Grandma's Words

by Madelyn Petrovich

Editor’s Note: The author is a recent graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program, an interdisciplinary, part-time course of study at UNC Asheville. It was designed for college-educated adults who are interested in broad-based learning at the graduate level. Throughout, the MLAS program fosters critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. It offers four areas of concentration: Climate Change & Society, Globalization Past & Present, Humanities & Creative Writing, and Science & Human Values. We are pleased to include works from the Creative Writing concentration in our publication.

Nothing was wrong with my little sister, and I was getting tired of people asking me about it. As far as I could tell, there were all kinds of little sisters in our mountain town, and me and mine got along just as well as those others. In fact, we got on better. Sammi and I didn’t fight or roughhouse, and while we didn't talk a lot, I figured we didn't need to; we’d found our own way to play a long time ago. It had taken some sweat, but I had figured out all the things she liked and didn’t like. I knew she liked loud music, but not loud voices. I knew she liked hugs, but they couldn’t be too long. I knew she liked McDonald's Big Macs, but only if I scraped the seasonings and sauces off first. I knew she liked looking at the cartoon faces I’d draw, but didn’t like looking at my face all that much. Most important, I knew that if Sammi got too upset and started slapping at herself, all I’d have to do is lay my head on her lap. She might slap at me a little, but eventually her hands would find their way to my hair. Something about my hair could really calm Sammi down, and I liked that about myself.

The summer I turned eight, Sammi was five. She had never said a word, and that seemed to be all anyone ever talked about. It didn’t bother me though. We spent long days sprawled out on Grandma’s wooden floor, sharing the sunny spot in the middle of the room. Grandma kept one toy at her house; an old wind-up train set. Sammi loved the trains and, as long as I was careful not to switch up the order of the painted boxcars, she didn’t mind how I set up the tracks. She liked it best when I set them in a circle around her though, so I mostly did that. When the train was moving, she’d sit cross-legged and quiet, following the little tin wheels with her chin as they squeaked around the nickel tracks, rattling their rusty whistle every two laps.

Every day after lunch, Grandma’s friend Mrs. Phyllis would visit and they’d sit in Grandma’s Sears catalog chairs, smoking cigarettes and talking about all the area people—the things they did and if they were in the wrong or the right for doing them. Grandma seemed to do most of the talking, while Mrs. Phyllis mumbled in agreement. Most all summer days went like that. For hours I’d let my attention drift from Grandma’s voice, to Sammi, and then back to the train. Sammi could watch the boxcars for hours, but they didn’t excite me that way.

One afternoon, as I was laying eye level with the tracks, watching the engine teeter through the wisps of cigarette smoke that drifted around its wheels, I got an idea. I sat up and stuck one leg out. Grandma and Mrs. Phyllis weren’t looking, but Sammi’s eyes were locked on to my clammy foot, watching intently as the sticky toes bumped along the smooth floor towards the train, which was chugging along on schedule. As I laid my big toe across the track, I kept my eyes on Sammi. She was still, so I left the toe where it was. When the train hit me, I howled, stood up, grabbed my foot by the toe, and started hopping around the room. Sammi yelped and rocked back and forth.

“Now you stop that! You’re riling Sammi up!” rasped my grandmother. I dropped my foot.

“Those are happy sounds Grandma. Look at her eyes, she thinks it’s funny.” Grandma’s eyes flickered to Sammi, and then back to me. She gave me a hard look and sat back in her chair. Mrs. Phyllis was watching Sammi.

“She’s a pretty child. She’s got that Petrovich look to her,” said Mrs. Phyllis. She coughed and looked back to Grandma. “Did those doctors ever figure out what’s wrong with her?”

Grandma took a long drag of her cigarette, turned toward Mrs. Phyllis, and angled her elbow on the chair’s arm. “She’s just slow,” she said as she took another drag. “Some people’s just meant to be slow.”

Just slow? I thought. That made a lot of sense to me. Sammi and I had just as much fun as the other sisters I’d seen, but the playful world she and I shared was more gentle, more measured, and now, I knew, more slow.

From that day on, I kept Grandma’s words in my jeans pocket, ready to whip them out whenever I needed.

“She’s just slow,” I’d say to the pinch-faced kids at the park.

“She’s just slow,” I’d say to the animals Sammi patted too hard.

“She’s just slow,” I’d say to the shushing librarians, and the people looking up from their books. That seemed to satisfy most of them well enough.

