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Excerpt: 'The Other Mother'

by Gwendolen Gross
Aug 8, 2007

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Gwendolen Gross

1. Thea

I had already lost Iris in the Rite Aid. She'd begged and begged to get school supplies, in her sweet-voiced, slightly lisping two-year-old language that unfailingly invites patience on my part just when I'm about to despair of ever managing a simple errand. I told her if she stayed close, she could pick out something, a notebook or a box of crayons, or markers if she promised not to suck the tips to blue her mouth, and we could have some school projects together. But as soon as we got to the store—my son, Oliver, was stepping from one foot to the other without traveling anywhere, and my oldest, Carra, was sorting through the stacks of three-ring-binders as if they'd each delivered a personal insult—Iris slipped into the aisles and was gone.

Rite Aid wasn't the best place to shop for school supplies, but I was too busy to manage a trip to the mall. Carra, who had recently turned twelve and was as serious about middle school as the rest of us had been about enrolling in college, showed her displeasure in every gesture on the way there. Not good enough, said the snap of her seatbelt, no special cartridge-filled fountain pens like her best friend Lizzie had. No rainbow-laser binders, only babyish unicorn decals, her sigh said, as we drove the mile into town. She let out a little grumble of disgust as I parallel parked, badly, leaving my wheels at least eight inches from the curb.

But for some reason I wasn't frustrated with Carra. She was simply navigating the new with her best coping mechanism, disapproval, for guidance. When Carra was first born, and I was deeply in love and in the thick thrall of milky exhaustion, almost like drowning, my friend Tia came to visit. She held Carra and looked into her wrinkled infant face and said, "She'll break your heart when she's a teen."

Oliver wouldn't get anything he needed and would require a separate trip the next day because he forgot "pencils, and oh, a big gummy eraser thing, and Mom, I think I need paper but I don't remember which kind." It wasn't that Oliver was oblivious to everything. At ten he had a very good memory for the books he loved, which characters were in which series, and which movie—his most serious passion besides his bicycle—was coming to the Sylvan Glen Theater. Oliver went to see whatever wasn't rated R, even if it was considered a girl movie or something that featured kissing. It was Oliver who noticed Iris wasn't with us.

"Ma," he said, more interested in the meager shelf of paperbacks and the pipe-and-card aisle than the things he'd need for fifth grade. "Ma, I think Iris went that way." He nodded his head.

I hated the feeling that I'd lost control. With the first two, there had been some chasing, some games of run-away-from-Mommy, but it was long enough ago I'd already forgotten. And Iris was different. She was as wild at one as my others had been at two, and now that she was two, she was uninterested in her mother's suggestions, pleas, and demands, and passionately interested in whatever I didn't want her to have because it might hurt her. She put everything into her mouth, still, long after Dr. Goodberg, in her calm and slightly condescending lecture voice, had told me she would grow out of it.

"I-ris," I called, trying not to let panic spread its wide wings in my chest.

"I-ris," called Oliver, right behind me. He still liked to help, and he still liked to please me. Though Iris's disappearances made him a little too happy in the look-at-me-I'm-being-good department. He'd adjusted well at seven, when he learned he'd have to share his mommy with a small, shrieking person who would probably never be old enough to play with him. Along with his beauty, Oliver was blessed on occasion with dazzlingly clear perceptions. "It's better that she's a girl," he'd said that first week, when I hardly had time to look into his face for Iris's needs. "That way I won't have to be as jealous."

A small cloud of red hair dashed around the corner of the aisle I was entering. I could hear her demonic little laugh. It was funny for a second, but then she wasn't in the next aisle.

"I-ris, I need you to come here now," I said. I could hear the automatic doors hissing open, closed, open, and the high-speed traffic out on Sylvan Avenue made me nervous. My other two had known, somehow, without more than half a dozen didactic lessons on my part, that streets were dangerous. Iris had already run out into our cul-de-sac dancing, and on a previous shopping trip she'd made it off the curb on Sylvan, though I'd grabbed her before she had a chance to take a second step. Iris would go right out those automatic doors, she'd run right out under the wheels of a giant SUV; she'd be a low and unavoidable target. I felt this possibility weighting me, fear unfurling, and started running toward the entrance, pulled by gravity and danger and responsibility.

