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The Other Mother: A Novel (Anglais) Relié – 7 août 2007

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. 1 .


I had already lost Iris in the Rite Aid. She'd begged and begged to get school supplies, in her sweet-voiced, slightly lisping two-year-old language that unfailingly invites patience on my part just when I'm about to despair of ever managing a simple errand. I told her if she stayed close, she could pick out something, a notebook or a box of crayons, or markers if she promised not to suck the tips to blue her mouth, and we could have some school projects together. But as soon as we got to the store--my son, Oliver, was stepping from one foot to the other without traveling anywhere, and my oldest, Carra, was sorting through the stacks of three-ring-binders as if they'd each delivered a personal insult--Iris slipped into the aisles and was gone.

Rite Aid wasn't the best place to shop for school supplies, but I was too busy to manage a trip to the mall. Carra, who had recently turned twelve and was as serious about middle school as the rest of us had been about enrolling in college, showed her displeasure in every gesture on the way there. Not good enough, said the snap of her seatbelt, no special cartridge-filled fountain pens like her best friend Lizzie had. No rainbow-laser binders, only babyish unicorn decals, her sigh said, as we drove the mile into town. She let out a little grumble of disgust as I parallel parked, badly, leaving my wheels at least eight inches from the curb.

But for some reason I wasn't frustrated with Carra. She was simply navigating the new with her best coping mechanism, disapproval, for guidance. When Carra was first born, and I was deeply in love and in the thick thrall of milky exhaustion, almost like drowning, my friend Tia came to visit. She held Carra and looked into her wrinkled infant face and said, "She'll break your heart when she's a teen."

Oliver wouldn't get anything he needed and would require a separate trip the next day because he forgot "pencils, and oh, a big gummy eraser thing, and Mom, I think I need paper but I don't remember which kind." It wasn't that Oliver was oblivious to everything. At ten he had a very good memory for the books he loved, which characters were in which series, and which movie--his most serious passion besides his bicycle--was coming to the Sylvan Glen Theater. Oliver went to see whatever wasn't rated R, even if it was considered a girl movie or something that featured kissing. It was Oliver who noticed Iris wasn't with us.

"Ma," he said, more interested in the meager shelf of paperbacks and the pipe-and-card aisle than the things he'd need for fifth grade. "Ma, I think Iris went that way." He nodded his head.

I hated the feeling that I'd lost control. With the first two, there had been some chasing, some games of run-away-from-Mommy, but it was long enough ago I'd already forgotten. And Iris was different. She was as wild at one as my others had been at two, and now that she was two, she was uninterested in her mother's suggestions, pleas, and demands, and passionately interested in whatever I didn't want her to have because it might hurt her. She put everything into her mouth, still, long after Dr. Goodberg, in her calm and slightly condescending lecture voice, had told me she would grow out of it.

"I-ris," I called, trying not to let panic spread its wide wings in my chest.

"I-ris," called Oliver, right behind me. He still liked to help, and he still liked to please me. Though Iris's disappearances made him a little too happy in the look-at-me-I'm-being-good department. He'd adjusted well at seven, when he learned he'd have to share his mommy with a small, shrieking person who would probably never be old enough to play with him. Along with his beauty, Oliver was blessed on occasion with dazzlingly clear perceptions. "It's better that she's a girl," he'd said that first week, when I hardly had time to look into his face for Iris's needs. "That way I won't have to be as jealous."

A small cloud of red hair dashed around the corner of the aisle I was entering. I could hear her demonic little laugh. It was funny for a second, but then she wasn't in the next aisle.

"I-ris, I need you to come here now," I said. I could hear the automatic doors hissing open, closed, open, and the high-speed traffic out on Sylvan Avenue made me nervous. My other two had known, somehow, without more than half a dozen didactic lessons on my part, that streets were dangerous. Iris had already run out into our cul-de-sac dancing, and on a previous shopping trip she'd made it off the curb on Sylvan, though I'd grabbed her before she had a chance to take a second step. Iris would go right out those automatic doors, she'd run right out under the wheels of a giant SUV; she'd be a low and unavoidable target. I felt this possibility weighting me, fear unfurling, and started running toward the entrance, pulled by gravity and danger and responsibility.

"Mo-om," called Oliver. "I got her."

I rounded the aisle, but I didn't see them. I had to squeeze by a pair of teens necking in the candy aisle. I thought I recognized my neighbor's daughter, half-mashed, half-wrapped around a young man with straight hair that fell below his angular jaw, but I couldn't stop to really see. I passed the pair and ran toward the entrance, but my children weren't there.

