Love and Water

Love and Water

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Love and Water

Mama died just days before my eleventh birthday, and my destiny careened dramatically from snuggly to loose-ended. Overnight, my childhood vanished. In the coming months, Dad met Dot at work and began seeing her regularly. A year later, they married.

So much. So quickly. Another woman moving into our house stirred anew my still-fresh memories of Mama. At the same time, Dot inherited a brood of three children, ages five, eight and eleven.

When alone, I listened to an old recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and I was convinced my mama sang those words to me from the other side. Yet in moments of grief I wondered, How can she walk with me now? My child’s heart yearned for a mother’s touch.

“Do you want the kids to call you Mama?” Dad asked Dot one day. Something in me wanted her to say “yes.”

Dot looked troubled for long moments, then said, “No. That wouldn’t be right.”

The no felt like a physical blow. Blood’s thicker’n water, came my grandma’s favorite litany. I’d not, until that very moment, grasped its meaning. My stepmother’s answer seemed proof that blood was thicker, that I was merely Daddy’s “baggage”—proof that, to her—despite the fact that she introduced me as “my daughter”—I was biologically not.

I was of the water. So I distanced myself.

My sulky aloofness hid a deep, deep need for acceptance. Yet no matter how churlish I became, Dot never hurt me with harsh words. Ours was, in those trying days, a quiet, bewildered quest for harmony.

After all, we were stuck with each other. She had no more choice than I.

I visited Mama’s grave every chance I got to talk things over with her. I never carried flowers because fresh arrangements always nestled lovingly against the headstone, put there, no doubt, by Daddy.

Then, in my fourteenth year, I came in from school one day and saw my newborn baby brother, Michael. I hovered over the bassinet, gently stroking the velvety skin as tiny fingers grasped mine and drew them to the little mouth. I dissolved into pure, maternal mush. Dot, still in her hospital housecoat, stood beside me.

In that moment, our gazes locked in wonder. “Can I hold him?”

She lifted and placed him in my arms.

In a heartbeat, that tiny bundle snapped us together.

“Like your new coat?” Dot asked that Christmas as I pulled the beautiful pimento-red topper from the gift package and tried it over my new wool sweater and skirt.

In a few short months, Dot had become my best friend.

At Grandma’s house one Sunday, I overheard Dot tell my Aunt Annie Mary, “I told James I didn’t think it was right to force the kids to call me Mama. Irene will always be Mama to them. That’s only right.” So that’s why she’d said “no.”

Or was it? Blood’s thicker’n water. Was Grandma right? Was that always true in matters pertaining to familial loyalty? I shrugged uneasily, telling myself that it didn’t matter anyway.

The following years, Dot embraced my husband Lee as “son,” she soothed me through three childbirths, and afterward spent full weeks with me, caring and seeing to my family’s needs. Intermittent with these events, she birthed three of her own, giving me two brothers and a sister. How special our children felt, growing up together, sharing unforgettable holidays like siblings.

In 1974, Lee and I lived two hundred miles away when a tragic accident claimed our eleven-year-old Angie. By nightfall, Dot was there, holding me. She was utterly heartbroken.

I moved bleakly through the funeral’s aftermath, secretly wanting to die. Every Friday evening, I dully watched Dot’s little VW pull into my driveway. “Daddy can’t come. He has to work,” she said. After leaving work, she drove four hours nonstop to be with me each weekend, a trek that continued for three long months.

During those visits, she walked with me to the cemetery, held my hand and wept with me. If I didn’t feel like talking, she was quiet. If I talked, she listened. She was so there that, when I despaired, she single-handedly shouldered my anguish.

Soon, I waited at the door on Fridays. Slowly, life seeped into me again.

In 1992, Dad’s sudden auto accident death yanked the earth from beneath me, and I lapsed into shock, inconsolable. My first reaction was that I needed Dot—my family.

Then, for the first time since adolescence, a cold, irrational fear blasted me with the force of TNT. Dad, my genetic link, gone. I’d grown so secure with the Daddy and Dot alliance through the years that I’d simply taken family solidarity for granted. Now with Dad’s abrupt departure, the chasm he left loomed murky and frightening.

Had Dad, I wondered, been the glue? Did glue equate genetic, after all?

Terrifying thoughts spiraled through my mind as Lee drove me to join relatives. Will I lose my family? The peril of that jolted me to the core.

Blood’s thicker’n water. If Grandma felt that way, couldn’t Dot feel that way, too, just a little bit? The small child inside my adult body wailed and howled forlornly. It was in this frame of mind that I entered Dot’s house after the accident.

Dot’s house. Not Dad’s and Dot’s house anymore.

Will Daddy’s void change her? She loved me, yes, but suddenly I felt keenly DNA-stripped, the stepchild of folklore. A sea of familiar faces filled the den. Yet, standing in the midst of them all, I felt utterly alone.

“Susie!” Dot’s voice rang out, and through a blur I watched her sail like a porpoise to me. “I’m so sorry about Daddy, honey,” she murmured and gathered me into her arms.

Terror scattered like startled ravens.

What she said next took my breath. She looked me in the eye and said gently, “He’s with your Mama now.”

I snuffled and gazed into her kind face. “He always put flowers on Mama’s grave. . . .”

She looked puzzled, then smiled sadly. “No, honey, he didn’t put the flowers on her grave.”

“Then who . . . ?”

She looked uncomfortable for long moments. Then she leveled her gaze with mine. “I did.”

“You?” I asked, astonished. “All those years?” She nodded, then wrapped me in her arms again.

Truth smacked me broadside. Blood is part water. Grandma just didn’t get it.

With love blending them, you can’t tell one from the other.

I asked Dot recently, “Isn’t it time I started calling you Mom?”

She smiled and blushed. Then I thought I saw tears spring into her eyes.

“Know what I think?” I said, putting my arms around her. “I think Mama’s looking down at us from heaven, rejoicing that you’ve taken such good care of us, doing all the things she’d have done if she’d been here. I think she’s saying, ‘Go ahead, Susie, call her Mom.’”

I hesitated, suddenly uncertain. “Is that okay?”

In a choked voice, she replied, “I would consider it an honor.”

Mama’s song to me was true: I do not walk alone.

Mom walks with me.

Emily Sue Harvey

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