When President Wilson proclaimed that a special day should be set aside each year to honor mothers, my step-mother strutted about the house as if she were the president’s own mother.
“Finally a president who understands the important contribution mothers make to society,” she’d said. “I for one, often feel under-appreciated.”
I was the only one in the sitting room with Sally at the time, yet I couldn’t help but glance behind me to see if perhaps Louisa had stepped into the room, but no, the comment had been directed at me. I could've launched into a monologue about how Sally wasn’t, in fact, my mother, nor had she ever treated me as a daughter, at least not in the way she dotes over her own flesh-in-blood. Or about how the mothers our good president referred to were likely the kind that actually lifted a finger to work for their children, to keep them fed and out of the cold. Instead, I took the higher road, and announced my astonishment at the passing of the time, and how I needed to leave to prepare dinner for Daniel.
Sally shrugged limply. “Surely, he can afford to hire a cook.”
Of course, he could, and Sally knew it. Daniel worked for Father who paid him well.
“I’d rather do it. It’s not so bad you know. I think of it as art.”
I'd oversold myself. My cooking was nothing like art. Sally’s smirk indicated that she knew it too.
Come the the 9th of May, we were all having luncheon at a tearoom near the harbor. Sally, with the ruffle of her high-collared blouse, and the large spring hat on her head, reminded me of Queen Victoria, straight-backed, and smiling smugly from her throne.
Father looked thinner than I remembered. He worked too much, and why should he, now that he had Daniel at his side? I would talk to Daniel later, to enlist his help to encourage Father to slow down.
Our meals were delivered and I stared at my dish baked Halibut and creamy green beans in anticipation. Father raised a glass of iced tea and tinkled it lightly with a silver spoon. “A small toast is in order.”
Sally beamed, and as I caught the look between them, I felt a tremor of shock. They stared at each other with sincere affection. I didn’t know why it struck me so dearly. I knew Father loved Sally, but I’d always suspected it was out of duty rather than emotion.
“To my lovely wife, who has stood by me all these years, but most of all, who stepped in to be a mother to Ginger, and has given me Louisa.”
Father caught my eye and nodded subtly, a plea that I would graciously accept what we both knew was a little white lie. My maid Molly did more for me when it came to true mothering than Sally ever did. But, I was already eight years old when she and my father married and we’d never had a chance to bond.
See, that was me being gracious.
Louisa sprouted in height over the spring, her pinafore dress barely touching the tops of her leather ankle boots. She looked more like an awkward foal on new spindly legs than the chubby cherub I was used to, though her cheeks, framed with honey-coloured ringlets, retained their rosy roundness. “When I’m a mother,” she said, “I’m going to have Mothers' Day every week!”
Light laughter followed, and I found myself wondering just what kind of mother Louisa would be.
“Ginger, you like like you swallowed a bone,” Sally said.
I felt the skin of my face tighten in response. What I was swallowing was grief.
Daniel stared at me with concern, his eyebrows furrowing. Only he in this group of five knew my sorrow. My own efforts at motherhood had failed. Twice over, I’d let myself hope, only to have my dreams dashed. While Sally gloated at her newly minted prestige, I mourned the first Mothers’ Day. I missed my own mother, and ached at the inability to become one.
Thankfully, our attention was drawn to the commotion of another family entering the restaurant, a gathering of prim and proper matron with well-to-do of rambunctious children and a weary-looking husband. The mother and Sally stared at each other with apparent recognition. Sally smiled, but the other woman pretended not to see her.
Sally scowled and I asked, “Who was that?”
“Mrs. Rothman-Bailey. She sits on the board of a number of charities I also sit on. She didn’t see me. I’ll speak with her later.”
Mrs. Rothman-Bailey had most definitely seen my step-mother. That was a first-hand snub if I ever did see one.
When the meal finally ended, Daniel announced that he and I would take a hansom cab home instead of catching a ride in Father’s carriage, and I flashed him a look of gratitude.
I wished Sally a happy Mothers’ Day, and she hugged me with unprecedented enthusiasm, our hat brims colliding.
“Thank you,” she said loudly, then, shockingly in a near whisper, added, “I’m sorry.”
She turned and hustled away before I could say anything, but I felt the weight of my jaw slacking open in awe.
Sally never apologized. And I couldn’t imagine that she’d ever think she’d failed me as a mother.
Which only left one other option. She guessed at my troubles. Had Sally experienced the same? I’d never wondered why Louisa was her only child, always assuming that my rambunctious little sister was more than Sally could handle and that somehow she’d found a way to prevent another child from coming.
How naive was I! There’s no way of stopping a baby from coming to a married woman unless nature failed to work the way it was intended.
Sally had suffered.
It was a concept I found hard to grapple with, but at the same time, would explain why Sally was often so prickly and seemingly unsympathetic. It was her way of coping.
I decided to be extra-gracious toward Sally in the future, and to be careful that I didn’t let my own disappointments in life turn me into the kind of person other people would want to avoid.