Problem was, Sammi wasn’t just slow; at times she could be very fast. In crowds she’d rock back and forth quickly, humming and slapping at her thighs. When she did that, she looked a lot like that tin train engine did when it would rev its motor against the occasional bent track. I don’t know how Sammi could tell people were staring at her; she never took her eyes off the floor. Still, she knew just the same, and it made her all the more nervous. She was a locomotive filling with steam. She wanted to go and keep going. People would stare. She would hum louder. I would stand back. They would whisper. Her cheeks would redden. Mama wouldn't notice. I felt everything.

I knew the staring people were just curious. I knew that because one time my daddy told me how lucky I was to have a sister like Sammi. He said Sammi could teach me lessons most people would never learn. So, I knew those strangers were just wondering why Sammi was different. Still, their eyes laid heavy on me. I felt covered up by their stares; like I was wearing a winter coat in the middle of July. I’d shrug my shoulders and twist my back but I couldn’t get those stares off of me, and worse, I couldn’t get them off Sammi. Staring back at them didn’t make them stop, crying only made it worse, and I’d already been spanked once for telling someone to “take a picture.” So, when I felt really bothered, I’d make sure my mama was out of earshot and I’d lean in and whisper to them, “She’s just slow.” That’d make all those grown people look away.

That worked for a while, but one Sunday evening, in line at the J&S Cafeteria, my mama heard me saying Grandma’s words to some gawking old lady. I knew I shouldn’t have said them with Mama so close, but the lady was saying ugly words about Sammi, and I had to do something.

I can’t remember what it was the old lady said now. People made all kinds of comments about Sammi. Some would say, “I’d leave that kid at home.” Others would shake their head at Mama, thinking she had done something bad to make Sammi that way. More often than not, people would just look down and say something like, “What a shame, may God bless her,” which didn’t feel any better.

The comment that bothered me the most was when grown people called Sammi a brat. “A whipping would set that brat straight,” they’d whisper amongst themselves. Of all the bad things a kid could be, I knew being a brat was the worst. Sammi couldn’t be a brat; she tried so hard to be good. Those strangers just didn’t know her language like I did; all that moaning and rocking was restraint. She was holding back with everything she had, a brat wouldn't work hard like that. Sammi wasn't a brat, she was just slow.

I wanted to wear a sign that said Grandma’s words. I wanted to pass out cards with her words printed on them. I wanted to paint them on the side of the coal train that went through downtown or, better yet, write them in the sky with an airplane. I wanted everyone to know. I wanted to tell every person on earth. If I could tell everyone, I’d never have to say the words again. If I could tell everyone, we could be free. But I couldn’t, so people kept calling her a brat. It was the wrongest thing I’d ever heard grown people say, and they said it all the time.

So I imagine, that evening in the J&S Cafeteria, caught between a long line of people eager to fill their after-church trays, my sister began to rock back and forth, and the old lady, who was no more than a mound of tight white curls set atop a pair of thick yellow glasses, called my little sister a brat. I stepped back from the counter, turned to old lady and said, “She. Is. Just. Slow.”

And this is part I won’t ever forget. My mama yanked me up by the elbow and everything else melted away. I was far from the old lady, and Sammi, and the people with their line of plastic trays. I couldn’t hear the clanging of plates or the scraping of serving spoons. The servers might have kept on talking, but if they did, I didn’t hear them. I saw only my mama, and heard only the careful words she spoke; the words she must have been holding beneath her tongue since the day Sammi was born.

“Listen to me now,” she said. “Sammi’s going to need a lot of help, a lot of help for her whole life, and I’m not going to be around forever to do it all myself. If you’re embarrassed of her…” She stopped to close her eyes, and then kept them that way. “If you’re embarrassed of her you best quit that now because she’ll be needing you long after I’m dead.”

I was crying hot tears before she finished; the kind of tears that can’t be stopped. “I’m not embarrassed Mama,” I said through puffy lips. “I just want to tell people, so they’ll know and won’t have to wonder.”

That made my mama pause. Her chest sank. She bent her knees to the floor and placed her hands on my shoulders.

“Maddie, they know what’s going on. They can tell.” She was speaking softly now. I looked around at the cafeteria, and all of its people, who seemed much smaller, and uglier now.

“Then why do they stare?” I asked.

I looked up at my mama’s face. She was crying too.

Madelyn Petrovich is an Asheville native and recent graduate of UNC Asheville's MLAS program. Prior to joining the program, she supported herself by teaching high school English abroad. Madelyn currently lives in Fairview, North Carolina, with her partner and dog.