Kathy opened the front door one Tuesday morning dressed in dirty rags and holding a little aluminum paint can in her arms. “From the moment she stepped inside the shelter, she mystified us,” one woman says. “Whatever she did, wherever she went, the little paint can never left her hands.” Kathy sat in the crisis shelter, the can in her arms. She took the can with her to the cafeteria that first morning she ate, and to
bed with her that first night she slept. When she stepped into the shower, the can was only a few feet away. When she dressed, the can rested alongside her feet. “I’m sorry, this is mine,” she told the counselor. The can rested near her feet. “Do you want to tell us what’s in it, Kathy?” everyone asked her. “Umm, not today.” When Kathy was sad or angry or hurt, she took her paint can to a quiet
dorm room on the third floor. “Many times,” a woman says, “I’d pass by her room on Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday and see her rocking gently back and forth, the can in her arms.” Sometimes she’d talk to the paint can in low whispers. Later, when asked again what was in the can she rocked back and forth, her hair swaying across her shoulders, she said, “It’s my mother. It’s my mother’s ashes.
I went and got them from the funeral home. See, I even asked them to put a label right here on the side. It has her name on it.” A little label on the side chronicled her mother’s life in three short lines: date of birth, date of death, name. “I never really knew my mother,” she said. “I mean, she threw me into the garbage two days after I was born. The newspaper said police found me two days after I was
born. I ended up living in a lot of foster homes, mad at my mother. But then I decided I was going to try to find her. I got lucky. Someone knew where she was living. I went to her house. She wasn’t there. My mother was in the hospital. She had AIDS. I went to the hospital and got to meet her the day before she died. My mother told me she loved me.”