When I was in sixth grade I had a habit of bringing home stray animals. OK, I've always had that habit, let's not kid ourselves. Any self-respecting animal "rescuer" knew where to look when searching for animals to rescue. I had a few regular haunts; the area of town known as "the flats" often had a few strays running around, there were some fields near my house, and for a while there was an abandoned corral that was prime territory.
I also discovered this small white shed where stray cats had taken up residence, tons of them. Hours of careful observation revealed that they had a way into this small shed from under the floor. I would spot a wide-eyed feral cat running down the alley, nervously looking about before slipping into a little hole at the base of this building. I quickly learned that I couldn't fit in the same hole---thank goodness too, can you imagine what would have happened if I'd gotten into a locked shed with several feral cats?!
A short while later there were kittens coming in and out of this shed. Generally they would slip away before I could ever catch them. I was undeterred. I knew that eventually I would be able to catch and save one. Finally, after many attempts I did. He was dirty, sitting by a mud puddle and he didn't even try to escape. He just looked up at me with eyes that were too sick to even care. He was significantly smaller than his litter mates, a runt.
I cradled my sick new friend in my arms and carried him home. My mother said that we would have to find him a home, but that he could stay with us in the mean time. I took him up to my room and set about caring for my new friend. I secretly hoped that my mother would be unable to find him a new home, heaven knows I had no plans to look for one. I had hoped that he could just settle into our home, recuperate from his illness and live a long and happy life with our family.
My mother did find him a new home, to my initial despair. A woman who lived across the street named Barbara agreed to take him in. She was going to be out of town visiting her brother for a few days, but then she would take him....named him Murphee. When she returned she suggested that I could come and visit him regularly...and I did. My initial visits were quick and awkward. I would sit on her couch and play with the tiny kitten, who seemed to be getting healthier, before I would say a goodbye and head on my way. I thought she was a very old woman, though looking back on it I believe she was just in her 50s. I assumed she was lonely and waited for my company (we all know how engaging pre-teens are).
Then something happened. I started taking piano lessons from Barbara. I am not sure how it came to be, but it did. I would cross the street one night a week, piano books in hand, and I would take lessons. Barbara was gentle and understanding with this awkward piano player. She taught me to pretend that I had little bubble under my hands to keep them in the correct position. She was endlessly patient as I tortuously worked through each song.
Eventually Barbara and I developed a real friendship. I began to stop by to tell her about my adolescent woes and she would patiently listen. She would tell me bits about her life as well. She was always so kind and gentle and so separate from the rest of my life. She didn't talk with my friends and she was just a friendly neighbor to my parents. She made me feel special and important.
I remember wondering if she was lonely. I remember thinking she must be scared at night in a house all by herself. I never thought to ask her those questions. I guess I thought it would be rude to ask.
When we moved away I kept in touch with her by sending letters. I visited her when we stopped in town. Somewhere along the way Murphee passed away in her care. He never was a healthy cat, but I was just so thankful that he had found such a gentle and loving caretaker. Sometimes I still send Barbara letters. I don't hear back from her. I don't need to. She made me feel so special and interesting, priceless for a pre-teen. I am eternally grateful for her unexpected friendship.