My friend Kathe Kelly died sometime in the past week, alone in her apartment. She had been increasingly frail and seemed to me to be failing mentally, so I am not surprised. But it's a huge loss.
I first met her when we were both 17 and freshmen in college. My dorm at an expensive, elite college had cockroaches -- the big American ones that called water bugs. The first time I saw one, I freaked out. I had never seen a roach before and had no idea what to do. I went down the dorm hall looking for help and found Kathe. She put on a pair of cowboy boots, came to my room and stomped the roach. I don't think she had ever seen a cockroach before -- she was from Darien, Connecticut, an expensive suburb of New York -- but she was tougher than I was.
I remember her as a slim young woman, dressed all in black like a beatnik, and with the cowboy boots, of course. She was the oldest child of Walt Kelly, who drew Pogo, a very famous comic strip at the time. Like her father, she was a writer and artist.
We became friends, both of us becoming involved with the Student Peace Union and the political activists around the SPU. She dropped out of the college after two years, moved to Philly and got a job with the American Friends Service Committee. We stayed in touch while I plugged on at school.
This was in the early 1960s, when the country was about to catch fire. Kathe was involved with Civil Rights as well as the peace movement, and she got arrested and thrown in jail during a demonstration against the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. That was in Chicago. I was living in the Twin Cities by then, having moved back after college. Kathe and I stayed in touch.
In 1967, I moved to New York. Kathe was there. We roomed together in Brooklyn. After the 1967 Rebellion in Detroit, we moved to the Motor City. Kathe knew some people there, and the city sounded interesting to me. We roomed together in Detroit for several years. There was one point, after we stopped rooming together, when we had separate apartments in the same building, so we could run down the hall to talk.
At another point, Kathe was living in a house with two other women. I moved in, after spending a month putting up paneling and painting, in an attempt to make the attic look something like a bedroom. The first night I slept there, I woke to the sound of screaming. The house was a side-by-side duplex, and I thought the screaming was coming from next door. I came down the stairs to get Kathe, so we could figure out what to do. As I came down, I heard footsteps going down to the first floor. It turned out the screaming was Kathe. She had a hook and eye lock on her bedroom door, so our roommates' cats couldn't get in. She woke when the lock clicked. Someone was trying to get in. She began screaming at once. She was alway good in an emergency.
We found a window on the ground floor open and called the police. They arrived with drawn guns -- you have no idea how big and bright a nickel-plated revolver seems, when it's shining in the light -- and decided that we had dreamed the whole thing. There was no intruder. When our roommates came home, they couldn't understand the need for better security. They had left the ground floor window unlocked, because one of them had lost her keys. Kathe and I talked about the need for better locks on all the windows, plus the need to make sure no one was home alone. They were busy working on prisoners' rights for the inmates of Jackson State Prison. They simply didn't get the idea of working to protect women.
Kathe and I moved out. I got a new apartment, and Kathe stayed there until she left for California, driving her big Dodge van. A week after we moved out, a woman down the block from our old house was raped at knife point in her bedroom. The cops then wanted to talk to Kathe, but she was about go to California and didn't want any distractions.
There was a period in the late 1960s when alienated young middle class people decided to join the working class. Kathe and I both did this. But Kathe did a more complete job. I worked as a clerk in offices. Kathe worked in warehouses and was even a tool and die maker for a while. The guys she worked with were sexist pigs, but she managed to handle their hassling with relative calm.
Kathe was still writing. The two of us (and our friend Ruth Berman) published stories in the same issue of New Worlds
in the early 1970s. This was a late version of the magazine, which came out as a paperback book. It didn't last long.
Neither of us could drive when we arrived in Detroit. I continued to not learn. But Kathe took driving classes, bought a big Dodge van and then took more classes, so she could do all the ordinary maintenance herself.
