The dream came back the day I received the letter, I hadn’t thought about it in decades but I suppose it was always there. A thing you’ve carried inside your heart for the better part of a lifetime doesn’t disappear so easily, it slides behind the everyday worries calling for your attention and waits—waits until your heart opens up to let it fly loose again. You never expect that something you’ve prayed for hundreds of thousands of times will come to you in a weathered gray envelope.
‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. McDermott,’ the letter began—addressing me as if I were a total stranger and not taking into account that my sweet Charles had gone to join Our Heavenly Father some five years ago. ‘I don’t know if you remember me,’ it said, ‘because my family left New Jersey when I was only two years old.’ The moment I saw those words, my heart began pounding so hard I could feel the whole of my body shaking; I grabbed onto the arm of Charlie’s old recliner and lowered myself into the seat. After all those years of waiting, I couldn’t spare time for a cry, so I continued reading through the waterfall of tears—‘Recently, I came across some information which leads me to believe that my birth mother, Elizabeth Caruthers, was your daughter. I understand my mother’s maiden name was McDermott, and that she passed away in 1986. Other than these few details, I know very little. If perchance we are related, I would certainly like to meet you and learn more about my mother.’
With the letter still clutched in my hand, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Thank you, Lord,” then I repeated myself another half-dozen times to make sure He got the message. After so many years, I’d given up praying for such a thing to happen—probably settled into believing it simply wasn’t part of the Lord’s plan for my life. But I suppose that once you’ve asked for a certain miracle, the Heavenly Father keeps your request on file and sends it when the time is right. He understood that I had things to do, things I might never have done had I not been so filled up with sadness, but I’ll get to that in time.
‘My name is Christian Caruthers,’ the letter went on, ‘I live in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, I have an older brother David and a sister Kimberly…’
He asked if I would be willing to see him—imagine that, willing to see him? For the past twenty years, I’ve prayed just such a thing would happen. Every child I’d pass by, I’d wonder if that was what he’d grown to look like. Time and time again I’d see some blue-eyed boy and swear by the heavens above it was him—“Excuse me,” I’d say to the child and then ask what his name might be. Willing to see him? Why, I’d go to my grave a happy woman if I could just tell my grandchildren how much I love them and hug them to my chest.
Without waiting for another minute to pass by, I took hold of a pen and answered the boy’s letter. ‘Elizabeth most certainly was my daughter,’ I wrote, ‘and I was right alongside of her the day she gave birth to you.’ I went on to say nothing in the entire world would give me greater pleasure than a visit from him, David and Kimberly. I wanted to say Kimmie, which was what her mother called her, but seeing as how Christian had referred to her as Kimberly I was hesitant to do anything that might change his mind about coming for a visit. I signed my name ‘Your Loving Grandma, Claire McDermott,’ wrote my telephone number big and bold at the bottom of the letter, folded it inside a bright yellow envelope and drove to the post office so it would be sure to go that very same day.
That afternoon I tried to busy myself with some housework that needed doing, but it was useless; my brain couldn’t focus on something as simple as folding laundry. I’d start off sorting a basket of linens and before I knew what happened, I’d find myself standing there with my eyes closed and pictures of those little babies running through my mind. Finally, I settled myself in Charlie’s recliner—which, although it’s an eyesore, has always been a place of particular comfort for me—then I leaned my head into the pillow and gave way to my memories. I can’t say when I drifted off to sleep or even if I was partly awake, but all of a sudden there it was, the dream that has lived inside of me for as long as my memory reaches back.
Everyone was gathered around, all the imaginary people—sisters and brothers of my youth, aunts and uncles, babies that never were—we crowded elbow to elbow around a dining room table, all talking at one time and no one minding. This was my imaginary family—my wonderful imaginary family, huge, noisy, happy, filled with the love of each other and tied together for life. Of course they’re not real, they never were. But they’re all part of my dream, the dream I’ve had since I was nine years old.
A full to overflowing family, that’s always been my fondest wish—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and more kids than a person can count—but instead I grew up an only child. All I had was Mama and Daddy, two loners who married up and had one baby, me. Dozens upon dozens of times I begged Mama for a baby sister or brother, but she’d push her nose up like she was smelling something bad and say, “Claire, I don’t know where you get these crazy notions, certainly not from your father or me, we’re practical people.”
