Are You My Mother?
"Wait up, Missy. Wait for me."
Eight year old Melissa Gage reluctantly halted her dash for the swings and watched in dismay as Kevin Jamison ran ahead of her. Swinging was the second grader's favorite way to spend recess, but you had to be fast or you wasted time waiting for somebody else to get off. Missy was rarely beat in the race to the equipment, but today she forced herself to stop. Erica was her best friend after all, and it wasn't the other girl's fault she'd had to stay behind to finish copying sentences off the board. It was that big mouth Timmy Preston. He talked all the time and all Erica had done was tell him to be quiet. But their teacher had declared both of them were talking and made them copy an extra paragraph.
Missy had wanted to speak up in her friend's defense; to explain to Miss Castor that it was all Timmy's fault. But since Missy herself had a tendency to get disciplined for talking, she'd kept her mouth shut. She knew that's what her dad meant when he talked about using self-control. They'd had a long discussion about it after her last report card had gone into detail about that particular fault of hers. And even though her daddy had winked at her and kissed the top of her head after his stern warning to try harder, Missy knew he was expecting her to bring home a better report next time.
"That dumb ol' Timmy," Erica stated hotly as she caught up with her friend. She stood for a moment to catch her breath. She was a solidly built child and had nowhere near the stamina of her thinner and much more active companion, but Missy never minded the times Erica slowed them down. Erica was a good friend and fun to play with, even though not all the girls in their class were nice to her.
"Yeah, I wish he didn't sit at our table," Missy agreed. "He always makes us lose table points."
The girls continued pointing out all Timmy Preston's faults as they strolled over to the shade of one of the large, spreading oak trees on the playground. It was a hot day for the start of May, and with swings out of the question, there wasn't another physical activity that interested them - not that physical activity was ever much of a draw for Erica. But today Missy was just as content as her friend to sit in the shade.
They plopped down to sit cross legged on the ground.
"So what are you gonna do about Mother Daughter Night?" Erica asked as she searched the grass for lady bugs.
Missy laid down on her stomach to help look for the spotted bugs. She gave her friend a curious glance. "Whatcha mean, what am I gonna do?" she asked. "I'm gonna go like we talked about before."
Erica stopped her hunting, and her face grew apprehensive. "But I heard my mom talkin' to Stacey's mom on the phone. She was saying some of the kids were in a... a..." She scratched her head, then remembered the word. "A predicament."
"What's that?" Missy asked, wondering if it was something serious.
Erica shrugged. "I dunno exactly. But they were talkin' about girls with moms and step moms and not bein' able to invite both moms to the party. An' you got more moms than anybody I know."
Missy pondered that for a moment. It was true, she did have a wealth of mothers in her life. Most of her classmates had one. A few had two. But Melissa Gage had three women who could lay claim to that title, but for reasons Missy didn't fully understand, none of them expected her to call them Mom.
She had her real mother; the one who carried her in her tummy. Her name was Kathy, and she lived far away in St. Louis. Missy got cards and presents from her, and sometimes she called on the phone. She usually came to visit in person once or twice during the year. She would take Missy shopping or out to lunch or to Disneyland. She was nice, and Missy enjoyed visiting with her, but it had never occurred to the child to call Kathy Mom, and Kathy never seemed to want her to.
There was Mama Jo. Joanne DeSoto had taken care of Missy when she was a baby and her real mom couldn't. Missy couldn't imagine life without Mama Jo. She and Papa Roy were solid fixtures in the eight year old's life, and Missy loved them with all her heart. But Mama Jo lived at her house with Papa Roy and Chris and Jenny and Matty. And even though Missy spent a lot of time there, and felt nearly as at home in the DeSoto house as she did in her own, her eight year old reasoning told her a mother should probably live with you all the time.
Francie did live with her. As far back as Missy could remember, Francie had been a part of her life. She supposed, technically, Francie was her step-mother, but the girl had never thought of her that way. She had always been just Francie. Francie who loved her and played Barbies with her and read her stories and tucked her in at night and held her when she was sick. Francie giggled with her when they painted their toenails and helped her when she struggled with long division, even after Daddy made exasperated noises and pushed away from the table.
But Missy had never called Francie Mom either, even though her little brothers, four and a half year old Tyler and three year old Kyle, did. It didn't bother her. It was really kind of funny to hear the little boys sometimes call her Francie because Missy did. Francie never minded. Daddy mostly laughed about it too. It had never been any kind of issue in their home, but Erica's question gave the little girl pause.
