HELLO, CATHERINE QUIGLEY? THIS IS KATHRYN QUIGLEY.
DATE: August 21, 2001
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post(FL)
Every time I leave that message on her answering machine, I feel as if I am talking to myself. But I'm not. I am calling my 81-year-old namesake, who lives in Maryland. We are not related. We didn't even know each other until last year, when we met through a wrong number.
It all started when my friend Monica from Mount Dora was trying to telephone me while I was earning my master's degree at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism. When Monica asked for "Kathryn Quigley in Silver Spring," she actually got "Catherine Quigley in Silver Spring." They wound up chatting, because Catherine thought my friend Monica was her granddaughter from Florida, who is also named Monica. My friend Monica then got my correct phone number from my mother and called me.
"I just talked to an 80-year-old Catherine Quigley," Monica informed me. "We just spent 15 minutes on the phone, and she told me about the brownies she was making."
And that's how a wrong number can lead to a friendship with someone extraordinary. Someone who worked for the federal government for 20 years, raised six children and lawn-bowls like a champ. Who writes poems, takes photographs and has won six medals in the Senior Olympics - including two for the football throw.
Yes, the football throw.
I don't know what it was that made me ask Monica for the phone number of the other Catherine Quigley. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was because I knew this was one of those opportunities you don't let slip away.
I knew there were other Kathryn/Catherine Quigleys out there. One Kathryn Quigley plays in a symphony in Virginia, and her name pops up when I do Internet searches of my name. The maiden name of the mother of Rick Hussey, who works in court administration in Palm Beach County, was also Kathryn Quigley, and he tells me he likes talking to me because it reminds him of his mom.
Here was a chance to meet a version of me, just a few decades older.
So, I left Catherine a message on her answering machine. Since this is the modern age, our answering machines played go-between for a few days before we actually spoke. Each time, a Kathryn/Catherine would leave a message for a Catherine/Kathryn.
We first made plans to meet at the University of Maryland, where Catherine was going to get her hearing aid repaired at one of the university's labs. Then it snowed.
When the snow melted in the late winter, we made plans again. This time, I drove out to Leisure World, a retirement community in Maryland, where Catherine lives comfortably in her own condominium. Leisure World has a giant, metal globe of the world at the entrance. It's one of those sprawling places with its own clubhouse and medical center.
"I like Leisure World because I enjoy the people so much," she told me. "I've happened to meet a lot of people like myself. And we just have a good time, a lot of laughs."
When Catherine opened the door to her condo, I saw that she is not too much taller than me, with curly hair, glasses and an easy smile. She loves to wear bright clothes, like yellow and green. Her apartment is full of the photographs she's taken, the ceramics she's crafted and the poems she's written.
Her six grown children - Tim, Mary, Kathy, Eileen, Kevin and John - are clearly the light of her life, as are her 11 grandchildren.
Catherine and I went to lunch at the clubhouse of Leisure World. She introduced me by name, which confused a few of her fellow retirees, to be sure. At the time, I was finishing up my master's degree and fretting about where I would get a job and whether I wanted to remain a newspaper reporter or make a career switch.
She told me not to fret.
"The right job is seeking you as much as you are seeking it," she assured me.
I asked her why she thought we had met, when our paths might never have crossed except for a wrong number.
"Well, there is something for me to learn from you and maybe something for you to learn from me," she said.
Catherine and I met a few times after that, until I moved to West Palm Beach in late September. Since then, we have kept in touch via e-mail, at which she is very adept, and with calls and written notes. I wrote her this spring when I realized I had missed her 81st birthday on April 15. I now miss the tea and brownies she served me while I lived in Maryland. Instead of "Tuesdays with Morrie," I had "Tea with Catherine."
Catherine tends to talk in one long stream of consciousness sentence; she has a lot to say and isn't afraid to say it, and her memory darts back and forth from her childhood in Minnesota, to her years as a Navy wife and mother and to her accomplishments in the Senior Olympics. A conversation with her is like being on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride that used to be at Disney World, full of twists and hairpin turns.
I am 34 and single and tend to be a worrier. The concept of being a retired grandmother boggles my mind. What will it be like for me? Will I worry about my aches and pains all the time?
Catherine doesn't, although she has them, like everybody else. She is sort of my guide to what the last part of my life could be like.
I can pretty much ask her anything, and she doesn't mind. During one conversation, I asked her if she feels old.
"Well, I want to tell you something. I don't," she said emphatically. "Intellectually, I know how old I am, and once in a while, my knee bugs me. But it's no dress rehearsal. You gotta do as much as you can, while you can."
Despite our 47-year age difference, we have a whole lot in common besides our name. We both drive red cars. We both like to wear hats. We are both writers. And we both dream of being Rockettes.
Catherine told me she likes talking to me because she thinks I'm bright and a good listener. We talk about our families, politics, the Catholic church, the job I have now and the jobs she's had in the past. Catherine was impressed, she said, that I was "eager to explore a possible new relationship, even with a senior citizen more than twice your age."
We have a similar sense of humor and laugh at the same jokes, always an important quality in friendship. And we both love music and art.
Last year, I tape-recorded an interview with her for a radio project at UMD. We chatted about her life, her kids, her grandkids and her hobbies. The interview took place right before she turned 80. I asked her what it meant to be an octogenarian.
"The other night, I woke up in the middle of the night," she told me. "And I know it sounds funny, but I like math (so) I started figuring it out. I'm going to be 80 and that's 8/10 of a year. So 8/10 of a year is October. So on April 15, I will be like Oct. 18 in my life. So I'm in the autumn of my life." Is she afraid to die?
"I'm not afraid to die. I'm not afraid to live," she told me. "I think I'm so happy to be alive. I really am very happy about it."
Catherine Foley Quigley was born in Wabasha, Minn., in the front bedroom of her parents' house. Her father was a small-town lawyer, and she was one of 10 children. She grew up as a tomboy and loved to play tennis and golf.
In high school, she met the man who would become her husband and take her all over the world as a Navy wife. She earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry at St. Catherine's in St. Paul, Minn. She also earned a master's in chemistry from Wayne State University with a degree in technology. That was in 1944, when it was not the norm for women to get advanced degrees.
In the late '60s, Catherine and her husband separated, and she had to go back to work after 20 years as a housewife. Through determination and force of personality, she talked her way into a job at the National Institute of Health at the age of 48.
Later, she took a job at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, where she worked until her retirement in 1992. She was 72.
By then, she was already living in Leisure World. Since her retirement, Catherine has kept a schedule that exhausts me. She lawn-bowls, takes ceramics classes, takes photographs, volunteers at a nursing home and attends poetry readings. She also analyzes handwriting and says the "g" in how I sign my last name shows my writing ability.
Sometimes, I wonder what Catherine has learned from me. After all, that is why she thinks we met - to learn from each other. So I asked her.
"I feel you represent the best in our younger generation and feel safe that we who once were young in our salad days of long ago are passing our world on to you for your version of a better world," she told me. I blushed, as she knew I would.
I know what I've learned from her: Old age can be interesting, and I shouldn't fear that I'll turn into a crotchety old lady, because she isn't one. Thanks to Catherine Quigley, I know that when I'm 81, I will still be writing, driving, dreaming of dancing at Radio City Music Hall.