Cherise was our babysitter growing up, during the time when my parents were still married.She was one of my Mom’s star students and was probably only 16 years old.Much of what I remember about her, and about his time, is purely from memory and perhaps not quite right on. But the most important aspects and elements of Cherise remain. We lived in the small, rural town of Warrenton, Missouri (where my Papa still resides) on a magical 10 acres of private, wooded land.My parents built the house together when I was less than 2 years old and it was surrounded by grand oaks and maples, quiet lakes and bubbling creeks, dusty gravel roads, and a handmade log bridge that crossed the stream to our garden in the valley.
Cherise often stayed over with my Mom on the nights when my pilot Dad would have long trips or layovers to lend a hand with all four of us rambunctious children.She really was my Mom’s right hand woman, her confidant during the rough times, the only woman she could really entrust with the safety of her children (and that’s SO big to my Mama).I remember Cherise as a fun loving girl, full of energy with a twist of no-nonsense in her attitude, much wiser than her 16 years could prove.Cherise was an athlete, a runner, and her body was carved with lithe, pronounced muscles. She carried herself with confidence and I knew her body was capable of anything.She engaged us in our imaginative adventures and even our playful rough-housing.I still recall a picture of two of us kids, hanging onto her strong, proud back as she crawled on the carpet on all fours like a horsie.We were all smiling wide, laughing I am sure.
It seems Cherise was always part of our traditional “human pyramid” pictures that were snapped in the sweet heat of summer.The pyramid included neighbors, kids, and friends in the wobbly structure with the brawny men on bottom – right next to Cherise. Somehow, if Cherise was on bottom, I knew we wouldn’t topple.
Sometimes, she would pile us into her big ol’ boat of a car (this was the late 1970’s), seatbelt-less, to drive us to her parents house to spend some time.The car started without a key, with just a shove of a screwdriver (which Cherise kept on her vinyl front seat) in the ignition.Her home was in the “rough” part of town where small shacks and mobile homes dotted the street near the railroad tracks.At the end of Cherise’s street was an old, looming, abandoned home that all the kids in the neighborhood claimed was haunted.More than once we tried to make a trek to the house, walking slowly through weeds and dirt and broken glass…but chickened out before we made it to the front door.Cherise’s home was a modest trailer and, once up the concrete block steps to the front door, you’d enter into the open living room.Mostly I remember the tiny kitchen and one of the bedrooms that housed homemade, triple bunk beds for all the bunch of kids.We thought that was the coolest thing we’d ever seen, the top bunk practically touching the ceiling.We were sure the top-bunk residents bonked their head every single morning.
Her Mama would offer us Rice Krispie treats and Kool-Aid and sometimes her Dad would greet us from the sofa. And though we were used to the sugary, dyed drink, I remember that they put what seemed like double the sugar in the mix and two packets instead of one.We felt totally treated.Much later in life, I too would add waaaaayyy too much sugar.Then, we’d run out back barefoot and play with Matchbox cars or dollies.I learned the children’s handclapping rhyme, “Say Say Oh Playmate”, there in Cherise’s backyard under the canopy of sparse trees.I felt safe.
Cherise still watched us for a few years after my parents divorced and even functioned as neighborhood babysitter of sorts, often taking on a few more neighbor kids while babysitting us.She there when my brother Craig deeply snagged the entire backside of his forearm on two rusty nails coming down the tree house ladder.He ended up in the hospital (or at the local doctor?) with a massive amount of stitches.I recall Cherise’s swift action, wrapping Craig’s wound, packing the gang of kids into a neighbors van for the drive to the Doctor, maintaining her calm the entire time.
Much later in life, my Mom and I drove to the old Greyhound bus station in Evansville, IN to pick Cherise up for a weekend visit.It seemed as if no time had passed as she talked about her college days and her accomplishments in sports.My Mom kept in touch with her every now and again and would share updates on her new family life.A few years back, Cherise’s athletic, healthy, powerful body gave into a heart attack or a stroke in her sleep, leaving behind her husband and babies.She was only in her mid thirties.My Mom was so saddened by the loss, affected by the sudden passing of someone she shared part of her life with, who she took under her wing and believed in.Cherise was a part of our family.
My siblings and I would often tell stories about growing up with Cherise.One day, when I was about 17, I was remembering her, dreaming about my fairy-tale childhood.And with a sudden thought, I drew my breath in.My brows furrowed and then relaxed.I grinned and offered a moment of gratitude.I realized a few things in that moment:that my parents were incredible and brave role models – full of love and respect for all peoples;that children truly hold no preconceived notions about culture, color, socio-economic background;that kids really are color blind.
I realized, for the first time in my life, that Cherise’s chiseled muscles were clad with the skin of the dewiest, deepest, most divine chocolate kind.