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My Friend, Melody

By Karen Roberts

If Melody could choose her family, she would choose a very different one from the type she has. She would choose one in which each person openly demonstrates that he or she cares for the other members of the family; a family that is supportive of each other; and one where everyone doesn't always criticize each other. She would choose a family where her mom doesn't have to work so much, and has more time to be at home to fix nutritious meals and to tend to other family matters; a family where people sit down together at meal time and talk and enjoy each other's company. She would like a family that doesn't always have to worry about having enough money to pay the rent and buy the groceries. She would like what she calls, "a normal family."

I met Melody a few months ago through a local mentoring program. Once I was approved as a volunteer, I was given some background information about several "Littles" that were on the waiting list for "Bigs." There was one little girl whose home life seemed more extreme than the others; one who I felt perhaps needed me more. That's why I chose Melody.

Melody seems to always speak her mind. The first time I met her, she said, "I hate my house." Melody's house is located in a housing project not far from where her mother works. It's a light green, rectangular, two story duplex that's situated between another house just like it and a fenced in parking lot. The window screens are torn and the front steps are in need of repair. There's a clothesline in the back yard and more dirt in the front yard than grass. There's a paved driveway on each side of the duplex but no garages. The inside of the house is worse.

The sparse furnishings are worn and set on bare tiled floors that are dirty, cracked, and broken. The living room is furnished with three narrow couches and a stand that supports a TV and VCR. In the far corner is a white plastic bookcase displaying a small component stereo. There's a hole wall near the front door. The blinds hanging from the window frames are bent and crooked, looking mournful as they hang at an angular fashion. The living room has dark green curtains that drape crooked and don't quite reach to the bottom edge of the windows. The blinds are always pulled closed making the room feel dark and depressing. The kitchen has the same dirty white walls as the living room, an electric stove, refrigerator, a table and two chairs; the kind used on a patio or deck. There is no dishwasher nor microwave. A crumb covered toaster is on the counter next to a few dirty dishes.

Behind the walls and shrouded windows of this small house, Melody lives with her mom, four sisters, a brother, a nephew, and a niece not yet born. Olivia, the oldest, is 21. She's the mother of a four-year-old boy and is expected to give birth to a girl within the next couple of months. With no one to share her responsibilities, she's moved back home at least until after the baby is born. Melody's other three sisters are Loren, 17, Jennifer, 15, and Diana, 13. Isaiah, her brother, is 9. Melody told me, "I'm afraid of Jennifer. She's out of control. Even my mom's afraid of her. If she doesn't get her way, she starts hitting and kicking. She's the one who kicked the hole in the wall."

With so many people living in such a small house, there just aren't enough rooms to go around. At the moment, Melody has a room, but that's been a fairly recent development. Whoever doesn't have a room sleeps on one of the couches in the living room. Melody's room is small and the only bedroom on the ground floor. The furniture consists of a single bed that, more often than not, has no sheets, and a small, battered, four-drawer chest. A TV is perched on top. There's no closet; just a clothes bar suspended behind the door between the wall and a narrow partition. A wounded cardboard box sets on the floor overflowing with stuff; stained stuff, broken stuff, stuff with the pieces missing. The only intact possession that Melody has is the Pokémon collection she shares with her brother.

I've known Melody for over six months and we've done a lot of things together. But most of the time, we just try to have fun. A couple of weeks before Halloween, I asked Melody if she had ever been trick-or-treating. She told me that she wanted to go, but her mom never had any money to buy costumes. So, I suggested that we make one.

"You can make them?" she asked.

"Certainly, I said. "What would you like to be."

"A witch!" she said, her eyes wide with anticipation.

Over the next couple of weeks, I bought several yards of black material and a silky, pointed, black witches hat. Then on the Friday before Halloween, we set to work. I used a shirt of Melody's as a pattern and cut the material long and wide. After the first few seams were sewn, I told Melody it was time for a fitting. As her curly hair and dark round face emerged through the opening in the dress, I could see disappointment in the dark brown eyes that peered at me from behind horn-rimed glasses.

"What's wrong," I said. "Don't you like it?"

"Well, to tell the truth, I thought it would be different. I wanted it to be pretty with long pointy sleeves. Do you think you could make long pointy sleeves?"