As she always did when she was thinking something out, Missy pulled one of her long, dark braids forward and chewed absently on the end. But Erica didn't give her much time to think. Patience was never one of the girl's strong points, and she tugged on her friend's arm insistently.
Missy dropped her braid. "Well what?"
Erica rolled her eyes. "You can only bring one mom to the party, silly. We're s'posed to color the invitations an' give 'em to our moms this weekend. Who ya gonna invite?"
Missy opened her mouth to respond with an automatic, "Francie," but nothing happened. Puzzled by her own hesitation, she frowned down at the grass and merely shrugged. "I'll hafta think about it," was what finally came out.
Erica was quiet for a moment, then shrugged her own shoulders. "Don't take too long to think," was her pronouncement. "The party's next Friday."
* * *
Jennifer DeSoto breathed out a weary sigh as she closed the bedroom door nearly all the way. She always left it open a crack so she could hear any small voice calling her, though she hoped all three boys were finally down for the count. It wasn't that she minded babysitting, but Uncle Johnny's two rambunctious boys were a handful on their own. When you added Jenny's little brother, Matty, to the mix it could be a free for all.
She babysat fairly regularly for Uncle Johnny and Francie when they went out together. Sometimes they brought their kids to her house, and then her folks or Chris were there to help referee. But it was easier to get one sleepy kid out the door and into the car than three, so it was more normal for her to come to the Gage home. And she could almost never get out the door without her little brother clamoring to come with her and play with Tyler and Kyle. Even if she hadn't wanted to, all Matty had to do was turn those teary blue eyes on her and Jennifer knew she was mush. Besides, they weren't bad kids. They were just little boys. And they just got wound up when they were all together.
The sixteen year old pushed back a stray strand of blond hair and headed down the hall, satisfied that the rest of the night would be peaceful. Missy was still up. Being older, her bedtime wasn't for another hour. But one eight year old girl was bliss compared to a six, a four and a half, and a three year old boy.
She came into the living room and plopped down on the couch in dramatic fashion. Missy, who was sitting on the floor, coloring a picture on the coffee table, lifted her dark head and gave Jenny a quick smile.
"Are they asleep?"
"Finally," Jennifer answered with an exaggerated eye roll. "I swear, I don't know whose brothers are worse... yours or mine."
"Probably mine," Missy told her ruefully. "That's why Daddy calls 'em the Dynamic Duo."
Jenny laughed and sat up straight. "Having Matty here revs them up more," she stated in the Gage boys' defense. She loved the little squirts, no matter how wild they could get. Just like she loved the little girl in front of her. They might as well have all been her siblings. But she had a soft spot in her heart for Melissa, who for a time, actually was her sister - or at least was going to be.
"So... ya wanna do something fun while we have some quiet time?" she asked. Their parents had all gone out to dinner together. They wouldn't be home extremely late, but most likely past Missy's bedtime.
The little girl shrugged and returned to her coloring. Jennifer regarded her curiously. Missy had been quiet all evening, and now that the teenager thought back, she hadn't really eaten much dinner either. That wasn't like Missy at all. She was normally a happy, energetic child, eager to have fun with her "big sister."
"You feeling okay, kiddo?" the teen asked with concern.
Missy paused in her coloring but didn't look up for a long moment. Then her shoulders heaved in a big sigh, and she let the crayon drop from her fingers. When she lift her head her face was troubled.
"I got a big problem, Jenny," Missy confided. Her eyes flashed toward the hallway, and her voice lowered. "But you gotta promise not to tell... okay?"
"Sure thing," the older girl agreed, knowing if it was something really awful, that promise wouldn't hold. She patted the cushion next to her, inviting Missy to sit by her.
The child came willingly. She sat down beside Jennifer and snuggled against her when the teen put a comforting arm around her.
"Spill it, Sis," Jenny ordered with a smile, using the nickname she knew Missy got a kick out of.
"Well...." Missy drawled, obviously not sure how to start. Jennifer waited patiently for the child to sort things out. "Well... there's a party at school next Friday... a party for Mother's Day."
Jennifer nodded. "We had stuff like that at my school when I was your age. You're supposed to bring your mom, right?"
Now it was Missy's turn to nod, but she didn't say anything after that. Jennifer let her sit for a moment, then nudged her gently.
"C'mon, kiddo, what's the problem? I'm sure Francie'll wanna go."
She felt Missy's shoulders move as the child sighed again. "Jenny... Jenny, I got too many moms."