"Mo-om," called Oliver. "I got her."

I rounded the aisle, but I didn't see them. I had to squeeze by a pair of teens necking in the candy aisle. I thought I recognized my neighbor's daughter, half-mashed, half-wrapped around a young man with straight hair that fell below his angular jaw, but I couldn't stop to really see. I passed the pair and ran toward the entrance, but my children weren't there.

"Mo-om!" Oliver yelled. I could hear Iris's cry. It wasn't an easy cry, it was a loud, angry, word-filled cry, as if she had things she couldn't say in such a state of agitation. Because of the cacophony surrounding her intent, we'd probably never know what she was saying. Often, I was too annoyed to want to know what she was saying. I was a bad mother, already thinking about preschool, wishing she'd been born two months earlier so she could enroll this year. An hour or two of freedom, freedom for both of us, I had told myself when I fingered the brochure from the new Montessori school. This was my last go at raising a toddler. I'd thought I had known what I was doing. Even when I'd told Caius I was pregnant, even when I'd believed I was surprised, part of me had expected this last round all along. But none of me had expected Iris to be the challenge that she was.

"Myma-ahhh!" cried Iris. They stood back near the binders. Iris was clutching two jumbo packs of Pez; maybe she'd have become Sylvan Glen's youngest shoplifter, the poster child for a stop negligent mothers campaign. Oliver triumphantly gripped her arm. Iris was flopping, flailing. His grip was a little harder than necessary, but Iris did try, strenuously, to escape.

And I adored her, my last little one, my jitterbug. Guilt and relief soaked into me. I took my baby in my arms, despite her resistance, despite the bruises her pink-sneakered feet would leave on my thighs where she kicked me. My knees made a sound like gum bubbles popping as I stood. I kissed the top of her head. She let the Pez fall to the floor. I hadn't lost her yet.

"Mine plies," she sobbed.

"I know, your supplies," I said.

"They don't have the right kind," said Carra, looking bereft by the big bin of loose-leaf paper. "We'll have to go to the mall."

Sometimes, when they were all in the car, if Iris was sleeping in her seat and Oliver and Carra were in their private looking-out-the-window worlds, dreaming of things I wasn't sure I wanted to know about, I forgot, for a guilty, delicious moment or two, that I was a mother of three, on errands, the person in charge. Sometimes I was my college self, home for the dregs of summer, relishing the last of languid August, full of the details of my summer jobs and summer crushes and the cicadas starting their song of sex and death in the late afternoons. I slowed down as I neared Tia's old house, remembering the time when she was home, still my best friend, and forecasting our future together: we'd work as raft guides on African rivers, trek in the Himalayas, join sky-top bird studies in the Amazon, meet our mates at bars in Amsterdam, and come home to Sylvan Glen, New Jersey, to raise our broods across the fence from each other, where they could make their own bug collections and later, fall in love.

But the house next door wasn't Tia's anymore; it wasn't even Tia's mother's house. I'd seen the For Sale signs a few months ago and had left three unreturned messages for Tia. Even after the Sale Pending notice went up over the original placard, I'd fantasized about buying it myself so it wouldn't be invaded by strangers. Not that we could afford a second house. I felt as if I'd lost Tia's mother, Phoebe Larkspur, though she'd only moved across the woods to the assisted-care facility. When the Bergen Sunset Home was built five years ago, I'd stood in the cul-de-sac with my neighbors listening to the grand-opening party. Even Jillian Martin emerged, with her suspiciously fraternal-looking husband, Jack, who rarely came out of his house except to push snow around in his drive with a leaf blower and to weed and deadhead his perennial garden with his chain saw. They stood there with their matching narrow foreheads and bitter sucked-lemon expressions. At nine o'clock on a summer weeknight, the polka was so loud it blasted across the maple-and-sassafras-filled woods like a storm. Then the announcer started yelling instructions through his bullhorn, "Walkers on the left! C'mon ladies. Ladies," and Jillian Martin screwed up her sour face and laughed.

