A miracle occurs when your step-children have babies. You, biologically childless, suddenly become a grandmother, and everybody knows there’s no such thing as a step-grandmother. No—you’re Nonna, and toddler Rowan is buckled in the backseat of your car as you drive her to a doctor’s appointment on a day her mom got stuck at work.
You stopped for doughnuts on the way, because grandmothers are unrestrained in buying their little ones’ love. Now Rowan is open-mouthed chewing and gibbering her toddler gibberish, chocolate frosting painted in swirls from her dimpled knees up to her strawberry-blonde curls. You reckon she’s looking like her Pict ancestors: wild-eyed and ready for battle. Your car windows are chocolate-clad too, and so, mysteriously, is the back of your head. You decipher little of the sugar-fueled slurry of vowels dribbling from Rowan’s mouth, but content yourself that her noises are unmistakably happy.
Your mom friends (who sometimes develop mystical insight when gestating) seem to believe they understand their toddlers’ jabber because of months spent communing in utero. As if mother and fetus once dialogued via Morse code: the baby kicked, the mom cooed back, a psychic link was forged. Well, you’ve never been pregnant, so how would you know?
When it comes to decoding Rowan’s prattle, though, you suspect there’s something to be said for hours logged-in listening. You drive past a bridge and Rowan’s blabber is whimsical oohing and aahing at the new-minted world. Nonna, I hear an owl, she insists, and you praise her acuity though you know her midday owl is fake. Finishing her doughnut, she demands, Nonna, you have cookies, because in fact you always do. She shouts Go trees! GO! and points frosted fingers at a park jogging past her window because you told her the trees were running a backwards race. She believes in you so completely, you almost trust your fiction too.
You took time off work for Rowan’s appointment, as you’ve done before for your step-kids from both your first and second marriage. For decades, you paralleled their moms, operating always with a slimmer margin for error. You spent three a.m. hours singing lullabies when they had nightmares, then rose shortly after to bring them to school. You learned to mask healthy foods, chopping carrots into festive confetti, making mushrooms invisible to the naked eye. You added your income to child support worksheets and sent your earnings to your spouse’s ex-wife each week. Your mom told you, after all, that the word “mother” isn’t just a noun—it’s a verb. You are what you do.
Sometimes though, your mom friends say things like, you’re sort of a mother. They mean it encouragingly: a badge of recognition from real parents. They think that’s what the prefix indicates: you’re like a mom, but a step away. They think stepmothers feel steplove for the children they raise, a love that fades in time if your marriage breaks and motherness is stripped away. They’re wrong: your heart never closes the hole that a child makes. Yet here you are again, with an ever-expanding tree of sort offamily: each new branch, potential heartbreak. You stand in the midst of your kids and grandkids, thumbing leaves, bending twigs, pinching yourself to see: Is this real? Am I fake? Your mom friends, they don’t understand—cannot fathom the risk that stepmothers take.
Red light. You brake and call back to Rowan, noting that the trees have stopped jogging and a stately elm has won the race. She is distracted, though. Her gibber, always a slop of real and imagined words, has become urgent. You look up in the rearview and see her eyes wide in the stoplight’s glow. Enraptured. She’s extending a hand toward you, something wonderful (probably) balances on the tip of her index finger. A gloopy brown ball. The remains, you suspect, of her doughnut’s chocolate frosting. She wants to share; you are so gratified you understand her gesture, if not her words, and feel a parental swell of pride. You played some small part in shaping her mind—a mind only she can truly understand or own. The light turns green. Eyes on the road, you reach back toward her. Fingertips touching little fingertips.
Rowan’s burble—you’re afraid every real mom would have understood—suddenly arranges itself into meaning when you grasp that lumpy, viscous ball between your fingers. O what is real? Undoubtedly that sulfur stench now flooding from the backseat of your car, and Rowan’s squeals of excitement, Nonna! Nonna! There’s poop in there! In my butt!
You’ve done this before, too: the explosive diaper change. Globs of chocolate and feces are smeared over Rowan’s hands, her arms, the car seat. Your mind, races: How did she reach your headrest? Why is there no AAA for this? Dear God, what is in your hair?
Emergency lanes were made for parents. You pull over on the shoulder and, without gloves or a ventilator, begin the painstaking process of decontamination. Meantime, Rowan is beaming and babbling from the passenger seat, like she just discovered the origin of playdough. You know someday your bond with her could make a mess like this. She could a tear a hole in your heart the size of her fist. Still, here you are; a stomach-churning love swells inside your ribs. If this isn’t mothering, you wonder what is?
R.S. Wynn’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in PULP Literature, Pithead Chapel, Guesthouse, The Drum, Southword, and elsewhere. She lives in an antique farmhouse in Maine, which she shares with her family and the perfect number of dogs (five, in case you were wondering). She earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.