WHO WILL YOU BE TO ME?

Noth­ing pre­pared her for be­ing a step­mother.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - BETSY GRAZIANI FASBINDER

One af­ter­noon a few months be­fore Tom and I were to be mar­ried, Max wan­dered into the din­ing room where I was sort­ing through a box of old pho­to­graphs. He tossed an or­ange foam ball over and over, and didn’t look at me; he just fo­cused com­pletely on the ball. Soon he be­gan to twirl around af­ter each toss, catch­ing the spongy ball be­hind his back. Then he bounced the ball off the wall, then off the ceil­ing. “Nice moves,” I said. No re­ply. Wall. Ceil­ing. Twirl. Wall. “Whatcha doin’?” he fi­nally asked. “Just try­ing to or­gan­ise some of my pic­tures,” I said.

In my months of liv­ing with them, I’d learned to let Max, who was all of seven, come close on his own. If I crowded him or moved too quickly, he skit­tered away. If I was pa­tient though, we of­ten ended up play­ing, laugh­ing and, re­cently, even snug­gling on the couch with a book or a TV show.

“Who’s that?” he asked, peek­ing around my shoul­der. “My mum when she was young.” “What’s she sit­ting on?” “A pa­per moon. They used to have them at fairs and car­ni­vals. Peo­ple liked to pose for pic­tures on them.”

“That’s dumb. It doesn’t even look like a real moon.”

“Af­ter the wed­ding, I sup­pose she’ll be your grandma Sylvia.”

“Cool.” Wall. Ceil­ing. Wall. Wall. Twirl. He caught the ball and then si­dled up be­side me, lean­ing his warm body against my arm and press­ing a dirt-smudged fin­ger on an­other photo. “Who will that be to me?”

“That was my grand­fa­ther, the one who died a few months ago.”

Max shrugged and re­sumed his toss­ing, this time switch­ing hands. Right. Left. Right. “I al­ready got a grand­fa­ther,” he said, not un­kindly.

“Lots of kids have two grand­pas. I guess my grand­fa­ther would have been your great-grand­fa­ther.”

“Hmm. Too bad he had to die. I coulda used one of those.”

Death is al­ways a barbed topic, but is par­tic­u­larly so for a child who lost his mother only two years be­fore. I shuf­fled quickly past the pic­tures of dead rel­a­tives.

Max propped his el­bows on the ta­ble, rest­ing his chin on his up­turned palms. “What about them?” he asked, point­ing to a pic­ture of my sis­ter and her fam­ily. He’d known them his whole life, just as he had known me, played with my niece and nephew reg­u­larly and at­tended birth­day par­ties and fam­ily din­ners. But I could see that he was be­gin­ning to grasp the change that was com­ing. The dif­fer­ence in how he knew me be­fore,

when he was a fam­ily friend, and how he would know me in the fu­ture.

“Di and Jim will be your aunt and un­cle. Me­gan and Matt will be your cousins.”

“Sweet,” he said, look­ing into my face for the first time since he’d en­tered the room. His eyes were choco­late pools, his thick, dark hair a sleek, shiny coat that made me want to run my fin­gers over it. “I don’t have any boy cousins. And how about him?”

“That’s my brother John. He’ll be an­other un­cle.”

We sorted stacks of aunts and un­cles, cousins and friends.

“Wow, you have a lot of peo­ple,” Max said with a sigh. “I sup­pose I do.” He be­gan to fin­ger through the stacks, mess­ing up what I’d ­al­ready sorted, but my orig­i­nal task no longer mat­tered. As we neared the bot­tom of the stack, a honey-thick warmth be­gan to fill me. Per­haps my fam­ily was to be the dowry I’d bring to this lit­tle boy who had lost so much.

“Whoa,” he ex­claimed, laugh­ing at my third-grade photo, the one where my hair had been ex­panded to new di­men­sions by an es­pe­cially hu­mid day.