Jennifer's first reaction was to laugh, but she managed to squelch that. No matter how funny her words sounded, Missy's distress was real. And the child was right. She did have a lot of "moms" in her life. The teenager hadn't given it much thought before, because it had never seemed to be a problem. Uncle Johnny and Francie had handled the complicated situation of Missy's birth while Johnny was missing and her near-adoption by the DeSoto's with honesty. Missy knew as much of the story as a child would be able to understand. And to Jennifer's knowledge, it had never bothered the little girl. But apparently it had now become an issue. Maybe because Missy was getting older, but whatever the reason, Jennifer wished suddenly that Uncle Johnny would come walking in the door.
"So... what's the big deal about that?" she asked, stalling a little, hoping Missy wouldn't ask something Jenny wasn't prepared to tell her.
Missy pulled out from under the teen's arm and faced her squarely. She seemed to be measuring her words, as if she weren't sure how to explain. "I can only invite one of my moms," she finally said. "I don't wanna hurt anybody's feelings."
Jennifer relaxed a little. She'd been afraid of tough questions, but it seemed only a matter of logistics. She felt she could handle this.
"It's not that much of a problem," she assured the child brightly. "Kathy's really too far away to come, right?"
Missy thought about it for a moment, then nodded slowly.
"And I can tell you for sure my mom will understand if you invite Francie. She won't be upset."
The little girl's mouth twisted as she considered that information. Then she nodded again.
"See?" Jennifer smiled happily. "Problem solved."
Missy regarded her with wide brown eyes. The smile she finally returned was only a pale imitation of her normal expression.
"I guess so," she answered dutifully. She slipped off the couch and began gathering up her coloring things. "I think I'm gonna go to bed, Jenny. I'm kinda tired."
Jennifer watched her scoop up her stuff and head down the hall. The teen had a sinking feeling that merely picking one of the women in Missy's life to go to the party with her wasn't the entire issue.
Dang, I sure didn't help much.
She grabbed a pillow off the couch and hugged it against her chest, wondering what else she might have said or done to make Missy feel better. She couldn't think of anything and finally decided this was out of her league. This would take a parent.
* * *
"Uncle Johnny, can I talk to you?"
Johnny turned from the coffee he was making and saw Jennifer standing beside him at the kitchen counter. Her face appeared troubled. She'd kept her voice low as well, telling Johnny whatever it was she needed to discuss with him, she didn't want somebody in the living room to hear. That could only mean either her parents or Francie, who were talking softly together as they waited for the coffee he was fixing for them.
When they'd come home from their dinner everything had seemed okay. The kids were in bed, the house was quiet. Jennifer had been on the couch watching Miami Vice and when asked, had reported the evening a typical one - they'd all had fun and there were no major bumps or bruises. Johnny knew his own two boys well enough to count that a minor miracle. But now Jenny was here wanting to talk to him and judging from her expression, it looked fairly serious.
"What's up, Jenny Bean?" he asked, taking his cue from her and keeping his own voice low.
The sixteen year old flashed him a smile at the use of his old nickname for her, then she grew serious again.
"Do you know about this Mother's Day party they're having at Missy's school?"
Johnny nodded as he pulled coffee cups out of the cupboard. "Yeah, Francie got a flyer about it. I think it's next Friday."
Jenny automatically began helping set up the coffee. "Well... you might wanna talk to Missy. She's kinda worrying over it a little."
Johnny stopped in mid reach and gave Jenny a quizzical look. His daughter had seemed fine when they left this evening. "What's to worry about?" he puzzled. "Francie'll wanna go. She loves that kind of stuff."
Jennifer's mouth twisted in a wry smile. "That's sort of the problem," she told him. "I know she wants to invite Francie... but she's afraid she'll hurt my mom's feelings... and Kathy's."
"Kathy's?" Johnny couldn't help the slightly disparaging tone in his voice.
Even after all these years there was a part of him that couldn't understand why she'd given their baby up instead of raising Missy herself. He couldn't understand, and he couldn't quite forgive.
He'd never kidded himself that he'd completely worked out everything he felt about the time he was gone. Even Dr. Evans realized that. Though the psychologist didn't think either Johnny or Roy had enough unresolved issues to warrant regular therapy, he had told them both that there might still be the occasional bad dream, flashback, or bout of depression - all vestiges of PTSD. And there was a standing invitation to stop by his office if either of them ever felt the need to just talk. Johnny had taken him up on his offer a few times, but mostly he'd been able to handle things without Dr. Evans' help.
Johnny counted himself lucky. Lucky that he'd come home to understanding and loyal friends. Lucky that Missy had been here for him. Lucky that he'd found Francie. He supposed he should count himself lucky about Kathy too. She pretty much stayed out of his and Francie's lives. Although she did keep in touch with Missy and visited her occasionally, she didn't hassle Johnny at all about custody or visitation. If she had kept Missy, his life would be entirely different.
