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Jenifer’s Journal: Shelter Island Golden Girl

I was planning to write a column called Technology Pathology, a screed about technology systematically separating us from the world we’re trying to live in, forcing us into interacting with non-humans, blah-blah, which I’m sure whets your appetite, but then last Thursday night while doing one of my increasingly rare check-ins with Facebook, I saw a photo of a bevy of costumed, 20-somethings — young women clearly having a very good time at the Ram’s Head Inn, circa 1994. 

There was a Girl Scout in full uniform (my older daughter, in fact), a Raggedy Anne and her brother, Andy, a be-fringed flapper, all bearing a remarkable resemblance to members of the Inn’s wait staff, and, in the middle of the pack, a shady character somewhere between a French chef and a mustachioed gigolo: Kathy O’Malley, 

She was more a 40-something at the time, but no one would’ve ever guessed. I scrolled through the first few responses. The nostalgia switch had definitely been thrown:“Oh, those were the days.” “One of my favorite times!” “The golden years!” I was about to post my own wistful comment when I read, “I remember Kathy,” and then, from someone else, “Is Kathy O.K.?” 

My fond reminiscing suddenly hardened into alarm,which sadly turned out to be well-founded. Kathy O’Malley, old friend, partner in crime, and hilarious, irrepressible free spirit had passed away a couple months shy of her 71st birthday.

“Passed away.”  Not Kathy’s style, really. She’d have been more prone to saddle up and ride a rocket like in Dr. Strangelove, or wing-walk her way off the stage strapped to a bi-plane like in the 1920’s. 

She had a knack for the outrageous, which was one of the reasons I was drawn to her when I first moved full time to the Island in the early 80s. Another reason was we couldn’t turn around without bumping into one another.

She waited tables at the same hotel where I covered the front desk. Our daughters — her oldest, my youngest — were in the same class at school and she was also an active member of the then-robust, now sorely missed, community theater group, The Island Players. 

In fact, she told me she had movie cred, too, having appeared in the 1978 mini-series, “The Dain Curse,” that had been filmed here on the Island. (For more information on the Island’s movie career, check out Charity Robey’s juicy column, Film Treatment, in the March 29, 2019 Reporter).

I remembered having watched “Curse” as a mainlander. I didn’t recall seeing Kathy in it, but then I didn’t recall much of anything about that movie, period. A tad too Byzantine for me.

 No worries. Kathy provided me with a still. There she was, clutching two disheveled tykes, likely her own kids, looking as if they’d all just tumbled out of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Kathy had many friends who probably knew much more about her background, her childhood, than I did, and I suspect she was many things to many people.

Certainly she and I were friends, yes, and our kids were friends, too, but most importantly, without much discussion about it, we began to realize that we both loved kids and we both loved theater, and what we actually should become was partners — odd as “The Odd Couple,” with the combustible manic energy of “The Producers.” 

For the next several years she and I pushed, wheedled, pleaded, dragged, and hugged members of the fledgling, five-year-old Shelter Island Student Drama Club through what (for some of us) were “major” productions, including, ”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” among others, usually in half a gym, with lights hooked on basketball hoops and “dressing rooms” behind sheets.

I would declare what I needed — flying houses, tornadoes, snow, an actual diner with check-clothed tables, a counter, a working grill for making real hamburgers, a Victorian pavilion set in an English garden, and my producer/prestidigitator would, by hook or crook, calling in favors, charming the teeth out of hens, produce them. 

It was pioneer theater, the Wild West, we were Thelma and Louise, and anything was possible. That kind of unbridled optimism, the sense that even just one or two motivated humans could make a positive difference, was not only characteristic of us but of the last two decades of the century — an Age of Innocence redux before the technology tsunami hit.

Kathy did make a difference. The fierce love and devotion she gave her wonderful daughters, and anything else she cared about, has left its mark.

She would’ve made a fabulous “golden girl,” giving “old age” a run for its money, spreading love, laughter, and hi-jinx, which, somewhere in this trackless universe, I’ll bet she’s doing right now.