From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

How Many Grapes Does It Take?

Melissa lived in a trailer park, miles from my campus, in one of a dozen turquoise units wedged between a bowling alley and the turnpike. Beer cans and abandoned clothing speckled the lawn outside #9—a scene not unfamiliar to your average college student, if this were the aftermath of a frat party. But those rusted training wheels? That Barbie lying face down in the mud?

“Mol,” I said. “What are we doing here?”

Molly nosed the car up to the only patch of ground not littered with anything and replied, in that deliberate way that only a best friend can, “We’re making a difference. Remember?”

Three weeks before, propelled by the fervor of the liberal-arts curriculum, I had charged back to my dorm room with all the righteousness of Robin Hood. “I’m signing us up for ‘Big Brothers Big Sisters,’” I told Molly. “What’s an $85,000 education worth if we don’t use it to make a difference?”

Molly smiled at me, the same smile she always wears because she knows me so well she can read my mind: Who do we think we are—with our J. Crew barn jackets and our name-brand educations? Who do we think we are, showing up on this family’s doorstep and kidnapping their daughter?

Fearing the awkward moment of face-to-face economic disparity, we knocked on the door. Much to our relief, the parents didn’t answer. Melissa did, in all her kindergarten splendor. Tiny and stick-limbed, she peered up at us and wrinkled her nose like a rabbit. Sniff. Sniff. Could these big girls be trusted?

Behind her stood two older children, each with Melissa’s shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes. They hung back as she gave us a tour of the trailer.

“Here is the TV. Here is the beanbag chair. Here is the picture I drawed in art.”

Melissa’s parents, quiet in chairs, watched her flit about. They smiled with the amused detachment of any parent watching a child take the spotlight.

“Here is me when I was a little baby. Here is my twin baby, Mark, that died.”

Molly and I leaned in closer to see the photos clearly: one baby dressed in pink, one in blue.

“Missy,” the mother said softly, beckoning with her finger. Melissa walked over to her mother and leaned in to hear the secret. Missy regarded us solemnly. “Mama said he’s in heaven with the other angels.”

There was a shuffling silence from the agnostics in the room. Molly and I tried to fill the air. We offered unbidden assurances: seatbelts fastened, the four food groups, home by eight.

Then the older sister piped up, “How come Missy gets extra sisters and we don’t?”

“Yeah,” chimed the brother. “How come she gets a dinner at college?”

From his chair at the opposite end of the room, the father spoke for the first time. His voice was deep and strong. “Tonight is Missy’s night.”

Melissa grabbed one of my hands, one of Molly’s and started bouncing. “Katie . . . Dusty, I’ll eat for you,” she announced.

Walking to the car, Melissa still held onto our hands. She managed to turn around and wave, with her foot, to Katie and Dusty who had their noses pressed against the windows.

“They wanted to come,” said Melissa as we tucked her into the back seat of the car.

“Next time, kiddo. Tonight’s your own special night,” we told her. Melissa spent the drive to campus bouncing in the back seat: Tonight’s my special night, my special night, my special night.

In our cafeteria, Melissa was about the same size as the dining-hall tray she was carrying. Since she insisted on carrying it herself, she was oblivious to the throng of students towering over her, thundering past her. She only saw the food.

“Can I eat . . . anything?” she asked.

“Sure,” we told her. “Pizza, pasta, cereal, soup, salad . . .”

Melissa turned in circles for a few minutes, open-mouthed, until we guided her over to the salad bar in the middle of the Commons where she rested her tray along the slide and thought for a minute.

She pointed to items in a metal tin. “What are them things?”

“Grapes. Green grapes.”

Over Melissa’s head, I mouthed to Molly: She’s never had grapes?

“They good?” Melissa asked.

“Delicious,” we told her, relieved she didn’t go straight for the ice-cream machine.

I lifted Melissa up so she could reach the grapes with a pair of salad tongs. She piled enough on her plate to feed a large colony of fruit flies. “Whoooa, cowgirl,” I said.

That was all she wanted. Grapes. From the staggering display of food in our dining hall, all Missy wanted were grapes. She thought they were “the most prettiest,” “the most yummiest” thing she had ever encountered in her life. She wanted to eat them every day of the week for every meal.

We finally had to tell Melissa, ever so gently, that too many grapes would equal one very big stomachache, and that now would be a very good time to stop. The look on her face was priceless.

“But I ain’t never gonna eat grapes again. I gotta eat enough for everyone.

“Missy,” I affirmed, “there will always be enough grapes.”

All three of us walked back to the salad bar and started filling plastic cups with grapes—one for each member of Melissa’s family, one for her for tomorrow, one for Molly and one for me. We promised there would be grapes the next time we brought her to dinner, and the next, and the next.

Our drive home was a quiet one. Melissa sat very still in the back seat, careful not to spill her bounty, smiling down at the cups with reverence.

We drove out onto the turnpike, past the bowling alley, through the trailer park and up onto the only patch of ground not littered with anything, before Melissa spoke.

“Guys,” she said, “are there grapes in heaven?”

Molly reached over and squeezed my hand, silently saying this question was all mine.

“At every meal, baby,” I told her. “At every meal.”

Natasha Friend

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information, contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, 230 N. 13th St., Philadelphia, PA 19107; 215-567-7000; fax: 215-567-0394; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:]

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