Jenny's next comment interrupted his musings. "I don't think it's really Kathy she's worried about. She knows St. Louis is too far to come for a school party."
"Well, your mom wouldn't be offended. And Missy's never seemed to think twice about stuff like this before." Johnny scratched his head, wondering what had triggered this concern in his little girl.
Jennifer took the coffee pot from Johnny's hands and began filling the mugs. "I dunno for sure," she said. "But I think it's more than just who to invite." She gave him a sympathetic smile. "I kinda promised her I wouldn't tell... but I thought you oughtta know she's upset."
Those words stuck with Johnny the rest of the evening. Both he and Roy had been captains for several years and currently were working the same shift. Since neither man had to work tomorrow, Roy and Joanne stayed for about another hour. But when everybody began yawning Roy got up from the couch and headed to the bedroom. Johnny followed after him.
The middle bedroom was smaller than two growing boys really should have, but it was bigger than Missy's tiny room. Truth was, their whole family was bulging at the seams of this little house, but so far Johnny had resisted thoughts of moving. Roy had tried many times to persuade him that just because his friends helped him buy the place didn't mean he had to live there the rest of his life. Johnny realized that. But he was still reluctant to move his family anywhere else. He had an attachment to this house. He felt anchored here.
Francie understood. They'd talked about it quite a bit when Kyle was born and it became apparent their growing family would soon need more room. With the knack she had of knowing exactly what mattered most, she told him not to worry, that they'd move when he was ready.
Johnny had to smile at the memory of her words as he stood in the doorway and watched Roy awkwardly scoop his sleeping son off of the top bunk he was sharing with Tyler. There wasn't much room to maneuver between the bunk beds and the dresser, but Roy managed to make it without jostling Matty too much. The boy merely gave a soft sigh and his blond head snuggled sleepily into his father's neck as Roy picked his way over toys and books and out the door. Johnny had to admit that perhaps he needed to get ready... soon.
He moved over and drew the rumpled blanket up over Tyler. The bed was too high up for a decent tucking in. He had to settle for running an affectionate hand over his oldest son's dark head. He then bent down and did the same with Kyle, but was able to leave a kiss on the little boy's forehead. He then left the room and went to say goodbye to the DeSotos.
He and Francie spent the next few minutes straightening up the living room and cleaning up the remains of the coffee. There wasn't much to do. Jennifer was a good babysitter and didn't allow the kids to leave many messes before she put them to bed. Johnny smiled to himself as he recalled Jenny wasn't much older than Kyle when he'd first met her - a spunky towhead who'd quickly wrapped him around her finger. A pretty young woman now, she was still strong willed. It had taken a long time for Johnny to convince her to accept money for babysitting his kids, and she only agreed when he declared he wouldn't ask her if she wouldn't let him pay.
Thinking of Jennifer sent Johnny's mind back to what she'd told him about Missy. While Francie got ready for bed, Johnny went to his daughter's room. The small lamp on her dresser had a night setting, and it cast a dim light over Missy's face. In sleep she looked peaceful enough, but Johnny moved over to her side anyway. He didn't want to disturb her, but as he straightened her covers, Missy stirred and opened her eyes.
"Daddy... s'at you?"
"Hey, Pipsqueak." He sat down on the edge of her bed. "I didn't mean to wake you up," he whispered.
"You didn't," Missy replied, turning over to face him. "I was havin' trouble goin' to sleep."
"How come?" Johnny brushed her bangs out of her face and felt her shoulders shrug.
"I don't know," she hedged.
"You wanna talk about it?"
"I dunno," she answered slowly, but she sat up.
Johnny took that as a yes and moved over to sit more fully on her bed, with his back against the wall. He held out his arm in an invitation, and Missy scooted over to lean against him. He was quiet as he situated the blankets to be sure her feet were covered, then he sat back and held her close.
"So... what's goin' on?"
He felt her sigh, and he could tell this wasn't easy for her to bring out in the open. "Daddy... Daddy, I don't think I have anybody to take to the Mother's Day Party."
That wasn't exactly what Johnny had been expecting. From what Jenny had said, Missy was worried about having too many people to invite. But the teenager had mentioned she didn't think that was the whole problem.
"What do you mean, nobody?" Johnny asked quietly, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice. "You know Francie will go with you."
Missy pulled up her knees and hugged them. "I know she will... I just..." Missy paused, struggling to find the right words to explain. "Daddy... how come I don't call Francie Mom?" she finally blurted out.
