I wanted a fire that cold morning after my 32-year old stepdaughter Kathryn had her baby. The snow came to my knees as I made new tracks across our backyard of white to the woodshed. My husband, Michael, had made the same trip the evening before. Yet I did not benefit from the deep indentations of his footprints, focused as I was on the laughter and joy in my belly.
Fragments of ice slipped around the top of my socks above my boots. I picked three heavy oak logs from the rack and dropped them into my red canvas carrier. Returning to the backdoor with my awkward load I mixed steps: a few in Michael's dents; a few in my own; a few brand new. I hummed along: zip-pid-dee-do-dah!
Eventually the baby would be named Whitney but that morning I was calling her, Little Flake. She had arrived in a snowstorm and her parents didn't name her right away. I wasn't sure how they were leaning. Besides the parents, Kathryn and Alex, a portion of Kathryn's family representing three generations arrived at the hospital for the birth:
Edward, her 93 year old grandfather; Anne, her mother; Michael with Nicholas, our eleven year old son, and me.
We were all rooting for certain names and booing others. Yet we tripped over ourselves trying to respect the parents' right to name their own baby while hints of favorites and anathemas leaked out. I liked Grace and Julia; Kathryn's Mom was fond of Cassandra; and then there were the Zoë, Whitney and Chelsea fans. I hated Cassandra but was keeping quiet about it. Twenty years of living within two miles of my husband's former wife and the mother of my stepchildren had taught me a few things. If I was going to take a strong position I wanted it to be about something important. My opinion about our shared grandchild's name did not qualify. Who cared really, what the name was. It would be her name and she had reserved a place in our lives long before she appeared. Little Flake.
The night of the birth Kathryn and Alex, along with Anne, were in the delivery room. I took a place in the waiting room across the hall with the others. We chatted and waited while the television hanging from a rack on the wall blurted news about the snow paralyzing the D.C. Suburbs.
Eavesdroppers on the birth, we sat within earshot of the first “wah.” “Seven pounds, fourteen ounces,” we heard followed by free laughter. Already Little Flake was charming parents and grandmother with her accomplishments. Our laughter followed theirs like bands playing alternate sections of the same hymn on Easter morning. Halleluiah!
We watched nurses and the doctor come in and out of the delivery room, fetching blankets and supplies. Happiness floated around, yet suddenly I felt out of place. After so many years participating in this family I expected to feel comfortable. But there it was, a silly little feeling of my intruding. Wearying. Yet, I didn't want to be anywhere else. Little Flake's cry cracked my reserve. I thought of a naked bird. I'd go worming myself to keep her alive; eat grubs if required. But I was not her biological grandmother and I was feeling out of place. Still I had a claim to the baby. I even had a name: Nana.
Our considerate children, perhaps anticipating confused feelings before I did, had asked each of us to choose a name for ourselves. There were no disputes. Anne would be Grandma; Alex's mother, Baba. I chose Nana with confidence. But that was weeks before when I was not feeling illegitimate. But now I was a bootlegged Nana in a family with bloodlines: Michael's Dad to Michael; Michael and Anne to Kathryn; Kathryn and Alex to Little Flake. An ordered progression, a widening circle of life.
While these pesky thoughts pulsed in my head, Anne pushed the delivery room door open and walked across the hall to us. Happy faced, she reached to hug Michael, “Congratulations, Grandpop!”
Then she hugged Edward, looking straight into his wrinkly face shiny with a grin, “Congratulations, Great Grandpop!”
Next Anne leaned over to take my son Nicholas into her arms announcing over the top of his head of cropped hair, “Congratulations, Uncle Nick!”
Lastly she turned halfway to me, “Congratulations to you, whoever you are.” No hug. Just a chuckle, inconspicuous perhaps to everyone but me.
The room was filled with the voices of we who had waited: “Thank you's,” and “Congratulations yourself, Grandma's.” Even I mouthed these words, not wanting to spoil the moment. But as I watched from my chair I caught the corner of Anne's brown eyes as they moved elsewhere. The moment for what might have been a reassuring hug passed. She would not be christening me, “Nana.”
This awkwardness was unusual for us. I thought fast to tame my hurt and confusion. Anne is a friend with whom I have shared scary evenings fretting about teenage driving, health fears, and more than a few commencements. We care about each other. Still I have always known there are unspoken limits to friendship between two wives of the same man. Through the years we have managed to be generous with one another. She has shared her children with me for twenty years and these years have taught me to understand, and not take offense quickly when our ways differ. I have my own son, and know my intimacy with her children comes with a tug. Her granddaughter's birth is a milestone and Anne has been confronted with an uncomfortable truth: she must share this too.
I joined the others on a short trip to the delivery room to meet Little Flake. In her raised hospital bed Kathryn was radiant, the delivery drugs countering pain while euphoria about the baby's arrival kept her awake. She asked if anyone wanted to hold the baby while Alex focused a digital camera, ready to catch their daughter in a frame with each family member. I looked to Anne. She shook her head no. This I could not fathom. Who else might hold this little girl first? Then I realized that being present at the delivery, Anne must have already held her.
Michael said to me, “You take her,” and I did, instantly, as if refusing would leave the baby in the lurch, floating around the room instead of where she was, swaddled in her birth mother's arms. I laid Little Flake across my arms, gazed at her new baby blush and smelled her new baby smell and then quietly, quickly passed her to Michael. He, enthralled, backed down into the only sitting space in the room, a small sofa where he settled next to Anne. She laid her arm around his shoulder for possibly the first time in twenty years. Her smile was sunny, immediate. Their circle reconnected, the same circle they had been before their divorce and Michael's meeting and marrying me. Michael and Anne greeted their first grandchild.
I stood across the room, catawampus, no bloodlines tethering me to my husband and grandchild. Then I realized that everything about the baby's birth was out of skew by standards round or square. There is no husband. Kathryn and her partner, Alex, are the parents of this new baby. They had to choose names too. In a committed lesbian relationship you make choices, break new ground: Mama and Mommy. Little Flake was conceived from an anonymous donor about whom Kathryn and Alex know a great deal, though they have never met. For twenty years Michael and I with Anne have been fashioning positive family relationships out of failed marriages. Our son Nicholas was adopted from birth parents at the other side of the country. When I returned to the house after gathering wood, I shook the snow off my boots and dropped the logs onto the kindling on the fireplace grate. I was grateful for the record snowstorm that simplified what we had to do for a few hours. Because it was cold and the snow deep, I found the time to appreciate how each member of our family has come to love. Moments of reservation, awkwardness and feeling out of place come and go. Yet we have discovered abundance in intentional love, and with Little Flake, new life. I struck a match and started the fire to celebrate.
Toni Clark belongs to both the Writer’s Center of Bethesda, Maryland, and Scriviamo, a regional women’s writing group. She has a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Washington. “Bootlegged Nana” is her first published essay.
Copyright 2004, Toni Clark. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.