Authors: Eileen Goudge
“You had no choice.”
“You didn’t give me one! You couldn’t handle another baby in the house, not after raising two of your own.” If Mavis had conveniently forgotten, it was as vivid in Gerry’s memory as the images on the 8mm reels stored in her mother’s attic—home movies that presented a far sunnier picture.
Mavis’s eyes were steely behind the thick lenses of the glasses that sat slightly askew on her nose. “If you’d wanted to badly enough, you’d have found a way to keep her.”
Gerry dropped her head, pressing her loosely fisted hands into the hollows of her eyes. She sighed deeply. “You’re right.” Blaming her mother was the easy way out.
She looked up to find her mother regarding her, not without compassion. “You were so young. With no job, and no prospect of one. What would you have done with a baby?”
“Loved her.” The words emerged in a hoarse whisper. She hadn’t known then what she did now, that love was the only prerequisite, that the rest took care of itself.
“You did what you thought was best.”
“How could I have known what was best?”
“None of us ever do, dear. The most we can do is keep on putting one foot in front of the other and hope it’ll all work out somehow.”
She looked sad just then, and Gerry thought of her father, dying inch by inch, and of the sacrifices her mother must have had to make—sacrifices she couldn’t have dreamed of as a young, dewy-eyed bride. Gerry remembered him only as sickly, a yellowing husk of a man who’d sit hour after hour in front of the TV, only occasionally glancing with mild interest at his wife and children. He died when she was thirteen, the year she received her calling.
“Am I crazy for doing this?” she asked.
“Crazy? No.” Mavis shook her head, saying gently, “It’s what any mother would want.” There was a touch of yearning in her expression. Claire was her grandchild, after all.
“I’m not her mother. I gave up that right.”
“What about Andie and Justin? Have you told them?”
“They’ll want to know why they’re only just hearing of it.”
“Mike—” Gerry stopped herself. She couldn’t blame this on her ex-husband, either. “I should have told them when they were little. It just … well, I didn’t see the point.”
Mavis handed the letter back, her fingers closing over Gerry’s, light as the crumpled tissue paper gathered from under the tree. “They’ll understand.”
Gerry wasn’t so sure.
“I … I should check on the turkey,” she said, feeling a sudden need to escape.
In the kitchen the turkey was browning nicely, and a pan of peeled potatoes floated in milky water on the stove. She eyed the four lonely plates stacked at the end of the counter, waiting to be set out on the dining room table, and brought her head to rest against the cool door of the refrigerator. What was wrong with her? Why was she being such a coward about this?
Quickly, before she could change her mind, she reached for the phone on the wall. She was trembling as she punched in the number on the letter in her hand.
She won’t be there.
And what if she
The ringing at the other end seemed to go on forever before the line clicked and an answering machine came on. She froze. A pleasant female voice at the other end thanked her for her call and instructed her to leave a message. But what on earth would she say?
Hello, you don’t know me, but I’m your mother. Look, I realize it’s been a while, but I was kind of hoping we could pick up where we left off.
She was about to hang up when a voice came on. “Mom? Is that you?”
Gerry felt her heart lurch into her throat. How had Claire known who it was? She felt almost delirious with the wonder of it. But before she could reply, Claire—she was almost certain it was Claire—went on breathlessly, “I was just about to put the pie in the oven. I’ll be there no later than five, okay?”
Oh, God. What now? Gerry forced her voice past vocal chords that felt like old rusted pipes. “Is this Claire? Claire Brewster?”
Silence at the other end, then the voice asked cautiously, “Who is this?”
For a panicked moment Gerry couldn’t quite catch her breath. Then her heart dropped back into place, and a voice she hardly recognized as her own replied calmly, “I’m your mother.”
ORGET PEACE ON EARTH
. I’d settle for peace right here at home,” Claire said with a sigh.
Byron smiled. “Don’t hold your breath.”
