Miss O’Connor lived in a small, blue, clapboard house, around the corner from the library. It was a short walk: out the front door, down one step to the sidewalk, past a neatly trimmed lawn edged by two rows of pansies, then 52 steps to the library entrance. It was a walk Miss O’Connor made every week of the year, except the third week of November.
She read one book a week. The week of January 1st was always a book from the self-help section, read in an effort to quiet her inner qualms. It was the perfect time to lead with hope and potential. In 1984 it had been The Road Less Traveled. In 1993, Healing the Shame that Binds You.
July included a patriotic book. When holidays fell, she always read a book about the celebration. May didn’t have any holidays, so May was a fiction month. Scruples had been one of her choices in 1990. The Handmaid’s Tale was another, although it had been a struggle to decide which one to read first.
One of her favorite months was August, when she would read travel books and trashy mystery novels.
Miss O’Connor was a spinster. Not that anyone said that to her face, or even used the word much anymore, but it was how she perceived herself. Her blue-gray hair was in tight curls, maintained by weekly visits to the beauty parlor. Her nails were unpainted, but neat and clean. When she gardened, she always wore gloves. And on Sunday night, while sipping tea and watching 60 Minutes, she would soak her fingers in blue dishwashing liquid.
Surrounding her in the living room were glass cases filled with porcelain sculptures of children, glass animals and china figurines. Small lights, inset in the top of each case, illuminated her treasurers. Each day she would take one figure out, carefully blow off whatever slight dust might have accumulated, and set it on the end table next to her easy chair.
When she first started doing this, Purr, her cat, put its paws on the edge of the table and leaned in for a sniff. Miss O’Connor, watching, tensed, wanting neither to startle her beloved pet nor lose a figurine. After concluding it couldn’t be eaten, the cat left them alone and Miss O’Connor’s fretting stopped.
All day the figurine would sit there, on display, unprotected. After dinner, Miss O’Connor would carefully replace it, in the exact spot from where she had taken it.
One day Miss O’Connor looked out the window and noticed a young girl sitting in her small front yard. The girl squatted on the grass while Purr curled around her, climbing into and out of her lap, the girl burying her small fingers in Purr’s fur. Miss O’Connor watched from behind her lace curtain. Her cat was typically stand offish and sensitive, and Miss O’Connor worried the girl might grab too hard, drawing Purr’s claws out and risking a scratch. And what then? Would her cat be taken away?
Miss O’Connor hurried to the door, but opened it slowly, not wanting to startle the girl or her cat. Purr heard the click first and padded toward the door. Miss O’Connor swooped the cat into her arms, and lowered herself carefully onto the front stoop, keeping her eyes on the child.
She guessed the girl to be about 7 or 8. She had seen her at the elementary school where she taught, one of many she watched over during recess. The girl had stood quickly when the door opened. She now stood a few feet from where Miss O’Connor sat, her expression one of distress, her body frozen but on the edge of fleeing, her hips turned slightly, as if willing her feet to turn too.
“You’ve met Purr,” Miss O’Conner said as she stroked the cat in her arms. Her voice was calm, soothing, the type of voice that worked well in her first-grade class. She felt, rather than saw, the girl’s frame relax.
“Come sit with me,” Miss O’Connor continued, “so Purr and I can properly meet you. I’m Miss O’Connor. What’s your name?”
The girl took a tentative step toward the stoop. “I’m Jo,” she said.
“Joe?” Miss O’Connor repeated. “That sounds like a boy’s name.”
“It’s short for Josephine, but I don’t like that. So I shortened it to Jo.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jo.”
The girl took another step toward the stoop. Miss O’Connor realized the girl was looking over her head and into the house, her eyes focused on something inside. Miss O’Connor turned and saw the figurine on the table, a shard of sun spotlighting it.
The sculpture was of a young girl straddling a colorfully painted merry-go-round horse. It was one of Miss O’Connor’s favorites. The horse and the girl together made anything look possible. She looked back at Jo.
“Would you like to see it up close?” she asked.
Miss O’Connor put Purr on the ground and stood up, holding onto the railing. She pulled the screen door open and held her hand out to Jo. Purr slipped in and disappeared into the dining room.
Jo leaned forward, but held back.
Miss O’Connor withdrew her hand.
“Wait,” said Miss O’Connor. “I have a better idea. You stay here. I’ll go get it and we can look at it out here. The lighting is better here anyway.”
Jo relaxed. She smiled and nodded yes.
That was the afternoon Miss O’Connor and Miss Josephine made their first acquaintance. Introduced by a cat and a figurine. An acquaintance that, over time, led to a deep friendship. A friendship of discovery and travel, of exploration and possibility, that neither of them could have imagined that day as they sat on the stoop, carefully admiring a girl on a horse.
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