Johnny was totally unprepared for that question. Missy had never seemed bothered about what she called Francie. But there was one thing Johnny did know... people changed. He supposed he should have been prepared for things like this as Missy got older and would start to ask questions about herself and her beginnings.
They'd told her some things. Other things she wouldn't understand until she was much older. But for now she needed reassurance.
"Baby, you know that story. How Mama Jo and Papa Roy took care of you when you were a baby."
Missy nodded. "Cuz that bad man had you."
Johnny swallowed an unexpected lump at the reminder. "Yep. That's right. Well... then I came back and brought you to our house to live... and Francie came to live with us. But you still called Mama Jo Mom, so you just learned to call Francie by her name, that's all. It doesn't mean she's not like your mom or that she doesn't love you." He leaned his head down and touched foreheads with her. "A mom is more what somebody does and feels than just a name."
"I know." Missy's wistful answer told Johnny that wasn't quite the response she had wanted.
They sat in silence for a time. Just when Johnny was about to suggest she go to sleep and they'd talk more in the morning, Missy spoke up, her voice small in the dim room.
"Daddy... do you think... do you think Francie would mind very much if I called her Mom... like my brothers do?"
There was such longing in his daughter's voice that the lump returned larger than ever. He had to clear his throat before he could answer.
"I know Francie would want you to do whatever makes you happy." He gave her a smile and hugged her tight. "And I don't think she'd mind a bit. Why don't you talk to her about it in the morning?" He shifted her gently away from him and helped her lay back down. "You think you can go to sleep now?"
Missy reached up to hug him tightly around his neck. "Yeah, I think so."
She snuggled down into the covers, and Johnny leaned down to kiss her cheek. He headed toward the door, wondering if he should give Francie some advance warning or just let the situation play out. He paused and regarded his daughter, already fast asleep and decided he'd leave this between his two girls.
* * *
Breakfast in the Gage home when Johnny was off duty was happy chaos. Francie wasn't sure who was the most rambunctious, the boys or their dad. As she stood at the sink breaking eggs into a bowl, she could hear the three of them in the bedroom where Johnny was supposed to be supervising them making their beds and getting dressed. By the happy sounds she was hearing she held out little hope of finding a neat and tidy bedroom. She smiled to herself, knowing the time they spent together was much more important than wrinkle free bedspreads and organized shelves.
"Morning, Francie," came a sleepy voice.
Francie turned to find Missy standing at the table, still in her pajamas, her long, dark hair tousled from sleep. It was unusual for the little girl to appear for breakfast like this. She was normally very good about dressing and combing her hair first.
"Morning," she greeted, then smiled. "Breakfast is in a few minutes. You have time to put some clothes on."
"I know." Missy shuffled her slippered feet, and Francie noticed she had a paper in her hand. It looked like something she'd colored. "I just wanted to give you this first." She placed the paper by Francie's place at the table, then took a step back, her face apprehensive.
Curiosity and concern took turns playing through Francie's mind. She knew Johnny had been up with Missy last night. But he'd come to bed and hadn't said much other than he thought Missy might want to talk to her in the morning.
"What's this, sweetie," she asked as she moved over and picked up the paper.
"An invitation," Missy answered softly.
Francie could see that. In one instant her eyes took in the pre-printed picture of a mother and daughter that Missy had colored brightly, the information about the Mother Daughter party at the school, and the big, bold words in crayon at the top, "FOR MY MOM!"
As big as the words were, they were suddenly hard to see clearly. Trying to be casual, Francie swiped at her eyes and held out an arm. Missy took the cue and moved over to throw her arms around Francie's waist. After a long, silent moment, the little girl looked up expectantly.
"Soooo... what's your answer?"
Francie knew this question was much more than whether or not they were going to a party. She smiled down at her daughter.
"I say it's a definite yes."
Missy gave her a broad Gage grin, then without quite moving out of Francie's embrace, turned her attention to the eggs.
"Can I help?"
"Sure you can. There's more to this mother daughter thing than just parties, ya know."
Missy giggled and the two of them went to work on breakfast. By the time Johnny and the boys came racing into the kitchen, they had everything nearly ready. Francie caught her husband's eye as he sat down and noticed a bit of apprehension and guilt there. He'd known this was coming. But she wasn't angry. It was probably for the best that she hadn't stewed and worried all night about what to say.
She flashed him a smile to let him off the hook, and the grin he gave back was the exact same one she'd seen on Missy's face.
Thanks, as always, to Audrey for all her support - and for her patience when I go into silent mode. LOL
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