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Photo Feature

Miss Pat and Georgie

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 10/17/2001

Seventy years ago, when she was 14, my grandmother met another East Baltimore girl. They became fast friends--getting jobs in the same factory, walking to night school together, double-dating with their beaus in Patterson Park. Eventually, amid marriage and children and the busyness of living, the once-inseparable pair drifted apart. By the time their grandchildren came along they had all but lost contact. Still, I grew up on my grandmother's tales of adventure in 1920s Baltimore with her best friend, Miss Pat.

Last year, almost on a whim, my grandmother and mother stopped by Miss Pat's old house to see if she still lived there. There she was still, and the friendship was rekindled. Gram and Miss Pat now talk frequently on the phone, and Gram visits her friend's home in Essex when she can. Intrigued by a lifetime of Miss Pat stories, I began going along, to sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee and listen to their reminiscing. What made an impression on me, though, was not the life Miss Pat led, but the life she leads now.

In 1945 Miss Pat gave birth to her third child, a son named George. Georgie's delivery was difficult, and the doctor used forceps; he suffered brain damage, and Miss Pat has spent her life since then taking care of him. She tells the story often: "The doctor told me, 'Don't take him home, leave him here, I'll find a place for him.' People said I should put him away. But I said, 'No, the Lord gave him to me, and I'm keeping him.'"

Miss Pat's husband, Big George, died in 1990, leaving her to care for Georgie on her own. (The rest of the family is estranged or busy with problems of their own, and putting Georgie into any kind of home or program is out of the question; it's been tried and hasn't worked.) For 11 years now Miss Pat has eked out a life for both of them; money is tight, but she is frugal and the house is paid for. But these days she's beginning to feel her 84 years. She's almost completely blind, bent nearly double with back trouble, and has leg problems. She is essentially confined to the first floor of her house and goes out only when she absolutely must. Even the doctor comes to Miss Pat's house, as does God: The church sends a lay minister so that she can receive communion.

But her first concern is for Georgie. What will happen to him when something, inevitably, happens to her?

"Somebody's got to take Georgie," she says. "My brother and sister are both too bad off to do it, and I don't know anyone else who's willing." Georgie will always have a place to live--Miss Pat is leaving him the house in her will--but beyond that basic fact of shelter, there are many unanswered questions. Who will do for this perpetual child all the things that he needs, that his mother has done through all his 55 years on the planet?

At the moment, there are no answers. Miss Pat tries to be philosophical. "Well, we made it this far," she says, "so I guess we'll live through it somehow." But then their circumstances intrude. "Poor George gets pretty beat up, though--I can't do like I used to. I can't stand up all day working, cooking, doing for him."

The thing is, she does take care of him, every way she can. And he takes care of her, every way he can. Together, despite their disabilities, they are able to forge a viable life.

Georgie is not completely helpless--far from it. He zooms all over downtown Essex on his bike. (When one was stolen recently, he found himself another.) He rides to the store to do the shopping; although he can't read or count, he recognizes pictures and colors and knows which can of coffee and brand of bread Miss Pat wants. He knows the different denominations of money, even though he can't add or subtract and has to trust the cashiers to give him the correct change. The clerks in the little stores along Eastern Avenue--the convenience store, the bakery, the pharmacy--know Georgie and help him with his purchases.

He tries to help around the house but doesn't really know how. Georgie has tried to cram far too many clothes into their elderly washing machine, overloading it, and Miss Pat is afraid he'll break it; now she won't let him touch it. She washes her housedresses by hand, and Georgie gets new clothes from the nearby Lutheran thrift store when the old ones get too funky. (One thing about Georgie--he's a natty dresser.) Sometimes, when we visit, Miss Pat will consent to let my mother or me do a load of laundry, which Georgie then hangs out on the line to dry. But Miss Pat is very proud, and wary of accepting much help. We are her guests, and until recently she has always done for herself.

I go see Miss Pat and Georgie whenever I can. I bring my camera, take some pictures, do some chores or run some errands if she'll let me. Mostly, we sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee and talk for hours. Besides dishing dirt about my grandmother's misspent youth, Miss Pat and I talk about favorite TV programs, current events, and food (she'd never recognize the word, but Miss Pat, an avid cook, is a total foodie). We even gossip a little. Time passes, the light from the kitchen window changes gradually, Georgie comes and goes from his rounds up and down the avenue. Eventually it's supper time, time for me to go. I leave with a promise to look for a basket for Georgie's bike, and try to stop Miss Pat from giving me too much food to take home. I'll be back to see her next week. As I start my car it strikes me: Miss Pat and me, we have become friends.

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