One coin; two sides. What is a mother? I know what the word means to me, but I'm hardly neutral on the question. A couple of weeks ago, Jo and I were discussing the language of adoption: birth mother (this itself a p.c. improvement on real mother or natural mother); adoptive mother. We both allowed as how we find all the modifiers deficient. "You're just my mom." She thinks her sci-fi books have it right. "They invent language for precision—maybe a word like birther or...something."

Now Jo comes into the kitchen to help put dinner on the table. She gives my arm a small squeeze; I give her a big grin in exchange. As we eat, the conversation takes on the ease of distant relatives catching up. We talk about Joanna's boys, about travel, about...the things people talk about. As I glance around the table, it occurs to me that Joanne and I between us account for at least seven marriages. Unlike us, Jo has had just the one, which I believe will be her only—a reminder that people take the nature/nurture clay and mold themselves.

When we adjourn to the living room, it's already past 10—and no one seems remotely ready to call it a night. Joanna, looking as pleased as a well-stroked cat, asks, "Should I go to the car and get the supplies for the quilt?" Another quilt?

"It's one I'd love to do, if it's okay," Joanne says. "I want to get the whole family's handprints: Joanna, Robert, the boys, you and Eamon. I've got indelible finger paints, pens, cotton squares. Everybody leaves a handprint and signs it. So...would you? Uh, Merrel and I don't have to be on it ourselves...."

"Of course you'll be on it," I say. I know it's what I'm supposed to say, but in the spirit of the evening, there's no question I mean it.

We make our squares, clean up, talk some more. I give her a copy of my latest novel, which she asks me to sign. When Jo announces it's a quarter to midnight, we all stand up. Joanne and I look at each other and say almost in chorus, "Thank you." I see that Merrel's eyes are teary and realize mine are, too. The evening ends with embraces; real ones.

The following Tuesday, I e-mail Joanne telling her how we enjoy Butterflies Are Free draped across the foot of our bed; how glad we were to have met them. Two hours later, a response:

...I thank you again for raising such a lovely daughter and bestowing her with so much love. I could not have picked a better mother for her had I searched the entire world over.

Life stories only end at life's end, and this one's nowhere near over. So far our story has been better than good, and the glow I see in my daughter is not only pride in her newly won black belt. At the moment, I have nothing to add, only to echo: Thank you. ?

Carol Brennan is a New York–based author of six suspense novels. She is at work on a novel about the emotional struggles between mothers and daughters, attached by birth and by adoption.


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