From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

Alliana’s Mother

My husband and I were lying in bed when we heard our daughter, Alliana, call out, “Mommy, Mommy!” I bolted upright and held my breath for a second before running in to comfort her. Was she calling out for me or for Lisa? It was the first time Alliana called me Mommy.

One of Martin’s selling points when friends set us up on a blind date was that he was a widower with a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. If the date worked out, the package deal would come with a wonderful husband and the daughter I had always dreamed of. (I’d been married before and had been unable to conceive.)

Martin and I had been dating for about a month when the three of us spent our first day together. At one point, Alliana scrunched her eyes and snarled at me. “Let’s play Black Beauty,” she said, giggling and climbing on her father. She bucked like a bronco and hit me smack in the face with her legs. “Oh, sorry,” she said, referring to the not-unintentional kick and barely suppressing a cackle.

Later that hot August day, we went canoeing down the Delaware River. In the midafternoon, Martin snapped the photo he now carries in his wallet: We’re picnicking on a boulder we’ve dubbed Lunch Rock. Alliana, in her Pocahontas bathing suit, is smiling broadly as she sits in the crook of my arm. I am radiant.

We were married—all three of us—five months later.

People always want to know if it was hard to step in and love someone else’s child. Let me tell you what was hard: It was hard to leave my single-girl loft in Manhattan and what I thought of as my cool single-girl life. It was hard to live in Martin and Lisa’s house, filled with all of Martin and Lisa’s things, until we found a home of our own. And it was hard to get used to being an “instant family.”

There was a honeymoon, but no honeymoon period. There was no nine-month gestation during which I picked out baby clothes, decorated a nursery and made the transition with Martin from couplehood to parenthood. One day Martin and I were chasing each other around my loft, giddy with relief that we’d found each other. Virtually the next we were struggling to get a toddler to eat, rather than sculpt, her mashed potatoes and peas.

But was it hard to love Alliana? I’d wanted her for so long that I’m convinced it wouldn’t have been hard to love her even if she hadn’t had impish half-moon eyes that lit up when she laughed. Even if she hadn’t been funny, adaptive and compassionate. Even if she hadn’t decided to trust me and jump into this mommy-daughter thing with both feet and her whole heart from the get-go.

Aside from that one kick in the head, Alliana has challenged my right to mommy her only once. The first time I reprimanded Alliana—for not putting away her toys, I think—she struck back instinctively: “You’re not my real mommy!” she wailed.

“Yes, I am,” I calmly explained. “I’m not your first mommy, but I’m a very real mommy. And I’m yours.” As I reassured her, she collapsed, crying, into my arms.

Alliana hasn’t forgotten her mother. We talk about Lisa, and there are pictures of her in Alliana’s room. I find it impossible to look at those pictures without sadness for all that Lisa lost—and without feeling like an intruder.

It’s not as if I pushed Lisa out of the picture and stepped in to take her place. A horrible thing happened: Lisa died suddenly of a heart attack. And, as Martin assures me, “I came looking for you so Alliana and I could put our lives back together.”

Alliana needed a mommy. Despite close, loving relationships with her grandparents and with a father who nursed her through all-night earaches, read her two stories and played his guitar for her every evening, and all-around idolized her, Alliana longed for a mommy: a live mommy who could go on class trips, kiss her playground bruises, and explain the mysteries of mascara and moisturizer to her. “I didn’t think I’d ever have one again,” she told me last Mother’s Day, showering me with two homemade cards, a marigold she’d planted herself and a hand-painted picture frame.

“I didn’t think I’d ever have a daughter,” I said as we covered each other with a million kisses.

I tell Martin—when he asks—that I don’t mind having missed Alliana’s baby years. It is enough to have her now. But I look at her baby pictures with longing. I wasn’t there to see her first step, and I can’t talk with other moms about what Alliana went through in her teething days. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see her the moment she was born all pink and smooth, with a patch of black hair sticking straight up from her perfectly round head.

Now, however, I know nearly everything there is to know about Alliana. She likes grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, and macaroni and cheese. Will sit for hours making up stories about her Beanie Babies. She has recently given up bright-green glitter nail polish for a more subdued shade of pastel blue.

And if all goes right, I will be around to hear Alliana tell me about her first kiss, to see her accept her college diploma and to stand next to Martin when Alliana gives birth to our first grandchild.

When I think of the future, and of the inevitable time when Alliana’s hormones hit and we are catapulted into the terrible teens, I fear that Alliana will lash out at me by going for the jugular: “My real mom wouldn’t do that!” I hope I’ll have the grace and wisdom to know she doesn’t mean to hurt me. I hope she will know how much I’ve always loved her.

When Alliana was four, she and Martin celebrated their first Hanukkah with me. One night, sitting at the table and drawing, with the candles of the menorah glowing, Alliana reached across the table for a crayon. Luckily, I was sitting next to her, and the few strands of her hair that grazed the flames were barely singed as I quickly pressed them between my fingers. But Alliana refers to the event as the Great Hanukkah Fire, and she still talks about how I saved her life.

Somehow, Alliana understands that she saved my life, too. “You were just plain old Lynn living all by yourself,” she said one day, out of the blue. “Just waiting for me and Daddy to come along.”

And more than she can ever know, Alliana is right.

Lynn Schnurnberger

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