“I mean, they’ve been at each other’s throats for so long it’s gotten to be a joke: the Montagues and Capulets of Seacrest Drive. Do they even know what they’re fighting about anymore?”
It was Christmas Day, minutes before the call that would change her life, and she was enjoying a quiet hour alone with her boyfriend. The irony of the fact that her parents lived next door to Byron’s wasn’t lost on either of them.
Byron laughed his easy, uncomplicated laugh. He sat slouched on a stool at her kitchen counter, watching her roll out dough for an apple pie. “It’s fundamental. One sees white, the other sees black. The only thing they have in common is a fence.”
“Well, we’re out of it, at least,” he said with a shrug. Byron refused to take any of it very seriously.
Claire paused in the midst of what she was doing to give him a long searching look. She took in his frizzy brown hair tied back with an elastic band, his speckled green eyes in the sharp-featured face that in childhood had made him look brash and a bit of a know-it-all (a whippersnapper, her mother had called him, and still did), which he’d grown into like he had the hand-me-downs of his well-heeled older cousins. His flannel shirt looked as if it’d been plucked straight from the dryer, and in place of a wristwatch he wore a braided leather thong. Byron was everything her parents abhorred, and she loved him all the more because of it.
“Which is why,” she said dryly, “we’re forced to sneak around behind their backs.” She’d spent the morning at her parents’, opening gifts, and as soon as she could, she had made her getaway. Byron had made his own escape, timing it so he arrived a few minutes after her.
“Who’s sneaking? We’re merely exercising our rights as freethinking adults. Speaking of which …” He arched a brow, giving her a suggestive look.
“You’ll have to wait until the pie is in the oven,” she told him, holding up arms dusted to the elbows in flour.
“In that case, I’d better give you a hand.” He unfolded from the stool and stepped around the bar, all six feet of him—long in the shank and wide across the shoulders—catching her about the waist from behind. He nibbled at her neck, pushing a hand up under her sweatshirt to cup a breast.
“Since you’re so free with your hands,” she said, ducking out from under his arm, “why don’t you make yourself useful?” She handed him a peeler and pointed him toward the bowl of apples by the sink.
He cocked his head. “You really get off on this, don’t you?” It wasn’t a question.
“I find it relaxing, yes,” she said.
“Tarts over torts?” he quipped.
Another sore subject: the long hours at the office tending to real estate transfers and tax shelters and inter-generational trusts when she could be poring over cookbooks and trying out new recipes. She envied Byron’s certainty. All he’d ever wanted was to be a doctor. Even with a year of residency under his belt and two and a half more years to go, he hadn’t lost that fire.
“Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to chuck the whole thing.” She didn’t tell him how seriously she was considering doing just that. Why dump it on him now? It was Christmas, and he was only in town for the day.
“It can’t be all that bad.”
“It’s not.” She pressed down with her rolling pin.
“At least one of us is solvent.”
“Barely.” She was still paying off student loans of her own.
“I’ll make it up to you, I swear. When we’re married, I’ll keep you barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.” His speckled green eyes danced, and she couldn’t help smiling at the thought.
“Is that a threat or a promise?”
“Either way, will you settle for a starving resident up to his ears in debt?”
“Which reminds me, I have something for you.” She set aside her rolling pin and wiped her hands on her apron before stepping around the open-sided counter to retrieve a small wrapped package from the living room.
“Hey, no fair,” he protested as she handed it to him. “We agreed, remember? No presents this year. Now I look like a jerk.”
“You don’t need me for that,” she teased.
It was a Nokia cell phone in a jazzy shade of iridescent purple, billable to her—a bit of a stretch on her budget. When he dutifully objected to the cost, she argued that it was only temporary. “When we’re married …” It was how every sentence about the future seemed to begin these days. Words that had come to have as much meaning as children saying
When I grow up …
For, oddly, the closer they got to it, the further away it seemed.
