The Other Mother
A 7-year-old girl sits with her mother facing a school counselor who is concerned about the child's reading sci-fi on her lap rather than attending to the second-grade lesson. "Why is that, Joanna?" the counselor questions.
"I like my books better," my daughter answers. "In sci-fi anything can happen." She switches her glance to me: "Mom, could you dye your hair blonde—or maybe get a wig?"
March. I'm piecing together a picture: an openhearted woman with hard miles on her, an energetic optimist who acquired the skills to earn her own living but put her trust in some disastrous men. Case in point: Jo's birth father, Bill, a bartender with dreams of becoming a chef. A charmer, he'd also been a serious drinker. Joanne had wept her heart out at his insistence that she give up the baby, yet she'd stayed with him for two more years, until he went on to father another child by someone else. Bill died of pancreatic cancer almost a decade ago—according to Joanne, brought on by drink.
Joanne has sent Jo a star quilt: Made especially for Joanna with love from Joanne. "She's making one for each of the boys, too." The delight in Jo's voice can't be missed, which begins to make me uneasy. A flash of jealousy? Sure—but also a new fear: This stranger could seduce, then wound my girl. "She asked me if you'd like a quilt, Mom—and if you like butterflies. She's been collecting these neat scraps for years. Wings."
"Yes," I say after a beat, "I think I'd like that a lot." Then I take a step. "Would it be okay with you if I e-mailed her?" Jo says sure, without a nanosecond's pause. Her trust in me makes my day.
...I want to say some things about Joanna that she wouldn't say about herself. She's a remarkable woman: resourceful, smart, fiercely loyal, kind—moral in a way that has nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the golden rule. My husband, Eamon, says Jo "has no side to her," meaning she's right out there, no games, strategies, or deceits. This can make one vulnerable. On the other hand, she's someone who can take a blow, absorb it, and get back on her feet. August 22, 1962, was a high point in my life, and I know it must have been a bad one in yours. But I will always be grateful that the circumstances brought me my daughter. I'm happy for her and for you that you've found each other.... And yes, I would like very much to have a quilt from you, if you'd like making me one....
I press Send before I can fiddle with edits. She replies in two hours.
It is so good to hear from you and to finally "meet" you. Yes, August 22, 1962, was a very sad day for me, and it has been heavy in my heart till December 17, 2004, when I first heard from Joanna. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I am that she got a great mom like you. I can tell that she is, as you say, remarkable. I'm also glad to know she bounces back. I've had to do that many times in my life....
It feels as if Joanna's on pretty safe ground here. And so, I think, am I.
"They're coming," Jo announces one morning, "May, for a long weekend."
Not Mother's Day, please. Then I say it. "Not Mother's Day."
"No, no, the following weekend." She preempts me on the next touchy point. "I'm finding a motel for them in Danbury—20 minutes away. Easier, don't you think?" Oh yeah, I did think.