In which Emma prepares to get her driver’s license
“So you know my birthday is coming up. On the fourteenth. In ten days. On Valentine’s Day.”
“What? Your birthday? Are you kidding me?”
“Ha ha, Morag. I have done my practice hours. As soon as I turn sixteen, I can get my driver’s license!”
Claire’s heart sank. There was no way her baby was now old enough to drive, but as she looked at her, and watched her, and listened to her talk with her friends and with Gladys, she knew that however rightly or wrongly she had raised her, Emma had turned into a great young woman who was, in fact, almost old enough to drive.
“Okay, then. If you get the necessary paperwork from school, I will get your birth certificate out of the safe deposit box. We’ll do that sometime after the fourteenth. But what do you want to do for your birthday?”
They talked back and forth for a while as Emma made scones and Claire made coffee and Rex made whining noises, hoping against hope that Emma might drop a morsel of dough. It was not Rex’s lucky day. In the end they decided that Claire would take Emma and Marsala to a very well reviewed new restaurant in the northwest part of the city.
“You sure you don’t want a slumber party, cake, ice cream, the works?”
“Mom, I’m not turning twelve. Jeez. No, dinner with you and Mar at Expedition is perfect. But if that doesn’t feel like enough, you could always get me a car….”
“How about I pay to add you to my car insurance.”
“Okay. What-ever.” Emma smiled at her mom, and put the scones in.
Rex, ever the optimistic one, waited by the oven.
That afternoon Claire stopped by the bank to get Emma’s birth certificate. She looked at everything she had put there – her grandmother’s engagement ring that her dad gave her when Emma was born, to keep for Emma till the right time; her own birth certificate and passport, pink slip for the car, papers proving she was divorced from Emma’s dad. Visiting the safe deposit box is like doing the Time Warp, Claire thought. So familiar and so discombobulating. Where was Tim Curry when you really need him?
Claire took a good long look at the birth certificate, and as memories flooded back, she thought she might faint.
Mother: Morag Claire Grayson
Father: Harris Shelton Wood
Daughter: Emma Grayson Wood
Date of Birth: February 14, 1995, 7:35am
Place of Birth: St. Luke’s Hospital, Chicago, Illinois
Seeing his name in print brought back all the pain and grief Claire lived through all those years ago. She had tried to shield Emma from that grief. The time had come to stop the lie.
“So did you get my birth certificate?”
“Can I see it?”
“Let’s wait till after dinner, just so we don’t spill on it. We’re just about ready. Jar Soup tonight.”
“Okay. I guess I really don’t need it till we go to the DMV. But I thought it’d be cool to see it.”
“Why don’t you take Rex around the block and then we can eat.”
Emma was chatty that night. She talked about the substitute they had in algebra, and the fight between twin sisters whose parents had named them, inexplicably, Layla and Lila. She talked about how excited she and Marsala were to try Expedition, and what did Claire think they should wear, because it would be fun to get dressed up but nobody ever really got dressed up any more but it was her sixteenth birthday and Valentine’s Day so was Claire able to get a reservation and she definitely would not wear red because everybody wore red on Valentine’s Day and that was so cliché.
“Hey, Mom, I’ll do the dishes and we can get all my driver’s license stuff together.”
While Emma washed up, Claire prayed. Help me. Forgive my lie. Help Emma.
“Here you go, sweetie.”
Emma opened the faded envelope and stared at the piece of paper. She stared, and then her brow furrowed, and then her eyes got teary . She turned to her mother.
“Mom? Tell me about Dad. You never really talk about him.”
And in a breath’s time, the house of cards Claire had built around Emma, trying to protect her from the truth and from the hurt, collapsed, and she was left with nothing but a damned piece of paper and guilt etched on her face.
“Emma, I need to have a really serious talk with you, and all I ask is that you hear me out.”
“Mom, what is going on?”
“Honey, please just sit down and let me talk.”
Emma did sit down, and as she did the look on her face took Claire back to her dream: sad and lost Emma, ignored, a pile of inedible cookies in front of her.
Claire took a deep breath and began.
“Your dad, Harris Shelton Wood, or Harry, as everybody called him, really was a charming guy. He really was the life of the party. Every woman immediately went to him like a moth to the flame, so when his attentions turned to me, I was flabbergasted and happy.
“We met after college when I was living in Chicago and working at Field’s. There was a group of us that would hang out together on the weekends, and we got to know each other, and eventually started dating. Before long we were pretty serious.
“During that year I had applied to go to seminary and got accepted at a few, and one of them was in Chicago. Harry never did church; he never stopped me from going but he never encouraged me to, either. But when I needed to make a decision about where to go, we had to decide what was going to happen to us. If we thought we would get married, I would go to the University of Chicago Div school. If we thought we wouldn’t get married, I would go to Princeton, which had offered me a full scholarship.
“Looking back, I guess I forced Harry’s hand. At the end of our conversation, he got down on one knee and proposed. I laughed and cried and said yes. I was the luckiest girl in Chicago, to have landed a guy like Harry.
“So I started my M.Div. and he kept working and thankfully we did not have to live in student housing. We had planned to wait till I was done to start a family, but things didn’t turn out that way. I got pregnant with you. When I found out I was terrified and over the moon.
“Your dad was mostly lukewarm. I had finished four quarters of my classwork, and then on Valentine’s Day, you were born. I took a leave of absence and stayed home in our little studio with my precious newborn girl.
“Your dad was there when you were born and he was the first one to hold you. He was great at first about changing diapers and feeding you if I pumped a bottle. He’d bundle you up and put you in the baby carrier and take you for long walks so I could get a nap.
“And then that summer he went on a business trip and never came back. In August I got a note from him in the mail, postmarked in Denver. It basically said that I was great and you were great but being married to a minister and being the father of a girl really wasn’t the way he saw his life. He left us both.
“It was the worst day of my life.”
Emma stared at her mother, tears rolling down her face.
“He didn’t want me?”
Claire started to cry. “Oh, honey, that’s why I didn’t tell you. That bastard left us. He left you and me, two of the most fantastic women in the history of the world. He didn’t deserve us, Em. Trust me when I tell you we are so much better off without him.”
“I think I need to be alone for a while.”
“Okay, honey. I am so sorry about this. I really am.”
Claire heard Emma go up to her room, and Claire went to her own. Rex, good dog that he was, went up with Emma. Claire pretended to check her email, and then pretended to watch tv, and then pretended to read, but all she really did was think. Think about Harry. Think about that day. Think about Emma. Think about her own lies. Think about the Saints. Think about Martha. Think about what the hell she was going to do. At eleven she went upstairs to check on Emma.
The room was empty, except for a confused looking Rex, woken up suddenly from his own dream.