“Thanks.” Byron kissed the end of her nose. His eyes were lit up like when he was ten, the Christmas his Uncle Andrew had sent him a walkie-talkie from Hammacher-Schlemmer. “I wish I had something for you.”
“There’s always next year.”
“We could look at rings,” he said hopefully.
“Engaged to be engaged is not the same as being engaged,” she reminded him in the sound lawyerly tone with which she reassured clients who had reservations about her youthful appearance (everyone was always saying she looked closer to eighteen than twenty-eight). They’d agreed a long engagement would be impractical, two and a half years just shy of ridiculous. Besides, everyone knew they were getting married, why advertise the fact?
He put his arms around her once more, burying his face in the crook of her neck and crooning in a husky, off-key voice, “She can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan …”
“And don’t you forget it,” she interrupted, handing him an apple to peel.
The truth lay somewhere in the middle. Yes, she could fend perfectly well for herself … but she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t leaned on Byron.
She recalled the day, in the seventh grade, when she’d gotten her first period. She hadn’t known what was happening. Her mother had spoken of it only in vague terms, making reference to “when you’re a woman.” And at Immaculate Mary the sisters’ idea of sex education was a brief talk—more about the dangers of being promiscuous than anything—that had left her more confused than informed. Byron found her huddled on the back stoop, face pressed into her knees.
“What’s wrong?” he’d asked, lowering himself onto the stoop beside her.
“I think I’m dying,” she’d croaked.
Byron cocked his head. “What makes you think that?” He never got worked up like her parents, which was why she hadn’t gone to them with this alarming new development.
She lifted her head. “I’m bleeding.” She added in a strained whisper, “Down there.”
Byron nodded solemnly and it was only years later that she realized what a Herculean effort it must have been for him to keep from cracking a smile. “You’re not dying,” he said gently.
He told her it was only her period, except the word he’d used was
Both his parents were professors at the university (his mother taught women’s studies and his father headed the English department), and all three Allendale children—Byron, Keats, and Shelley—had been taught from a very young age about bodily functions and to refer to them by their proper names. No one ever said
And when little Shelley, only five at the time, needed to go potty, she would announce loudly that she had to urinate. In explaining things to Claire, Byron had been as natural and unembarrassed as if teaching her to play pinochle.
Now, watching a curly strip of peel unravel from the apple in his hand—a Granny Smith that in his long, loosely jointed fingers might have been a greengage plum—she thought,
He’ll make a fine doctor.
He had the touch, but most of all the knack for putting people at ease.
Just then the phone in the living room trilled.
Byron shot her a questioning look. “Want me to get it?”
“No, it’s okay.” It was probably her mother wanting to know when to expect her for dinner—as if they were having company, as if it even mattered what time they ate. Claire pictured her parents on hold, like a freeze-frame that would commence rolling the minute she walked in.
The answering machine clicked on, and she snatched up the phone. But it wasn’t Millie. After a moment of confusion, when the caller identified herself, Claire felt the blood drain from her head.
She cast a panicky glance at Byron, who motioned back, wanting to know if he should pick up the extension in the bedroom. She shook her head. No, she’d handle this on her own.
At the same time, her mind spun in frantic circles: My mother? My
The narrow, high-ceilinged room yawed and she gripped the nearest chair—her grandmother’s, its lyre back gleaming darkly. From the apartment below came the earnest thumping of a piano: nine-year-old Katie Wexler practicing scales.
Claire Brewster?” The woman was polite but insistent.
“Yes … yes, it is.” Claire felt all at once airborne, like a scrap of paper caught in a sudden updraft.
There was a sharp intake of breath, then: “My name is Gerry. Gerry Fitzgerald.” When Claire didn’t respond, she said anxiously, “They told you about me, didn’t they?”
“Only that I was adopted,” Claire replied woodenly.
An awkward silence fell. Then Gerry ventured cautiously, “I … I was wondering if we could meet sometime. Just for coffee. I could come to you.” She hesitated, adding, “I’m sure you have questions.”
