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  • When you lose someone you have been close to on and off for almost half a century, it takes you back. For me, it was to 1968, when I was a graduate student studying city planning and geography and working as a research assistant for my advisor. Also working for him as a computer programmer was a young mathematician and statistician named Kathy, fresh out of college. My professor and I would design an analysis of some demographic data and ask Kathy to write a program to produce the answers. Sometimes she would suggest altering a model we cooked up, and we generally agreed. Kathy would punch up the code and take it to the computer center with several long boxes of cards of data, all arranged just so. Just one card out of order could doom the computer run, and a day would pass before another try could be made.

    Kathy was quite meticulous and so rarely allowed such mistakes to happen. That same pride of workmanship infused all she did, not just her code. From the beautiful cursive handwriting that made her letters to me so special to her flawless interior decorating that made her house so impressive, she always made the task at hand a work of art.

    You could see the care she took to make everything just so in her house in a Vermont village. When she moved in around 1980, it was her first home of her own. She was able to buy an old farmhouse and huge attached barn thanks to the company she worked for providing a sum of money to help her get settled and working as a systems analyst for the State College Libraries. There, Kathy spearheaded efforts to automate their statewide catalog, but her real passion was for interior design. Steadfastly for 35 years, she transformed the tired 19th century farmhouse with attached barn into an elegant, eclectic country estate.

    A Vermont Castings wood stove for the living room. Stripped and refinished floorboards. New roofs for the house and barn. New storm windows and electrical service. Updated kitchen and bathroom. A reconstructed back porch. And then she began to strip the walls in each of her ten rooms, one by one, after which she plastered, painted, and disguised them, giving each one a special character. To do that kind of work—called faux painting—she studied books, took classes, hobnobbed with artisans, and spent long hours preparing surfaces, stenciling patterns, mixing pigments and plaster, and applying them with nitzy little tools. Some walls mimicked marble, others brick.

    Walls quietly vibrated with delicate earth-toned textures. Several rooms sported stenciled patterns circling their walls. Kathy wanted it all to be perfect, and so it was, down to the period furniture she rounded up at estate sales and then resurfaced and aged pieces that needed some love to suit her aesthetics. She was more aware and respectful of surfaces than anyone I ever met, and she fashioned them with the skill of a stonemason. Indeed, some of them might have fooled a stonemason.

  • I knew her as Kathy. People at other times and places knew her as Kate or Gert. In high school in her hometown of Old Lyme, Connecticut, she and a couple of girlfriends formed a singing group called—for no particular reason—Gert, Flirt, and Mert. They remained good buddies forever after, and for along time many people knew her as Gert. "Kate" came much later, and that's what her Vermont friends called her. I think she liked the name because it has a homespun ring to it.

    At the university we worked together daily, effortlessly. After about a year, we began dating. This upended my life in all sorts of ways, as I earlier described here. I wanted to be with her all the time but that wasn't possible. My expectations and fantasies turned into despair when one summer day in 1970, Kathy disclosed that she had accepted a position as a programmer in Edinburgh, Scotland and was set to leave shortly. Happily, this did not end our closeness, only our proximity. Our separation helped me to get my crumbling act together after I graduated but did not lessen my ardor. And so, we corresponded every few days (by post, of course) and exchanged delicious visits. Then, after more than a year of our long distance liaison, she announced she was quitting and coming back to the States—but not to me.

    Damned if Kathy didn't fly right over me to the West Coast, where she perched for a spell with a mutual friend in Oakland. Then she hit the road, traveling across America, working, playing, loafing, experiencing life and seeking clues to what she wanted from it. I can relate to that. Some of us don't know what we are looking for until our muse leads us to it. Along the way, she was a barmaid in New Orleans, a tourist in California, a ranch hand in Wyoming, and a waitress in Colorado. At each location, her rewarding experiences accumulated in her inner tip jar.

  • Aside from cross-country summer trips in my van, I stayed put after being rehired by the same research lab where Kathy and I had originally met. Then, without warning, after several years of wandering, Kathy rematerialized in Cambridge. Not only that, she got a job as a programmer for another research group in an office one floor down from mine. We got together occasionally, but by then I had another girlfriend and she soon found a boyfriend. She also had a bout with cancer. After surgery she recovered completely and enjoyed good health until fairly recently.

    Kathy started emptying her tip jar when she moved to Philadelphia around 1978 to take a job with a company that automated library catalogs. She and a couple of male roommates rented a mansion in a toney part of the city. She always loved big houses with lots of rooms to decorate.

    As always, Kathy did good work. Before long, her company put her in charge of the Vermont State College Library job and dispatched her to central Vermont. She retired from that job around 2005. By then she had put down roots and was in the midst of restoring her old house. When she died on April 20, 2015, having just turned 70, that restoration was nearly complete. It is tragic that she had so little time to enjoy her handiwork.

    It was my great fortune to have crossed paths for so long with this warm, funny, intelligent, and interesting person and to know her as a colleague, lover and friend. I wooed her and pursued her longer than made sense, but if Kathy minded my stalking her she never let on. Eventually I came to realize that she did appreciate my attention, just not too much of it at a time. We stayed good friends even when we both had other relationships and after I married another wonderful woman. (Kathy told me she never wanted to marry, and kept her word.)

  • Kathy learned she had stage four lung cancer last September, but only told two or three people that she was mortally ill, not even her family (a clutch of cousins and their kids; her parents and her sister had passed on a while ago). She only notified me four days before she died. She said the end was near, and so we drove straight to Vermont to see her. She was being treated at home, in the house she loved, and when we arrived I was informed that she wanted me to write an anti-obituary for her and to convey the news of her passing to people we had both worked with. In a few days a reunion of this group will take place, one she had much wanted to be part of. I am not looking forward to being that messenger.

    This is my tribute to my old friend. Here's looking at you, kid. You were the best. Every one of us in your orbit cherishes our memories of you, your life and work, and your love. Kathy's High School pal "Flirt" went on to become a hospice nurse and gave Kathy loving and compassionate end-of-life care. Kathy's neighbors Doug and Susan stood by and tended to her over the course her illness. They are the best too.

    Front page images from left to right:

    1: Kathy, Harrisville New Hampshire, 1970.

    2: A party at our old lab, 1968, with Kathy and I facing.

    3: Part of a letter from Kathy to me, 1971

    4: Kathy behind Teller house in Central City, Colorado, 1972

    5: Myself, my daughter Deniz, and Kathy at the Ben & Jerry's plant in Waterbury VT, 2011

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