After I came to realize that I was an only child and would remain an only child, I began creating an imaginary family. I pictured their faces, knew all their secrets and anticipated just what each of them would do in any given situation. First came a sister named Nora; she was sensitive, gentle-hearted and had the soft brown eyes of a puppy dog. Then it was a tall, lanky brother, Paul. After that there was a lengthy succession of cousins, aunts and uncles. Finally, Charlie happened along. Fortunately, he was not a figment of my imagination, he was real, flesh and blood—a person who loved me as I did him, a man who agreed that a dozen babies was just about the right number.
We were married in 1955 and one year later I gave birth to Elizabeth. She was just a tiny little thing when I began to hemorrhage and woke up in the hospital with Doctor Kerrigan explaining how Elizabeth was to be the only child I would ever have. But enough about me, she’s the one I should be telling about.
I know every mother claims their child is beautiful, but Elizabeth really was. Lying there in her crib she reminded me of a golden-haired angel, pink and dewy as a rosebud, with the tiniest, most perfect fingers I’d ever seen. Many a night I climbed out of my own bed and stood alongside her crib watching the tiny breaths cause her chest to rise and fall. “It’s not fair,” I told Charlie, “that she should be an only child.” I suggested that we consider adopting a few brothers and sisters for her, but somehow Charlie could never wrap his arms around that suggestion.
“You never know,” he’d answer, “it could be that Doctor Kerrigan is wrong. Let’s not rush into something. Give it time. Wait and see.”
So we waited, and Lord knows we tried, but we never did have another baby. Elizabeth had to travel the same road I’d gone down. Knowing how lonely such a thing can be, I tried to make things better for her by filling the house with bunches of playmates. When she was still so small she had to stand on a stool to reach the counter, we began having cookie-making parties and we’d invite all the neighborhood kids. After that it was the Brownie Troop, then Girl Scout meetings, pajama parties, and almost anything else I could think of. Looking back, I think those things probably did help, because Elizabeth’s face was never etched with that look of loneliness I had seen in my own.
Our little girl always had an ample share of friends, not because of what I’d done, but because she was chock full of laughter and kindness. And, thanks to the Good Lord, she was also blessed with eyes the color of a summer sky and a smile that made other people feel like smiling back. I’m not stretching things one bit when I tell you Elizabeth was one of the most popular girls in Westfield High and could have dated any boy in town. But wouldn’t you know the one she liked was Jeffrey Caruthers—a lanky string bean with the personality of my left foot. He latched onto her like money in the bank and everywhere she went, he went. Early in the morning, before we were fully awake, the telephone would start ringing and it would be him calling to ask if she wanted to go swimming or picnicking. They’d go off and spend the entire day together then an hour after he brought her home, the telephone would start ringing again because he had a desperate need to say good night. I tell you, that boy went way beyond making a pest of himself. It’s regrettable that Charlie and I didn’t do a thing to squelch it, but at the time we were pleased our little girl was having fun. We figured Jeffrey was a passing fancy and since Elizabeth was barely sixteen, the likelihood was she’d have a dozens of boyfriends before she decided to settle down. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened.
They continued to date all through high school—Elizabeth not the least bit interested in any other boy and Jeffrey attached to her like a Siamese twin. Four or five nights a week he’d eat dinner at our house and on those nights he stayed home, he’d telephone her every hour or so. “Doesn’t your family object to your not coming home for dinner?” I asked. “Not at all,” he answered, then he and Elizabeth exchanged one of those lovesick puppy dog looks they’d begun sharing. After a few years of that, Charlie and I began to realize that Jeffrey, who by now had decided to call himself JT, was probably destined to be our son-in-law.
On Elizabeth’s twentieth birthday they went out to dinner together; that night she came home wearing the happiest smile I’ve ever seen and a two-karat diamond ring. That was that—they were engaged and there was no looking back. Every time Elizabeth glanced at that ring on her finger, she’d start talking about what a wonderful husband Jeffrey was going to be. “A wonderful husband,” she’d sigh, “and a wonderful father.”
At the time I was inclined to agree, figuring that a man had to be crazy in love to spend his last dime on such an engagement ring. And spend his last dime Jeffrey did, without one bit of thought as to what they were going to live on—that’s when I should have realized he considered money the measurement of a person’s worth. For someone with such an appetite for the gathering of material possessions, it’s odd that he turned out to be a poor businessman. Money—that’s partly to blame for what eventually happened.