"Witches aren't pretty," I replied.

"Yes they are."

"No, they're not," I insisted. "A pretty witch would be a fairy and then you'd have to wear pink," I said trying to wriggle out of my dilemma. I hadn't thought to ask her what she thought a witch looked like, and obviously our ideas varied.

"I hate pink!" she said wrinkling her nose.

"Another problem," I added, "is that I only have three more hours to finish the costume, so there really isn't enough time for pretty. It would take me a lot of time to make something that looks pretty. And besides, you've got to give me a break, Mel. My name might be Karen, but I'm not Donna Karan!"

"Okay," she said softly.

"You'll love it Really. We'll cinch it at the waist with a belt and that will give it a shape. Besides, it's got to be big enough to wear clothes under it. It's going to be cold on Halloween, you know."

The look on Melody's face told me that she wasn't convinced.

"Okay," I continued, "just to make sure that I get the cape right, why don't you draw me a picture of what you want it to look like."

Her face brightened. "Sure," she grinned.

On Halloween, Melody and I went out trick-or-treating in a subdivision near my home. Melody walked quickly up onto the porch of the first house while I waited off to the side in the shadows. The first house had large glass panels on either side of the door. From the small porch, Melody could see inside the family room with its cathedral ceiling and paneled walls.

"Karen! Can you see this house," Melody called from the porch. "It's so beautiful inside!" She rang the doorbell, and when the man opened the door she said cheerfully, "Trick-or-treat." The man dropped the candy into her bag and as he was closing the door she added, "I really like your house, mister. Thank you for the candy and have a nice night."

At the next house, as the man placed two treats into her bag she said, "Thank you, mister. I really like your dog. Bye and I hope you have a good evening."

As we continued on our way, Melody said, "I think people like it when I say something nice about their house. I think I'll say something nice to everyone."

The next house was a modest raised ranch with a number of trees growing in the front yard. With the illumination from the outside light, the outline of the trees growing nearer the house were just visible. "Trick-or-treat!"

"Oh, are you all alone?"

"No. My mentor is with me," Melody said as I poked my head out of the shadows and gave a little wave. "Thank you for the candy. I really like what you've done with your trees."

"My trees?" asked the woman, slightly confused. "What have I done with the trees?"

"Ah . . . ," Melody hesitated. "I just like your trees. They really look nice."

"Well, thank you," replied the woman.

"You're welcome. I hope you have a really nice night." Melody walked back to where I was standing and we headed back to the street. At the next house, in response to Melody's conversation, we both got invited in.

"I really like your dog. See the dog, Karen?" He couldn't be missed. He was a very large Black Lab on a short leash being held at bay by his owner. After another short conversation between Melody and the occupants of the house, we finally made our way back to the street.

"Okay, Mel," I said, "I know it's nice to compliment people, but maybe you should talk a little less at each house. You won't get to many houses if you're going to have a conversation with everyone."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Melody sighed. As we walked back to my house a couple of hours later, Melody said, "Karen, everyone in this neighborhood has such a nice house . . . and dogs. Everybody has a dog. I wish I lived in this neighborhood."

Although I've known Melody for some time now, she's still a bit of a mystery to me. There are certain things that I do know about her. I know that her favorite color is blue and that she loves "Icees", pizza, sesame chicken, and swimming. She hates to walk places, but that's probably only because her mom doesn't have a car and she has already walked to many, many places. She also doesn't like vegetables and school very much; a little of each is plenty for her. Melody watches a lot of TV and her favorite television shows are Pokémon and Digimon. She wants to learn to bowl and she knows a lot more about sex than I did when I was her age. She doesn't have many friends and she loves dogs. What I don't know about her are her dreams and ambitions.

For Melody, life is hard right now. I know she wants it to be better some day and I certainly hope that it will be. I've heard her say things like, "I don't know why my sisters can't be nice to me," or when we're sitting down enjoying a simple meal she'll say, "I wish my family could be like this." Melody notices. I told her that when she grows up, she can decide for herself the kind of family she wants.

"I don't want a family," she said. "I don't want any kids. I want to live by myself."

"That's all right," I said. "You can be a family of one."

"Yeah," she said brightening up, "and I want two dogs and a house; a big house."

There is hope, I thought to myself. She's beginning to dream.



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