She was my mother’s best friend and my best friend’s mother. Her parents named her Kathleen, but we called her Kay, and my mother said she was the only true friend she ever had. Mom and Kay took my friend Trisha and me to dance lessons (Trisha was coordinated and I was a klutz) and gave us Tonette home permanents (with the little comic books) in the kitchen of our small green frame house.
Trisha and I played hopscotch on the sidewalk and blind-man’s bluff in the neighborhood pool. We had hula-hoop contests and spent the night together almost every weekend.
Mom had always wanted a big family with six or seven children, but when my younger sister (Mom’s fourth child) was born, the doctor said it was too dangerous for her to have any more. My sister was delivered by cesarean and during the surgery the obstetrician also did a tubal ligation so Mom couldn’t get pregnant again. Afterwards Mom was so depressed, she would hardly talk to anyone and refused to get out of bed. She wouldn’t even let the nurses wash her hair. She just stared at the wall.
Until Kay showed up. Kay got Mom out of bed and helped her wash her hair. Then she took Mom’s arm and they walked down the hall to the nursery. In front of the nursery window, Mom leaned against her friend as they both admired the new baby. My new sister Kathleen was born with our mother’s dark hair, bronze skin and hazel eyes, but she seems to have inherited not only her name, but much of her personality from Kay. Like Kay, my sister Kathleen is easy to love and hard to resist, but more importantly, my sister seems to understand instinctively that true friendship has no time limit.
In the fall of 1961, Hurricane Carla tossed and twisted the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Because Mom and Kay knew that a powerful storm like Carla would sweep hundreds of local blue and white crabs into the shallow waters of the south Texas coast, they drove through forty mile an hour winds to Bacliff, a town south of Houston where my family owned a small house a block from the water.
When they pulled up to our pier and opened the car doors, the rain plastered their bermuda shorts and sleeveless cotton shirts against their skin and they had to hold tight to the large metal washtubs they’d brought to put the crabs in because the wind tried to carry them into the water.
Aware that they were working against the clock, they quickly tied a dozen crab lines to the weathered gray planks of the pier. As soon as the bait (chicken necks or beef tongue) hit the water, the white string lines went taut. (For those of you who’ve never been “crabbing” I should tell you that, like fishing, crabbing usually involves a lot of waiting for the crabs to find the bait, but that day the crabs were the ones who seemed to be waiting!)
Not yet forty, Mom and Kay laughed as they ran barefoot up and down the rain-slicked pier. They seemed to dare the four and five foot waves that surged between the boards to knock them down. One of them would pull a line in just until they could see the crabs pinching and nibbling the bait. The other one would slide the long-handled net deep into the water trying to capture, not startle, the two or three crabs hanging on every line. When the metal tubs were full of snapping crabs, they slid them into the back of the station wagon and drove to Houston through what would later be declared a Category 5 Hurricane.
When Trisha and I grew up, our kids napped together and swam together and played with each other’s toys. I taught her daughter to tie her shoes and she taught my children the value of a hug.
However, over the years our mothers seemed to see each other less and less. I don’t think it was a lack of interest or care. Rather their lives just went in different directions. “Any news about Kay?” my mom would ask, a wistful expression on her face. “I miss her.” Trisha said it was the same with Kay.
So Trisha and I organized a reunion.
Mom and Kay and Trisha and I met at Trisha’s house. We drank pink champagne and ate chicken salad and chocolate chip cookies. As Trisha and I walked outside to the patio to give our mothers some time alone, I looked at my mom’s face and shook my head. She looked so relaxed, so happy.
The older I’d gotten the more I’d begun to realize how often my mother was afraid. She was especially afraid of what other people would think of her or say about her and that fear would pinch her beautiful mouth and hazel eyes. Her delicate fingers would curl into the arm of her chair and her shoulders would tense. But that day as she talked and laughed with the only friend she ever really trusted, it was easy to see the friendly, light-hearted girl she must have been–before the fear settled on her. A few hours later, when we all went our separate ways, Kay and my mom promised to stay in touch but it didn’t happen that way.
Many years went by–years when their only contact was through Trisha and me. Then Mom heard that Kay had had a stroke. Physically Kay was doing okay, but emotionally she was not. Mom was in the car as soon as she got the news. She walked into Kay’s house and told Kay to get up, they were going to wash her hair. Kay got up and they did.
A few years later, my mother’s only two sisters died within two months of each other. The death of the second one left my mom so emotionally winded, so tired from trying to hold the rest of the family together that she was truly hanging on by a thread. Mom told me there was only one person she really wanted to see.
As we waited for the service to begin Mom seemed calm, but her mouth was tight and her eyes were clouded. Every time a new person came through the door, her eyebrows would rise in hope and slide back down in disappointment. Then the door opened and Mom started moving.
She didn’t seem to notice the many kind words that came at her from all sides as she made her way through the crowd. When she finally fell into the arms of her best and oldest friend, her mouth relaxed into silent sobs and the clouds in her eyes became tears.
Less than a year after her sisters died, my mother followed them. After her memorial service I spoke to dozens of friends and family, but there were only two faces I was searching for–Trisha and Kay. Unfortunately, Trisha couldn’t be there that day, but I found Kay perched on the edge of the stage with her husband Phil. Her smile and the music of her voice, deep and throaty and very Texas, comforted me like nothing else.
On Thursday, October 27th of this year, I like to think that Mom was watching for her best friend again because early that morning, Kay took her last breath. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to leave her husband, Philip. They’d been together since high school, lovers and best friends for more than seventy years. But I know she trusted their beautiful loving family to hold him close in her absence with the same constant love, generous laughter and gentle affection that always set Kay and Phil apart from the rest of us mere mortals.
Hey, wait a minute. Look over there. In the corner. Can you see those women over there? The ones with the dark hair? Can you hear them laughing? Looks like an angel reunion to me.
[Most of the time, I have tried to be historically accurate in this description, but I admit that at times I filled in details as I imagined they might have occurred. More than anything, I wanted to pay tribute to two women who understood that true friends see past our frustration and fear, our anger and depression. True friends see our strength and sometimes they demand that we use it just to get out of bed, wash our hair, and walk down the hall toward the rest of our lives.]