As winter settles in, I think of my old friend Ivanilla Austin.

I don’t know why Iva comes to mind so often these days, but it may be that I have a soft spot for old people and find it sad that so many are alone, particularly in winter.

I met Iva more than 40 years ago when I was 13. I was hired to sit with her in the evening while her sister, Merle, a registered nurse, worked the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at the local hospital, in Skowhegan.

Merle and Iva lived together in a small home, less than a mile from the junior high school, where I was an eighth-grader.

Merle was a friend of my mother’s, and was very kindly to her sister and wanted her not to be alone while she was at work.

So she paid me to spend time with her, which later I felt strange about because I liked Iva a lot, regarded her as a friend and felt a little guilty for accepting money.

On the days I was to go to Iva’s, I skipped taking the school bus home and instead walked through the dark, wintry streets to her house.

The new high school was being built that year and space was very tight at the junior high on Island Avenue, so we went to school in what was called double sessions, where some kids attended classes in the morning and some in the afternoons. We kids in the afternoon session got out of school when it was already dark, so when I got to Iva’s, it was nearly time for supper.

There she sat as I entered the house, waiting for me in her tidy living room, one lamp on beside her chair. She was always impeccably dressed, her long gray hair carefully drawn up in a twist by her sister. Merle took loving care of Iva.

As time went by and we got to know and appreciate each other, Iva seemed genuinely pleased to see me arrive.

She was diabetic and had suffered a stroke sometime before I knew her, and her right side was affected: she could not move her arm and her face was sort of frozen so that her smile was crooked.

But I thought Iva was beautiful, and I loved the long version of her name — I-v-a-n-i-l-l-a. She was modest and kind and welcomed any story I could tell her about school or my family or about what was happening in the world.

She also loved western adventure books and introduced me to the writer Zane Grey, her favorite. It was difficult for her to read on her own, so I read to her, every day, going through several of Grey’s books, including “Riders of the Purple Sage,” a book she especially liked.

And then I asked if I could read her one of my favorites, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She readily agreed and every day, for many days, we immersed ourselves in the book. She was genuinely moved by the story.

Iva rarely left her chair, as she could not walk very well, so at supper time I’d heat up whatever Merle had prepared for us — I remember a tasty corn chowder she made, with tiny pieces of salt pork in it. I’d bring supper into the living room, where we ate using TV trays.

Iva talked a little about her family members who had passed on. She also told stories about what it was like growing up in the old days, which I liked.

I saw her as ancient, although she probably was only in her 70s. At 13, I viewed the world as divided into old and young people, with hardly a thought that one day I would be as old as Iva. The distance between her age and mine seemed enormous.

As time marches on, of course, I know differently and realize that my own old age is fast approaching. Every year of my life seems to go by faster than the last.

They say we come into this life alone and leave it alone.

I remember helping Iva to her room when it was bedtime, thinking about how lonely and scary it must be, having so many physical illnesses and not knowing if she would wake up in the morning.

But she never let on. I’d help her into her long flannel nightgown, comb out her beautiful hair, tuck her into bed and turn off the light, promising to see her the next day.

Then one of my parents would pick me up or, if it was a weekend and I could stay until 11 p.m., Merle would drive me home when she got out of work.

Ultimately, she retired from nursing, and I wasn’t needed as a companion anymore. I don’t remember how many weeks or months I spent with Iva, but it was a time in my life that I consider very precious.

Iva and I were as different as night and day, but we had books in common, and stories, and the invaluable gift of friendship.

I feel very lucky to have had that, at 13.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]