At mo­ments like this, Max was just a lit­tle boy, buoy­ant with en­ergy, easy with a laugh. He played Lego and watched Teenage Mu­tant Ninja Tur­tles. And he tossed balls. At other times, when he was still or thought no one was look­ing, it seemed that the earth’s pull was just a lit­tle stronger where he stood, tug­ging the corners of his mouth down­wards, mak­ing his eyes years older than seven birthdays would im­ply.

JUST AS I WAS ABOUT to put the last of the pic­tures in the box, Max pressed his fin­ger once more to a face. “And who will this be to me?”

Be­neath his fin­ger I could see the edges of my own face. My heart swelled. This son of the man I loved was ­be­com­ing my son. We’d have fam­ily Christ­mas cards and school art stuck by mag­nets to the fridge. I’d make treat bags at birth­day par­ties, snap pic­tures at graduations. I was be­com­ing a mother but with­out the ben­e­fit of a grow­ing belly or a baby shower to pre­pare me.

I should have known the an­swer to his sim­ple ques­tion. I should have known how to say just the right, wise, mag­i­cal thing. But I didn’t. “Well, what do you think?”

Max shrugged. Then he looked away, and I knew it was my job to field this one. “I’ll be your sec­ond mum,” I said.

“Oh.”

sh“I ould have known how to say just the right, wise, mag­i­cal thing, but I didn’t

“I’m sorry that your first mum died. I liked her.” “What should I call you?” he asked. My heart pounded, and my stom­ach turned. Mama, I wanted to cry. I’ll be your mama and you’ll be my son. I re­sisted. “You can call ­me Mum or Mama. You can also call me Betsy, if you’d rather. What­ever feels OK for you.”

He stood there a minute and I waited, ex­pect­ing a pro­nounce­ment of my new ti­tle.

“What’s for din­ner?” he asked, pick­ing up his ball. “Burg­ers.” “Sweet,” he said, toss­ing the ball as he walked out the room.

TOM AND I WERE MAR­RIED a few months later. For a cou­ple of days af­ter­wards, Max tried out a new ­ti­tle for me. “Can we go bowl­ing?” he’d ask, and then fol­low the ques­tion by mouthing the word Mum. Or, “Can we go to the shops?” And the mouthed word Mum. Mum was ­al­ways silent. It seemed he was try­ing it on, see­ing how it felt in his mouth. “Whatcha doin’, Mum?” “Can I watch TV now, Mum?”

It felt wrong to take such plea­sure in see­ing his lit­tle plum lips form that sin­gu­lar syl­la­ble. Af­ter all, this new son of mine was an in­her­i­tance I would not have if he and Tom hadn’t sus­tained such an enor­mous loss. I felt small… and smaller still when old habits re­sumed and Betsy was once again my only ti­tle.

WEEKS LATER, as I drove him home from school, Max pulled a bag of Cheezels from his Teenage Mu­tant Ninja Tur­tles lunch box. He munched away, lick­ing the or­ange dust off each fin­ger.

With his fo­cus deep in­side the near-empty snack bag, he sud­denly said, “I no­tice I don’t call you Mum.”

Wham! Who threw that rock at my chest? “I no­ticed that, too.”

One last Cheezel. “When I say Betsy, I mean Mum.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice to know.”

He looked out the win­dow. “Mums die, you know. I think it’s maybe safer if you’re just Betsy.”

We could have a long talk about mag­i­cal think­ing and death and how noth­ing he could say, or not say, could cause me to die or could have caused his mother to die. But this just didn’t seem like the time for all of that.

I willed tears away, not want­ing to over­whelm him. He had enough to carry. “Thanks, buddy. I ap­pre­ci­ate you telling me.”

Those big choco­late eyes found mine. I waited. “Hey, Betsy?” “Yeah,” I said, de­lighted with the new sound of my old name.

“What’s for din­ner?” he asked.

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