“Truthfully, I haven’t given it much thought.” A lie. Hadn’t she thought about it every day for the past twenty-odd years? She glanced again at Byron, who’d drifted over wearing a concerned look. Why was she acting this way? More importantly, what did this woman
“I’m sorry. I know this is a shock.” Gerry sounded flustered. “Would you rather I called back another time?”
“Yes. No. I mean … it’s just …” Claire began to tremble.
“Or you could call me. Why don’t I give you my number?”
“I think that would be best.” A strange calm descended over her, and she reached dreamily for a pencil to copy down the number. But she must have been pressing too hard because the lead snapped and went skittering off the pad. She blinked and straightened. Her heart was beating much too fast and the sense of being airborne was stronger than ever. Suddenly she wanted to know everything there was to know about this woman, this Gerry Fitzgerald. Glancing down at the unfamiliar area code, she observed in the same mild voice, “You’re not from around here.”
Downstairs the piano scales thumped to a halt, then after a moment started up again.
The sound seemed to be coming from inside her head.
“I’m not far—Just east of Santa Barbara.” Some of the tension went out of Gerry’s voice. “A little town called Carson Springs. Do you know it?”
“I’ve heard of it.”
Stranger in Paradise
was filmed here.”
“I’ve seen it.” It was one of the classics run regularly on AMC.
“I’d love to show you around sometime.”
The room continued to pitch and yaw. Claire’s arms and legs felt boneless, and she was conscious of a vein pulsing in her temple. She sagged into the chair so heavily it creaked in protest.
“I … I’d like that,” she found herself saying.
Gerry perked up even more. “What about after New Year’s?”
“No rush. Why don’t you think it over and get back to me?” The nervousness had crept back into Gerry’s voice. When Claire didn’t respond, she waited a polite moment or two before inquiring gently, “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”
Where do I begin?
She had enough questions to keep them on the phone for hours … but all at once she couldn’t think of a single one. Claire reached into the swirling maelstrom inside her head and snatched hold of the first solid thing. “Do you have kids?”
“A boy and a girl. Andie’s fifteen, and Justin’s eleven going on twelve.”
The pride with which Gerry spoke made Claire wince for some reason. “Look. I … I can’t talk right now. I have company.” She cast another glance at Byron, standing a few feet away wearing a worried frown.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to intrude.” There was a beat, then she added quietly, “Merry Christmas.”
“Same to you.” Claire eyed the notepad in her hand. Somehow she’d managed to jot down Gerry’s number, though she had no memory of doing so. Good-bye,” she said, hanging up.
For several long moments she just stood there, staring at the wall in front of her on which a grouping of framed photos hung. There was one of her at age six, missing a front tooth, with her arm looped around her collie, Lady, the year before Lady died. And another one of her parents, taken a few years back, poised at either end of a large sheet cake with Happy Anniversary written on it in pink and blue icing. Alongside it was a much older black-and-white wedding photo of a youthful-looking Millie wearing a light-colored peplum suit and tricorn hat, arm in arm with a handsome, dark-haired sailor in navy whites who bore only a faint resemblance to Claire’s father.
“Claire? Are you okay?” Byron’s voice seemed to come from far away.
Hadn’t she always known this day would come? Growing up she’d fantasized that her real mother had been forced to give her up after being booted out into the cold by unforgiving parents … or that she’d been the much-wanted baby of star-crossed lovers torn apart by circumstances beyond their control (a favorite scenario involved her father as a CIA operative who’d been captured overseas, leading her mother on a desperate search). Whatever the fantasy, it always ended the same: with her real mother appearing out of the blue to reclaim her.
But this was even more shocking in a way: a perfectly ordinary-sounding woman asking pleasantly if she’d like to meet for coffee. A woman with two other children who’d never had to lie awake nights wondering about their mother.
Claire turned to Byron. The thumping of the piano downstairs had mercifully come to a halt, and she could hear doves cooing on the sill.