Mother's Day 2006 was cold in Nashville, unusual for May when climbing roses are already in full bloom. For a fire lover, the weather was a gift. I treated myself to two outdoor fires built in the copper fire pit that Deanna and Phyllis had given me for my birthday. My theme for the day was "I'm taking the day off." And I did.
By late afternoon I had settled myself outdoors in a rocking Adirondack chair in the backyard next to a roaring fire with a blanket over my legs, a good book on my lap, and a cool drink on the wide flat armrest of the chair.
I'd enjoyed the company of each of my children earlier in the day and was now enjoying the quiet, surrounded by my thoughts. Then the patio door opened and out walked Jenny, my twenty-four-year-old stepdaughter. She's always a welcome sight, but I had figured she'd made plans for the whole day with her mother. They are very close.
With a beautiful smile on her face, she called out, "I couldn't let Mother's Day go by without coming to see you too."
She joined me by the fire. As we sat there together, sipping from our glasses, catching up on the family news, my thoughts went back to the cloudy spring day Vince and I got married on a hillside in Williamson County. The pictures of our freshly blended family were filled with grim-faced children—Jenny was seventeen, Matt twelve, Millie ten, and Sarah seven. How many conflicting emotions were at work that day? All of us had been through several years of uncertainty and upheaval.
And then I scrolled back a little further to a fall afternoon a few months before the wedding, to the first time I was ever alone with Jenny. We'd been at a golf course, watching her dad host a fund-raiser for Junior Golf at the Golf House of Tennessee. It was the fall of 1999, and Vince and I were in the first stages of being a public couple after several years of tabloid speculation. The day was beautiful and sunny, and Vince was obviously glad we were all in the same place at the same time.
For Jenny and me it was a different story. Our interaction was strained and polite. I remember looking at her face, watching her watch her father, feeling the unbridgeable chasm between us. I wondered how she felt about all the changes in her life throughout her high-school years. Now she was a senior, and her father had invited me into his world and consequently into hers. For some reason I thought about the book We're Going on a Bear Hunt, a book I had read to my children many times. On every page some obstacle presents itself to the reader, and the following refrain echoes again and again:
Can't go over it. Can't go under it. Can't go around it. Have to go through it.
I asked Jenny if she wanted to leave the golf course, hop in my car, and go to the Sonic drive-through a few miles up the road. She shrugged and nodded and followed me to the car. I knew the conversation that needed to happen and was fighting back tears before we even got out of the driveway.
I felt like someone who'd borrowed a car without asking, returned it to the front driveway completely wrecked, and then walked into the house trying to act like everything was normal.
It was an awful feeling.
Driving up Franklin Road, I found myself stringing thoughts and words together that I hoped she would hear. It took everything in me to push those words into the air between us.
In response, she rolled the window down and lit a cigarette. Then her cell phone rang.
I welcomed the chance to collect myself.
As I listened to her side of the conversation, it dawned on me that her life was filled with people whom she had chosen, as was mine. Circumstances had brought us together, but that didn't guarantee a relationship. Slowly, awkwardly, we outlined a kind of truce between us: what she could tolerate, what we were willing to accept in each other. Even in this slightly adversarial setting, I loved her mind. It was a good first respectful step.
Over the years, little by little, meal by meal, birthday by birthday, phone call by phone call, Christmas by Christmas, card game by card game, trip by trip, movie by movie, conversation by conversation, we became family.