terrible, hollow sound I never heard before. "There was an accident a few months ago, and he was crushed to death between two of the subway cars," she said.

I could only stare at her stricken face; I didn't know what to say. I had never seen the tragic face of grief before. Catherine had been trying to deal with it all this time. In later years when I encountered the pain of grief myself, I remembered her, and discovered how the pain was lessened when I was kind to someone else.

Catherine filled a need in my life with her incredible kindness, her mocha cakes and tea, and her interest in a noisy 12-year-old.

When we moved to Long Island, I wrote to Catherine once or twice, but I never heard from her again. The whole neighborhood was moving out of the city in those days. Still, I have remembered her all my life and believe that people enter and leave our lives according to a plan we seldom see at the time.

You can write to Louise Andryusky c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, 33731.

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