"Stupid," muttered Jack. "Stupid old people."

It wasn't as if Mrs. Larkspur had done cartwheels under the pink dogwood on her front lawn, but at least I'd seen her over the back fence sometimes, clasping grocery bags against her chest like little children.

I captained the van into the driveway, Iris asleep after the indignities in the Rite Aid. I gasped a little at the sight next door—almost like driving past a wreck. I hadn't expected new neighbors so soon, and I felt a vague crushing sensation in my chest, tempered by a little hope. They were here already. The moving vans were dribbling the new family's belongings out into the yard like a tree spilling leaves, the only order that of gravity and wind. A huge buffet sat squat under the dogwood, scuffing the soil with its feet. It looked too large and ominous for the open dining room I'd sprinted through a thousand times, playing sardines with Tia and my brother Oren. The lawn was littered with boxes and boxes and boxes marked BOOKS, with letters for alphabetizing added in a cramped scrawl.

I pressed the buttons on the van to release Oliver and Carra, who would get out, be on their own, who wouldn't need me now for a while.

"When can we go to the mall?" Carra asked, but she was already running away from the driveway and toward her friend Vivian Morocco's house.

Leaving Iris asleep in the car seat, I went inside. I opened the back door so I could hear her from the kitchen when she woke. I felt a compulsion when there were new neighbors. It was selfish, but I just wanted all new people to like me, and I harbored a fantasy each time that there would be a best friend for me.

Carra, at six, would recite when she'd met each neighborhood friend, "When I was two, I met Vivian, when I was three . . ." Iris was two, and we hadn't found anyone for her yet. Maybe her best friend would live in Tia's old house. Maybe they would be horrible nouveax riches and tear the whole thing down to make a McMansion stretching to the edges of the lawn. Maybe they would take down the slowly dying dogwood. Maybe if I brought them brownies, they would be more likely to keep things as they should be, as they were.

I unearthed chocolate, sugar, flour, nuts, eggs, relishing the shape of each object that would participate in the whole. With my first two children, I cooked and baked all the time while they played with muffin tins and dried pasta on the floor. Carra pointed out the shapes she recognized in her board books, and Oliver swung in a bouncy seat suspended from the doorway. Iris hardly ever let me bake, so when she woke a few minutes before I spread the brownies into the pan, I let her talk and fuss alone in the car; I even let her scream as I opened the oven and slid them in, telling her, "It's okay, lovey, just a second," though of course she couldn't hear me.

I never expected to live in the house I grew up in. I never expected to lose my mother before I became a mother myself. I never expected the losses and the gains, the shapes they took in the corners of days, of years, shifting in their chairs like visiting aunts.

When we all lived in the house, my mother, my father, my four brothers—three older, one younger—we filled the rooms with the scents of half-peeled oranges and new notebook paper and the blue chemical odor of dittoed homework sheets. My mother had had us each two years apart—"regular as eggs," she said. My father, a mathematician at Columbia, was often at conferences or at his office over the garage, where piles of papers leaned against each other like tired soldiers. He had chosen my name after Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, a mathematician in her own right. Still, she was mostly known as someone's wife. My mother was mainly a mother, though even then I knew there were other things she loved: making small drawings she kept in a drawer and tending her roses and vegetable gardens.

She talked about her garden all winter, about places she'd been and planned to take us: the brilliant blooming grounds at Versailles when the jasmine spread scent all over the green trimmed lawns; snorkeling among a riot of tropical fish off the coast of Israel. She talked about places she hadn't been, sighing loudly, her chest and shoulders rising and dropping into brief defeat.

Then my brother Oren died a few months before his twentieth birthday. I knew in some ways my mother, the first Iris, felt a failure for losing her son. Now that I was a mother myself, I knew my mother probably dug deep into the history of her child rearing to determine how it was her fault, what she'd done wrong.

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