A Home Built on a Child's Needs

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, left, laughs over family pictures with her daughter, Katherine, who has Down syndrome.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, left, laughs over family pictures with her daughter, Katherine, who has Down syndrome. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Every Saturday, the two of them go to Eastern Market. While her mother runs inside to buy fruit, turkey sausage, flowers, Katherine Norton prefers to wait in the car -- there may be a dog out there, and Katherine is afraid of dogs.

But when they reach their Capitol Hill home, the young woman springs from the back seat as if on a mission. Eagerly, she reaches for the packages, then carries them carefully up the steps and in the door. She insists on doing this every week, one of her ways of showing her mother how helpful she can be.

Katherine Norton, who will turn 35 in July, has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that occurs once in every 1,000 births and causes mental retardation of varying degrees. Her mother is Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), 67, the eight-term D.C. delegate to Congress.

Norton is one of the best-known public figures in the area, but few have been privy to her life at home. In the presence of her firstborn child and only daughter, the Washington warrior falls away and Katherine's mother takes over.

"It's fascinating. This is not the Eleanor the public knows, the one who says: 'Get this done now. What do you mean, you aren't finalizing the District budget?' " said Joan Steinau Lester, who wrote Norton's 2003 biography, "Fire in My Soul," and has known her since college. "This is such a different side of her."

With Katherine, "she's just endlessly patient."

Although Norton has never dwelt on Katherine's condition, she has "never tried to hide it," she said. For years, the young woman has stood at her mother's side as she announced for reelection, often shaking a few hands. But Norton has seldom spoken at length about her daughter. She decided to do so now, she said, because she wanted to show that a mentally retarded adult can live happily at home.

"It didn't seem to me to be in keeping with my own sense of responsibility to say, 'Oh, no, I don't want to talk about Katherine,' " Norton said. These days, the two of them live alone, assisted by a caretaker who comes in weekday mornings and afternoons.

Katherine, who is shy but has a bright smile, has "very limited" skills, her mother said, and difficulty speaking. Although she usually understands what is being said to her, she is often unable to find the words to respond. At times, however, her speech is clear: "I'm Kathy," she said recently, introducing herself to a new acquaintance.

In her matter-of-fact style, Norton deliberately chooses the plainest phrase to describe Katherine: "She's retarded." But any suggestion that she requires special treatment is quickly shot down.

"It doesn't take much patience with Katherine," Norton said briskly, watching as her daughter posed for photographs on a recent Saturday afternoon. "We have a good time together, don't we, Katherine? . . . Hey, Kathy! I love you!"

"I love you, Mama," Katherine replied with enthusiasm.


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