"But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me"
Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors
As the last sounds of church bell had faded and 7 O’clock approached that evening, the air had an almost golden quality and the breeze was crisp as we stood in our drive chatting with Rick Rios about paint colors and Jazz on Jefferson.
As we stood chatting, a youngish woman came into view from around the front of 509 Owen and cut through the empty lot the O’Keefe house once occupied as she walked in our general direction.
She was very slightly built, about 5’8”, wearing skinny jeans that still somehow managed to be a little baggy on her, a brilliant blue scarf around her head, a walnutty-brown cardigan with a rolled collar, an assortment of beads around her neck, bangles on her wrists and a suit case in each hand.
(One bag looked to be from the 1960’s and was sprinkled white, orange, green, pink and blue flowers on a black background. The other bag was made from an old Persian carpet, and I swear she inherited it from Mary Poppins herself.)
She and I said hello as she got into our front yard, a smile broke on her face as she saw she was welcome, and – while Rick looked mystified and Roderick looked disoriented – she set her bags down on the spit of lawn between our house and drive, opened the flowered bag, pulled out a white bath towel and proceeded to go hunt kittens in the brush between the old Barie house and 509 Owen.
I met her a few years ago, back before her teeth had been broken, before she might have had a child no one can seem to find, and before she’d dropped to skin and bones and become a possible transient with great luggage. She told me her name, but I call her Madonna of the Strays.
She has a passionate determination that kittens should not be left to fend for themselves, so she catches them, feeds them and nurtures them until they are clean and docile. She then finds people who will not be able to refuse a home to such an adorable creature.
She has a mothering, nesting instinct. It may seem that she talks to herself almost constantly as she goes about her day, but this simply isn’t the case: She isn’t alone, so she is not talking to herself. She is talking to a caring, interested third party that always wants to know what she is doing, how she is feeling and what she thinks is important.
Laurie didn’t find any kittens to save, but she did find a stray stoneware plate that could be washed and used, and she found a used tin pail to fill with long grass, nettles and twigs. She was just telling us (the third party and I) what she planned to do with the contents of the pail when she spotted the last two – of eight – construction dumpsters in the alley between our house and the Jefferson Apartments next door.
Graham Construction Corp. acquired the building over the last couple months and – over Saturday and Sunday – had been dropping everything and anything left by years of former tenants in preparation for a rehabilitation of the building out of four floors of windows to the dumpsters below.
To Graham, this was trash to be handled with gloves and a Bobcat; to the Madonna, the dumpsters were full of possibilities. Within minutes Rick, Roderick and I could hear the sounds of metal and glass hitting the pavement next to the dumpsters as the Madonna began sifting for treasures.
Over the course of the next five hours, she had emptied first one, then the other dumpster to their bottoms and removed anything of interest to be hauled off later in her pair of stashed shopping carts.
By 3a.m. were laid in neat rows on the sidewalk in front of our house:
Three painted wood and mirror-doored medicine cabinets with broken shelves
(“I might have a house one day and these are great.”)
A turntable with no cord
(“It’s not done yet, this thing.”)
A stack of mismatched plates, one of cups and mugs, one of random silverware
(“I could have eight people for dinner, you know. Yes. Well, I could.”)
The top and two sides of a metal radiator cover
(“I should be able to paint this.”)
A bent tin-framed, plexi glass glazed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.
(“If a pope was in this frame, it wouldn’t be in the trash.”)
A brown velvet snood
(“Oh!! I could disinfect this!!)
A collection of folded towels and baby blankets
(“Now they’ll all be warm.”)
Her only pauses were to sip from a can of strawberry Ensure and sometimes chew on Kool-Aid powder she mixed with the Ensure.
By morning there was no sign of the Madonna or her treasures. After sorting the items, she returned all those she could not use to the dumpster, wandered the neighboring yards picking up trash. Then she swept the alley and our sidewalks with a broom from one of the dumpsters, loaded her finds into her carts and bags, and was gone from us before dawn.
In the course of the previous evening she found a bracelet that inspired a huge grin and a scrambling trip over to share with me. It was made of metal with tiny rhinestones, green enamel leaves and cabochons of glass backed with foils to look like opals. It was perfect, even after dropping from a window and being buried in a dumpster of rubble. It only took the right person to find it and appreciate it.
The Madonna’s blue eyes sparkled above her hollow cheeks and ragged grin as she held it for me to see. And, suddenly, I got it:
At that moment, there was nothing I could give her that she needed. She wasn’t lost. She wasn’t alone. She wasn’t even poor. She had everything she thought she needed. She was wealthy in her own perception, and after sharing her find with me, she was off to save more precious lost kittens from a wide, frightening world.