"Mo-om!" Oliver yelled. I could hear Iris's cry. It wasn't an easy cry, it was a loud, angry, word-filled cry, as if she had things she couldn't say in such a state of agitation. Because of the cacophony surrounding her intent, we'd probably never know what she was saying. Often, I was too annoyed to want to know what she was saying. I was a bad mother, already thinking about preschool, wishing she'd been born two months earlier so she could enroll this year. An hour or two of freedom, freedom for both of us, I had told myself when I fingered the brochure from the new Montessori school. This was my last go at raising a toddler. I'd thought I had known what I was doing. Even when I'd told Caius I was pregnant, even when I'd believed I was surprised, part of me had expected this last round all along. But none of me had expected Iris to be the challenge that she was.

"Myma-ahhh!" cried Iris. They stood back near the binders. Iris was clutching two jumbo packs of Pez; maybe she'd have become Sylvan Glen's youngest shoplifter, the poster child for a stop negligent mothers campaign. Oliver triumphantly gripped her arm. Iris was flopping, flailing. His grip was a little harder than necessary, but Iris did try, strenuously, to escape.

And I adored her, my last little one, my jitterbug. Guilt and relief soaked into me. I took my baby in my arms, despite her resistance, despite the bruises her pink-sneakered feet would leave on my thighs where she kicked me. My knees made a sound like gum bubbles popping as I stood. I kissed the top of her head. She let the Pez fall to the floor. I hadn't lost her yet.

"Mine plies," she sobbed.

"I know, your supplies," I said.

"They don't have the right kind," said Carra, looking bereft by the big bin of loose-leaf paper. "We'll have to go to the mall."

Sometimes, when they were all in the car, if Iris was sleeping in her seat and Oliver and Carra were in their private looking-out-the-window worlds, dreaming of things I wasn't sure I wanted to know about, I forgot, for a guilty, delicious moment or two, that I was a mother of three, on errands, the person in charge. Sometimes I was my college self, home for the dregs of summer, relishing the last of languid August, full of the details of my summer jobs and summer crushes and the cicadas starting their song of sex and death in the late afternoons. I slowed down as I neared Tia's old house, remembering the time when she was home, still my best friend, and forecasting our future together: we'd work as raft guides on African rivers, trek in the Himalayas, join sky-top bird studies in the Amazon, meet our mates at bars in Amsterdam, and come home to Sylvan Glen, New Jersey, to raise our broods across the fence from each other, where they could make their own bug collections and later, fall in love.

But the house next door wasn't Tia's anymore; it wasn't even Tia's mother's house. I'd seen the For Sale signs a few months ago and had left three unreturned messages for Tia. Even after the Sale Pending notice went up over the original placard, I'd fantasized about buying it myself so it wouldn't be invaded by strangers. Not that we could afford a second house. I felt as if I'd lost Tia's mother, Phoebe Larkspur, though she'd only moved across the woods to the assisted-care facility. When the Bergen Sunset Home was built five years ago, I'd stood in the cul-de-sac with my neighbors listening to the grand-opening party. Even Jillian Martin emerged, with her suspiciously fraternal-looking husband, Jack, who rarely came out of his house except to push snow around in his drive with a leaf blower and to weed and deadhead his perennial garden with his chain saw. They stood there with their matching narrow foreheads and bitter sucked-lemon expressions. At nine o'clock on a summer weeknight, the polka was so loud it blasted across the maple-and-sassafras-filled woods like a storm. Then the announcer started yelling instructions through his bullhorn, "Walkers on the left! C'mon ladies. Ladies," and Jillian Martin screwed up her sour face and laughed.

"Stupid," muttered Jack. "Stupid old people."

It wasn't as if Mrs. Larkspur had done cartwheels under the pink dogwood on her front lawn, but at least I'd seen her over the back fence sometimes, clasping grocery bags against her chest like little children.

I captained the van into the driveway, Iris asleep after the indignities in the Rite Aid. I gasped a little at the sight next door--almost like driving past a wreck. I hadn't expected new neighbors so soon, and I felt a vague crushing sensati...

Revue de presse

“A wonderful, compelling read for every mom torn by real (or imagined) tension with other mothers who’ve made different choices about working or staying home with kids. The Other Mother brings alive the reality of each mother's internal war.”
--Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of Mommy Wars

“A finely wrought domestic drama, The Other Mother draws out the intimacies of two women poised against each other’s yearnings. Gwendolen Gross writes with the kind of nuance and grace that fire every moment of this timely story.”

–Amy Scheibe, author of What Do You Do All Day?

"A suspenseful and compulsively readable domestic drama that's anything but ordinary.
Smart and timely, The Other Mother is sure to keep the 'mommy wars' debate raging." –Harlan Coben

“Gwendolen Gross’s absorbing novel manages to engage all the contradictions of motherhood, marriage, and friendship–satisfaction/fulfillment, safety/danger, significance/triviality–and to give them an honest and often very funny airing. Her characters may be desperate housewives but she doesn’t mock them and, with a perfect ear for the sound of young mothers thinking and feeling their way along, she writes too richly to take sides in the stand–off between the women who go to work and the ones who stay at home.”

--Rosellen Brown, author of Half a Heart and Before and After

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