I met my life partner, Patrick, in Detroit. In 1974 Patrick and I moved to Minneapolis. I wanted to be in a city that was safer than Detroit, but was still affordable. I knew I wanted to write and was going to continue working office jobs and never have much money. Safe and affordable seemed like a good idea. The Twin Cities, which I knew well, fit the bill. Kathe stayed in Detroit. As usual we kept in touch. She wrote wonderful letters, sometimes with illustrations. I still have them, though she asked me to destroy them. I will have to do this now.
The car plants began to move out of the city, and Detroit became a harder place to live. Kathe said there came a time when no one in the community had jobs or was getting unemployment. There was no one to ask for a loan. The city got really tough then. This is where my memory fails me, and Kathe is no longer around to ask. I know she was in Boston for several years, but I don't remember if she first moved to the Twin Cities, then to Boston, then back to the Twin Cities, or if she went first to Boston and then here.
We both stayed in the Twin Cities. Kathe moved from working blue collar jobs to office jobs. She lost interest in politics for the most part and studied Zen Buddhism, becoming a Zen nun. I stayed interested in politics, but not especially active. I was involved in the National Writers Union in the 1980s, but that was about it-- except for my writing which is almost always political. I was a fairly serious writer by this time, though still working office jobs to make a living. Kathe continued to write, mostly poetry, but made no effort to place the poems anywhere. She and I were in the same poetry writing group, which put out an anthology: Lady Poetesses from Hell
. The group does reading at science fiction conventions and sells copies of the book. Kathe's best poetry is really fine.
Somewhere along the line Kathe became interested in alternative health. She was on a brown rice macrobiotic diet for a long time and took up traditional Chinese medicine. She refused to have anything to do with Western medicine, instead relying on a traditional Chinese doc here in Minneapolis. Over time, she developed the worst case of osteoporosis I have ever seen. She ended bent double, walking with a staff. It seemed to me I was watching her crumble.
I believe in Western med, and I think she could have gotten help. But it was never possible to argue with Kathe.
We met roughly twice a month -- at the poetry group and for lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, which I didn't like. Kathe could eat the food there. She had odd (to me) dietary needs, due to the advice of her Chinese doctor. I subscribe to New Scientist
and I always kept copies to give her, because she was interested in science. I just looked at my magazine and catalog pile and realized I no longer need to keep the copies.
This year we stopped meeting for lunch, and Kathe missed a lot of meetings of the writing group. I think it was simply too hard to get around. She was obviously in pain. I saw her last about three months ago at a meeting of the poetry group. After that, I called her several times to tell her where the next meeting of the group was and to ask her if she wanted to go out to lunch. She said yes about lunch, but not now.
Then she died.
In the last few years, I found it increasingly hard to deal with Kathe. She had always been eccentric, a bohemian, a free spirit. As she aged, she became more and more eccentric and rigid. I don't think the Chinese medicine helped. If she had gotten treatment for the osteoporosis and her pain, she might have done better. But that is only my opinion. For a long, long time we had wonderful conversations. She read a lot. She was observant. She was bright as hell. Then the conversations became less and less interesting, as she became less and less well. I don't think she should have died at 72. However, she lived life as she wanted do and died the way she wanted to, at home. She was terrified of ending in a hospital or nursing home.
She always had a touch of paranoia, which came from being an activist in the 1960s. The police in Detroit were clearly an army of occupation. It was perfectly reasonable to think they might frame you or kill you. But the paranoia remained after there was less reason for it. Maybe this came -- at least in part -- from growing old and living alone. As you age, you become vulnerable, and if you are alone, you are likely to feel very vulnerable.
As fragile as she seemed to me, she was also stoic and fiercely independent and very private. My mother was a New Englander like Kathe. These traits were very familiar to me.
Sometime along the way, she had her name legally changed from Kathe Kelly to Cassandra O'Malley. I didn't understand why, and I don't know how the bright, gifted, energetic young woman I met in college turned into the prickly, paranoid, fragile old woman I knew at the end. This society wears people down.