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Kate's Choice by Jacob A. Riis


My winter lecture travels sometimes bring me to a town not a thousand miles from New York, where my mail awaits me. If it happens then, as it often does, that it is too heavy for me to attack alone—for it is the law that if a man live by the pen he shall pay the penalty in kind—I send for a stenographer, and in response there comes a knock at my door that ushers in a smiling young woman, who answers my inquiries after “Grandma” with the assurance that she is very well indeed, though she is getting older every day. As to her, I can see for myself that she is fine, and I wonder secretly where the young men's eyes are that she is still Miss Murray. Before I leave town, unless the train table is very awkward, I am sure to call on Grandma for a chat—in office hours, for then the old lady will exhibit to me with unreserved pride “the child's” note-book, with the pothooks which neither of us can make out, and tell me what a wonderful girl she is. And I cry out with the old soul in rapture over it all, and go away feeling happily that the world is all right with two such people in it as Kate Murray and her grandmother, though the one is but a plain stenographer and the other an old Irishwoman, but with the faithful, loving heart of her kind. To me there is no better kind anywhere, and Grandma Linton is the type as she is the flower of it. So that you shall agree with me I will tell you their story, her story and the child's, exactly as they have lived it, except that I will not tell you the name of the town they live in or their own true names, because Kate herself does not know all of it, and it is best that she shall not—yet.

When I say at the very outset that Margaret Linton, Kate's mother, was Margaret Linton all her brief sad life, you know the reason why, and there is no need of saying more. She was a brave, good girl, innocent as she was handsome. At nineteen she was scrubbing offices to save her widowed mother, whom rheumatism had crippled. That was how she met the young man who made love to her, and listened to his false promises, as girls have done since time out of mind to their undoing. She was nineteen when her baby was born. From that day, as long as she lived, no word of reproach fell from her mother's lips. “My Maggie” was more than ever the pride of the widow's heart since the laughter had died in her bonny eyes. It was as if in the fatherless child the strongest of all bonds had come between the two silent women. Poor Margaret closed her eyes with the promise of her mother that she would never forsake her baby, and went to sleep with a tired little sigh.

Kate was three years old when her mother died. It was no time then for Grandma Linton to be bothered with the rheumatics. It was one thing to be a worn old woman with a big strong daughter to do the chores for you, quite another to have this young life crying out to you for food and shelter and care, a winsome elf putting two plump little arms around one's neck and whispering with her mouth close to your ear, “I love oo, Grannie.” With the music of the baby voice in her ears the widow girded up her loins and went out scrubbing, cleaning, became janitress of the tenement in which she and Kate occupied a two-room flat—anything so that the thorns should be plucked from the path of the child's blithesome feet. Seven years she strove for her “lamb.” When Kate was ten and getting to be a big girl, she faced the fact that she could do it no longer. She was getting too old.

What struggles it cost, knowing her, I can guess; but she brought that sacrifice too. Friends who were good to the poor undertook to pay the rent. She could earn enough to keep them; that she knew. But they soon heard that the two were starving. Poor neighbors were sharing their meals with them, who themselves had scarce enough to go around; and from Kate's school came the report that she was underfed. Her grandmother's haggard face told the same story plainly. There was still the “county” where no one starves, however else she fares, and they tried to make her see that it was her duty to give up and let the child be cared for in an institution. But against that Grandma Linton set her face like flint. She was her Maggie's own, and stay with her she would, as she had promised, as long as she could get around at all. And with that she reached for her staff—her old enemy, the rheumatics, was just then getting in its worst twinges, as if to mock her—and set out to take up her work.

But it was all a vain pretense, and her friends knew it. They were at their wits' end until it occurred to them to lump two families in one. There was another widow, a younger woman with four small children, the youngest a baby, who was an unsolved problem to them. The mother had work, and was able to do it; but she could not be spared from home as things were. They brought the two women together. They liked one another, and took eagerly to the “club” plan. In the compact that was made Mrs. Linton became the housekeeper of the common home, with five children to care for instead of one, while the mother of the young brood was set free to earn the living for the household.

Mother Linton took up her new and congenial task with the whole-hearted devotion with which she had carried out her promise to Maggie. She mothered the family of untaught children and brought them up as her own. They had been running wild, but grew well-mannered and attractive, to her great pride. They soon accepted her as their veritable “grannie,” and they call her that to this day.

The years went by, and Kate, out of short skirts, got her “papers” at the school and went forth to learn typewriting. She wanted her own home then, and the partnership which had proved so mutually helpful was dissolved. Kate was getting along well, with steady work in an office, when the great crisis came. Grandma became so feeble that their friends once more urged her removal to an institution, where she could be made comfortable, instead of having to make a home for her granddaughter. When, as before, she refused to hear of it, they tried to bring things to a head by refusing any longer to contribute toward the rent. They did it with fear and trembling, but they did not know those two, after all. The day notice had been given Kate called at the office.

She came to thank her friends for their help in the past. It was all right for them to stop now, she said; it was her turn. “Grandma took care of me when I was a little girl for years; now I can take care of her. I am earning five dollars a week; that is more than when you first helped us, and I shall soon get a raise. Grannie and I will move into other rooms that are not so high up, for the stairs are hard on her. She shall stay with me while she lives and I will mind her.”

She was as good as her word. With her own hands and the aid of every man in the tenement who happened to be about, she moved their belongings to the new home, while the mothers and children cheered her on the way. They live not far from there to-day, year by year more snugly housed, for Kate is earning a stenographer's pay now. Her employers in the office raised her wages when they heard, through her friends, of Kate's plucky choice; but that is another thing Kate Murray does not know. Since then she has set up in business for herself. Grandma, as I told you, is still living, getting younger every day, in her adoration of the young woman who moves about her, light-footed and light-hearted, patting her pillow, smoothing her snowy hair, and showing affection for her in a thousand little ways. Sometimes when the young woman sings the old Irish songs that Grandma herself taught the girl's mother as a child, she looks up with a start, thinking it is her Maggie come back. Then she remembers, and a shadow flits across her kind old face. If Kate sees it, she steals up behind her, and, putting two affectionate arms around her neck, whispers in her ear, “I love oo, Grannie,” and the elder woman laughs and lives again in the blessed present. At such times I wonder how much Kate really does know. But she keeps her own counsel.



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