When Elizabeth married Jeffrey T. Caruthers, who now answered only to JT, I honestly believed they’d live happily ever after. I had no reason to think otherwise, she was head-over-heels in love with him and he was just as crazy about her. I’ve never seen anyone act more devoted than that boy. He was always touching Elizabeth, wrapping his arm around her shoulder or twining his fingers through hers. And he’d tell anyone who’d listen how beautiful and smart she was. A man who does things like that is simply not the sort you have cause to doubt.
Charlie, given his masculine point-of-view felt otherwise—he had misgivings about a lad who seldom looked a person square in the eye and labeled himself with initials instead of using his Christian name. “You can’t do a thing about it,” I told Charlie. “Elizabeth loves that boy just as much as he loves her.”
Of course, he grumbled and groused a bit, but I think it had more to do with his losing a daughter than about Jeffrey himself. Once Charlie learned to live with the thought, he treated JT just as he would a son.
Three nights before the wedding, when we were all at their rehearsal dinner, Elizabeth announced, “JT and I are planning to have nine kids,” then she gave Jeffrey a beaming smile and said, “Right, JT?”
When he gave a nod of agreement, I could almost feel the happiness bursting out of me—grandchildren, now what could be sweeter! “See, you were wrong about the boy,” I whispered into Charlie’s ear, then started settling into my new role—Grandma. Nine kids—those words were like the song of angels in my ear, angels promising I’d soon be blessed with the big family I’d always dreamed of.
I figured they planned to start a family right away, but month after month went by and there was no further mention of babies. I bit down on my tongue to keep from prying into issues that were private between a wife and her husband, but Elizabeth was my daughter and I couldn’t help but worry. Then eighteen months after the wedding, on an ordinary Tuesday evening when they’d come for a meatloaf dinner, I noticed something different about Liz—she was bubbly as a glass of champagne. After dinner she exploded with the news that they were expecting their first child. “Isn’t it wonderful, Mama?” she said rubbing little circles around her still flat tummy.
I had dozens of questions; was she feeling alright? Any morning sickness? When was the baby due? Were they hoping for a boy or girl? “Boy or girl,” she laughed, “why, I’m hoping for twins!”
I expected at least a chuckle from Jeffrey, but he was busy watching an NBC newscaster tell about how some stock had gone up thirty-nine points in a single day.
“I knew I should have bought that,” he grumbled, “See Liz, I told you we ought to be putting our money where there’s growth potential!”
“There’s plenty of growth potential right here,” she answered, still rubbing those little circles around her stomach.
After that Elizabeth and I slipped off to the kitchen and sat with a hot cup of tea. “I’ve already started knitting a sweater for the baby,” she confided. “It’s white, with yellow edging. You know…good for a boy or girl.”
It’s been some twenty-seven years, but I remember that evening as if it took place yesterday. We talked for hours, talked about little things, such as how she’d decorate the nursery and what clothes a newborn baby might need. She was busy writing a list when she stopped and looked up, “You know Mom,” she sighed, “I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want this baby. JT’s not much on prayers, but every single night I pray for this precious baby, that he or she will be healthy and have lots of brothers and sisters.” She hesitated a moment then said, “I also pray that I’ll be a good mom, the sort of mom you were.”
It’s funny how hearing your child say something like that can cause a lump to rise up in your throat, a lump so huge you can barely breathe. Elizabeth must have noticed because she reached over and wiped a tear from my eye, then we both started grinning like we had cheeks full of cherries. There are moments in life when you feel your cup is full to overflowing—that was just such a moment and it’s stayed in my heart all these years. Elizabeth didn’t mention the fertility doctor that night but I don’t suppose there was any reason for her to do so.
David was born six months later and two years after that Elizabeth gave birth to a beautiful little girl who she named Kimberly. I loved both of those babies as if they were my own and I could barely wait from one day until the next to do some babysitting. “If you’ve got errands to do,” I’d say, “I’ll be happy to take the children.”
“I know, Mom,” Elizabeth would answer laughingly, “I know.”
Back then, when life seemed to be about as good as it could possibly get, I never imagined the sadness that would take hold of our lives.
Neither did Elizabeth.