Reunited after 53 years, old friends are mutual support system

11/25/2012 12:00 AM

11/26/2012 5:27 AM

In the photo of the Buds of Promise Choir, Josa Cottle – born Josamaria Patricia Cole and then known as Pat – is forever 9 years old. She loved to sing but would freeze in front of an audience, even the 60 people, many of them family members, who populated the congregation of the Church of the Living God on Sacramento's scrappy Lemon Hill Avenue in 1956.

Her choir director and pastor, Sister Maxine Kirkland, would rap her knuckles sharply on the piano and fix Pat with a stern look. And Pat Cole, the shy girl with the pretty smile, would open her mouth and sing.

"I used to be so afraid to sing," said Josa Cottle, now 65. "But once I got my start, I did OK."

"She could really sing, too," said Maxine Collins, 90, who married the now-deceased Isaiah Collins in the early 1970s after her first husband, H.F. Kirkland, died.

The two women are today dear friends, the generational divide between them smoothed out by the fact that both now are considered members of the senior age group. But they are only recently reunited.

Over the decades, life took them both away from Sacramento, then brought them back together as residents of the Edge Water Apartments, the recently renovated affordable housing high-rise for seniors in downtown Sacramento.

"What you find is that people here become connected with each other," said Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency executive director La Shelle Dozier. "They become more than tenants. They become friends and neighbors and community."

Or, in the case of Maxine and Josa, they reconnect, knitting together threads of family and community going back more than half a century.

Theirs is a simple, personal story, the kind that can get lost in a world in which controversy often garners the most attention. But for them, the reunion is life-changing.

Connected by faith

Call it luck. Or call it the will of the Lord, as Maxine does.

It was on Sept. 21 that she slowly made her way onto one of the elevator cars at the Edge Water. Two other women were already on board, but she didn't pay much attention to them.

"I was holding the door for her, and my sister was with me," said Josa.

"All of a sudden, somebody said, 'Sister Kirkland!' " said Maxine. "I thought, 'Who in the world could that be who still knows me as Sister Kirkland?' "

"I just grabbed her," said Josa.

"And I said, 'This is nothing but the providence of the Lord,' " said Maxine.

For Maxine, Josa Cottle is a godsend, a caregiver who can help do the things around her apartment that her diabetes and neuropathy make it too difficult for her to do herself. For Josa, Maxine Collins is a link to the past, to the people she loved who are gone now.

Maxine helps keep their memories alive for her.

The two women sat on the couch in Maxine's toasty apartment on a gray November morning. Above the couch hang three panels filled with photographs from Maxine's life. Here are the people who have brought her meaning and love: church members, her husbands, her brothers and sisters, her son.

Born in Kansas City, she came West in the early 1940s, part of a huge wave of African Americans from the heartland who moved to the Bay Area to take war-related jobs. She was a clerk and a typist, the mother of a young son – but always, always, she was a woman of God.

"My life has been the church," she said. "All my life. That's about all I did, plus working."

The details fall away, erased by the passing of too many years, but by the early 1950s, she and H.F. Kirkland were in Sacramento. They lived in a house on 13th Avenue, and they attended the Church of the Living God near Southside Park, until Josa's grandmother donated a plot of land on Lemon Hill for a permanent church site.

It was the edge of town. Only a few houses dotted Lemon Hill, several of which had been built by Josa's father, a hard-living former military man who worked at the Army Depot.

"I baptized him," said Maxine. "I baptized him as a grown-up. I took him in the water and baptized him."

"My mom's spirit helped you," said Josa. "It was a great change for him."

Josa's grandmother lived next door; an aunt lived around the corner. Members of Maxine's family lived nearby, too. Faith connected them, and their lives spilled from one household to another.

"I pastored all of them," said Maxine. "Yes, indeed. Those were the days."

The eldest of six siblings, Josa was the kind of girl who took care of others, so much so that a teacher once sent a note home complaining that little Pat Cole mothered the other kids too much.

But in choir, under the instruction of the woman she still calls Sister Kirkland, she shined.

"I absolutely loved her," Josa said.

And then, in the late 1950s, Sister Kirkland left the Lemon Hill church, assigned to another congregation in Oakland, as it turned out.

Josa was 12. She wouldn't see Maxine for another 53 years.

Those who went before

In the years between, Josa grew up. She went to Hiram Johnson High School. She married and raised six children. She worked, taking care of the elderly, minding her own kids – and grandkids and great-grandkids – and providing day care for other people's children as well.

For a while, she worked as activities director for an assisted living center in Palo Alto. At one point, she moved to San Diego and worked there.

She moved back to Sacramento in 2000. The little church on Lemon Hill was long gone, the property bulldozed after the building was abandoned and vandalized. But her family was here. Her roots were here.

And so were Maxine Collins'.

Maxine pastored churches in the Bay Area on and off for decades. Widowed in the 1960s, she met her second husband at a church convention. He lived in Detroit, and soon she moved there, too.

For how long?

"Let's see," she said, but the details have faded.

By the 1980s, she had returned to Sacramento, and her husband joined her here. She worked as a clerk at McClellan Air Force Base, then for the state. After her husband's death in 1997, she moved into affordable housing for low-income seniors.

The quiet years of old age have brought Maxine a few health problems. She can no longer play the piano, but she still attends church, puttering across town in an ancient Dodge Dynasty.

Josa Cottle never stopped wondering what had happened to her.

"My sisters had run into her," she said. "But I hadn't."

Josa moved into the Edge Water – SHRA's former Riverview high-rise for seniors – in August. And a month later, Maxine Collins walked right into her elevator car.

"She needed her medication that day, so my sister and I went out and got it," said Josa. "Then I'd come down and see about her. I gradually started helping."

"She came down, and she still does," said Maxine.

Now Josa plans to apply for In-Home Supportive Services clearance, just to make her position official. But several days a week, she already cooks for Maxine and cleans her cozy apartment. And all the while, the two banter like the old friends they are.

"She tries to do too much," said Josa. "I fuss at her about it. She still thinks she's superwoman."

"I do nothing but sit in that chair," said Maxine.

"Sure you do," said Josa.

She and her siblings are her family's elders now: Their parents' generation is gone, but Maxine Collins connects her to those who went before them.

"It's wonderful to have somebody who knew you as a child," Josa said. "It's caring. That's what it's about."


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