Despite Oliver’s best intentions to put Libby in a state of nirvana with hourly facials and pedicures, Libby has decided that the way to mental peace is via a lengthy shopping session in a baby equipment store.
“This is the closest I’ll ever get to shopping for a grandchild, and I’m going to make the most of it.” Maggie manoeuvred our shopping trolley into an aisle stacked with Pampers. “You use the disposable type, I suppose? Everyone seems to now, despite all the fuss they make about saving the environment.”
“I’ll save the environment when the twins are out of nappies, and not a minute before.” I waddled to the section where the smallest sizes were. “How many boxes, do you reckon?”
“Not too many.” Maggie hefted a jumbo-sized box into the trolley. “Babies grow fast. One minute they’re spitting up milk, and the next they’re off to college. And in some cases, that’s the last you see of them.”
I picked up a multi-pack of baby wipes from the shelf, and said nothing. This, I knew, was a reference to Maggie’s daughter, Sara, who left America in her late teens and never came back apart from one unannounced visit a few years ago, for a school reunion. Maggie hasn’t said as much, but she must have been pretty hurt that when her daughter finally elected to return to her hometown, it was to see her old friends rather than her mother.
“I’m never going to be a grandmother now,” Maggie said again. “Not that I can blame Sara for that, of course. I was hardly a good example of motherhood. Barely in my twenties when she was born, and Derek and I divorced before she finished kindergarten…although I’m sure that’s not the only issue. The Max affair has a lot to answer for.”
I raised my eyebrows, willing her to say more, but she turned away and seemed very interested in a rack of burp cloths.
Max Gianni, I assumed she meant: the mysterious dead brother of Frankie, and brother-in-law of Anna Gianni. As far as I could piece together, Max once had something going with Maggie’s daughter, and it hadn’t ended prettily. In my eight months in Woodhaven, I’d heard a lot of half-finished conversations on this subject, all with tantalising missing endings, and I’d have liked to ask Maggie more, except that it was obviously something she didn’t like to talk about much.
I wondered what my own life would be like when I was Maggie’s age, when my children were grown up.
Would I be bitter at the years I’d lavished on their upbringing, only to have them live across oceans, as far away from me as they could? Or would I consider it a job well done, that my children were independent and free of me? A job rather too well done, in fact?
And I wondered what they would say about me in years to come — how would Jack look back on his childhood, the twins on theirs?
Would they view me with affectionate pride, or with contempt and disdain? Would I visit them in my twilight years, knowing they’d be glad to see me return home, when all I wanted was to hold on to them forever?
I thought of Sandra, of how thankful I’d been to see her return to England. I thought of my own mother, whom I’d not seen for eight months, but didn’t really miss.
I thought of how I would feel if my own children viewed me the same way.
And, as Maggie hinted just now, are the sins of the parents gifted upon the children, so that, no matter how hard you try, your offspring make the same mistakes as you did? Or, in recognising your failures, are they forced to break away, severing an invisible umbilical cord by putting thousands of miles between child and parent — and even then, does anything really change?
In other words — would Oliver and I become our parents?
Damn these pregnancy hormones.
“Libby?” Maggie was looking at me with concern. “Are you feeling all right? Do you need to sit down?”
I collected my thoughts and smiled quickly at her. “I’m fine. Just thinking about—”
My sentence was cut short by a pigtailed girl around Jack’s age, who, unlike Jack, was not securely strapped into the child seat of a shopping trolley, and appeared to be unaccompanied by any adult, responsible or otherwise. The child thundered past us, unbalancing me enough to make me throw out my hand to steady myself, and she headed straight for the automatic exit doors. Normally those doors need something at least three times heavier than a truculent three-year-old to make them open; today, however, Murphy’s Law dictated that they be in a particularly sensitive mood. The little girl rushed straight through them towards the busy parking lot, and I watched in slow-motion horror as a huge black SUV came weaving through the parking lot, along the lane that led past the baby shop. I could see its driver clearly: a woman chatting animatedly, obliviously, on a cell phone.
I turned to Maggie, to squeak at her that somebody must do something, but Maggie was no longer there.
Considering Maggie must be in her mid-sixties, she can move fast. Faster than I can at the moment, anyway. She was already at the store’s exit.
She dashed through the automatic doors and, just as the child was about to step into the path of the black SUV, grabbed the back of the child’s pink jacket and pulled her back. Then Maggie took her by the hand and led her back into the store.
“Where’s your mommy?” I heard her ask. The girl shrugged. “Well, what’s your name?”
The girl said something. Maggie nodded, and together they walked to the back of the store, towards the sign that said “Customer Service”.
Soon, a disembodied voice on the loudspeaker informed us that there was a lost child in custody and that the parents should think about collecting her before she was sold or returned to the warehouse, or words to that effect.
Ten minutes later, Maggie returned to me and Jack, alone.
“That’s your good deed done for the day,” I said, patting her on the shoulder.
Maggie shook her head, and carried on shaking it, as if bewildered.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Did the parents not come for the little girl?”
“It wasn’t a little girl.”
“But—” You know, I don’t want to stereotype, but when a child is wearing a pink jacket and ribboned pigtails, you kind of assume certain things.
“The mother had a baby, too. Couldn’t have been more than two weeks old, and it’s tough trying to keep hold of one child, never mind look after a baby as well, so I can’t blame her for the girl — or boy — running away like that. Anyway, the baby was all dressed in green and yellow, and I asked the mother if it was a boy or a girl, and do you know what she said?”
“She said, ‘We haven’t decided yet.’ I kid you not. ‘We’re letting our child make its own mind up about its gender.” Maggie shook her head again. “Do you want to know the worst part of it?”
“This woman was English. I always think of people from the old country being very down to earth and no nonsense, and in five minutes, this woman shattered my illusions.”
A nasty suspicion formed in my mind.
“This woman,” I said. “Was she wearing diamond earrings, by any chance? Big diamonds?”
“And did the child tell you her or his name?”
“He did, but of course, I got it wrong. I thought he said his name was Dominique. Shame. It’s a pretty name, for a girl.”
Poor Dominic, I thought.
Still, it’s an ill wind.
I suddenly feel much more confident about my own parenting abilities.
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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigit