The Poem by Cher Walter
We are sitting in folding chairs in semi-circular rows in fluorescent light. The rectory basement is filling with mothers and daughters for this Girl Scout activity. She has just turned 9: her scabby bare knees hang over the edge of the seat, but her toes barely graze the red carpeting. I am 13 & 1/2, almost 14, and I see other mothers look at us; they must notice how grown up I am. I am a freshman in high school, and I am the parent in attendance for my sister this evening.
It was a time when Becky was still at St. Pascal’s School. It would be the end of this school year when the charity of the good Catholics would run out and Becky would be forced to change schools and attend the local public school. For now, she is still in classes with her friends and has just moved up from a Brownie to a Junior Girl Scout.
Our mother had often looked down at the Malewskis who lived across the street. We all knew their dad drank too much and that baby Paul had been found wandering alone on a busy street wearing nothing but a diaper. Julie Malewski is also 9, and she’s here with her mother. Everyone in the neighborhood must think the same as our mom did, that they’re the white trash family on the block. I assume any glances in our direction are really directed at them.
The activity this evening involves each Girl Scout sharing something they have made for their parent. I am not particularly interested in any of this, but since our mother couldn’t be here this evening, it’s always my job to take care of the girls. Becky is 9 and Johanna is 3 & 1/2. Joey, as we call her, is easier for me to take care of… Joey still listens most of the time, and she’s easy to entertain with television, music, or toys. She is small and happy to sit on my lap and cuddle. She has never eaten all of the Twinkie cakes and hidden the wrappers under my pillow and told my mother I did it. She has never blackmailed me not to tell on me for my teenage sins. Joey doesn’t really know why our father is gone, why our mother drinks so much, or why we have been in and out of court. Joey is easier for me to take care of.
By the time Becky is 14, I will have moved out of the house, and she will no longer be protected by me. I don’t know in the rectory basement how guilty I will feel about this later, but for now I am just counting the months and days until I can escape. By the time Becky is 14, she will have moved on from Twinkie wrappers and instead will be hiding cigarette butts in an ashtray in the gutter outside the roof under her bedroom window. An ashtray which, when our mother discovers it, Becky will tell her with an absolutely straight face that it was the Malewskis. They must have been smoking across the street and flicking the cigarette butts into our gutter to frame her. Those damn Malewskis!
It is now Becky’s turn to present her piece. She has written a poem, which I assume is something I will hear and then bring home to our mother. She slides off the folding chair and unfolds a crumpled piece of paper.
As she starts to read it, I realize she has lost the slight speech impediment that she had as a smaller child with the letter R. “Roy” would sound like “Woy,” but it was more noticeable when she would speak words with an R at the end, like “door,” which sounded at one point like “doe-wah.” Then her poem demands my complete attention:
She is like a pen, she always knows the right things to say.
She is like a rainbow, she is so colorful.
She is like the floor, always there for me.
She quietly hands me the poem. It is about me.
As I think back to that time, and times since, I have never thought I deserved admiration. When you grow up a certain way, you tend to believe the lies that you are told until your own mind takes over and tells you even bigger ones. I didn’t always know how to be there for that little girl who grew up to be an amazing, strong woman. A woman who is smart, capable, and beautiful, and who has lived over 1200 miles away from me for the past 20 years.
These past 18 months have been incredibly hard for my sister. She has faced challenges with her husband’s health, her own. She is raising an 11-year-old son and her 19-year-old stepdaughter. She puts her family first. A recent big move, job loss, and all the other trials of a busy middle-aged life are reality for her.
I unfold the crinkled piece of paper, faded and worn with time. Written in the best penmanship a 9-year-old can curlicue:
She is like the floor. Always there for me.
I don’t know that I have been able to live up to what that little girl saw in her big sister. The truth is, I don’t think I have. But I have held on to that paper, that poem – and I want to be like the floor.