A JOYFUL MOTHER

by Joelle Steele

Julianne, the child who calls me "Mom," was born on Monday, March 3, 1986 at 2:53 a.m. at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California. I was not there at the time. We did not meet until Sunday morning, May 23, 1988.

I remember the day so clearly. I was shopping at the Safeway store on Arizona in Santa Monica. Julianne was sitting in the cart next to mine in the produce section. I was never good at judging a child's age, but she appeared to be about two. She was wearing a blue and white striped T-shirt and a pair of bright red overalls. Her feet were bare. Golden blonde curls framed her chubby red cheeks, and her eyes were the most brilliant cerulean blue. All this, and a cupid's bow for a mouth. She was positively angelic. She looked at me for a split second, and I admired her for a moment. I so wanted a child. I turned away to select my peaches.

"Joanna."

I froze at the sound of his voice, a voice from my recent past, one I had not heard in five years. I turned slowly, trying to be nonchalant.

"Alain. How nice to see you," I lied.

He reached out and patted the beautiful cherub and handed her a toy. A nice gesture, and one that I would not have expected of him. So paternal. He lifted her from the cart. "This is my daughter Julianne."

"Nice to meet you little one." I took her hand in mine and she held my finger but turned her head aside and buried it in her father's collar, such a typical shyness in children her age. "So you're married." It was a comment more than a question.

"Not anymore. She left us. Julianne was only six months old."

I was shocked. How could a mother leave her tiny child? It was unconscionable to me. I desperately wanted a child, but I had found out just a few years earlier that I was sterile. So, to me a child was more precious than gold, platinum, or — name your commodity. I didn't know what to say at hearing that this little jewel of a child had been abandoned, and I don't remember how the conversation ended that day, but I went home to my apartment on Second Street, and while I put my groceries away I thought about Alain. I thought about him a lot. And I thought about the child Julianne. And I wondered about the mother.

I knew why she left him. I had done that twice. I just didn't know what could make her leave her child.

I knew it would probably be a mistake, but when Alain called me a few weeks later I agreed to meet him for lunch at the Sidewalk Café in Venice. I hoped he would bring Julianne with him, but he came alone.

It was a hot, sunny beach day. School had just let out, and the boardwalk teemed with kids of all ages and vacationing adults. I saw Alain standing in front of the café wearing a navy T-shirt and khaki cargo shorts. He was much as he was when I first met him. I had just turned 20 and was a sophomore newly enrolled at UC Berkeley. He was a 29 year old graduate student at the time. He stopped me and asked for the time, saying he had forgotten his watch that day. We began talking and had lunch that same day. Fifteen years had passed and we were having lunch again.

"I still live in the Palisades," he said, studying me without making eye contact. I didn't respond, and as was his usual behavior, Alain continued to talk, ignoring my silence. "I'm dividing my time between here and the East Coast and the house at Herault. Popi passed away last year, so I have more time to myself these days."

"I went back to school and finished my degree in landscape architecture," I finally said, trying to update him on the more mundane events in my life. "I work for a company in Santa Monica now." I didn't really know what else to say. My life was more or less uneventful. I switched the subject back to Alain — his favorite subject. "Tell me about Julianne's mother."

"I met her at the beach one morning. I was running and so was she. Her name was Jennifer and she was probably too young for me. She was only twenty-two. But I was sure she was the one for me. We were married a few months later, and Juli was born a year later." He fidgeted with his napkin as he finished his coffee. "We broke up two months after that. Then one day about four months later, she brought Juli to me for a visit, and she never returned to pick her up."

"What happened to her?" I interjected.

"I called the hospitals and then the police. She was reported as a missing person. When nobody was having any luck finding her, I hired a private investigator. He found her in upstate New York living on a commune. She said she wanted nothing to do with me, and she said that Julianne was better off without her."

"Are you divorced?"

"The divorce was already started when she disappeared, and it became final just a few weeks before she was located."

We sat at the café for almost three hours, and as with all my conversations with Alain, it was sometimes agonizing. All my interactions with him were similar. I felt a pull to him, but at the same time, I felt a repulsion. There was nothing about Alain that made me feel particularly close to him or that made me want to be with him. But, for some reason, whenever I saw him I felt compelled to talk to him, to interact with him. I once consulted a friend who was a psychic. She said that Alain and I had to work out karmic debts from our past lives. I could easily believe that based on my previous experiences with him.

Our relationship, Joanna and Alain - Part I, had begun in July 1973 when I was very young and naive, and very excited about Alain, an older French man of such immense family wealth. I had not yet lost my innocence about the world, and I believed that people were all good, and that when someone said something they meant exactly what they said, no more, no less. Alain shattered those illusions. After dating casually for about four months and more seriously for another six, he asked me to marry him on the very day that I had determined to break up with him. It was seven years until I saw him again.

That day came in April 1981. I had just arrived in southern California and was temping while I looked for full-time work. I was walking down Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills on my way to pick up my paycheck from the temp agency when I heard a voice calling my name. I didn't bother to turn around; no one in Los Angeles could possibly know me. They had to be calling someone else with the same name.

As I reached the lobby doors, I heard running footsteps closing in on me, and then the out-of-breath voice speaking my name again. I turned around to see a bearded man in a three-piece suit, holding his hand to his chest and trying to catch his breath. I didn't recognize him at first because I had never seen Alain with a beard, and his sandy brown hair was noticeably thinner.

"Didn't you hear me calling you?" he asked, his French accent just a little more pronounced than I recalled.

"I didn't think you were anyone I knew. I've only been in southern California for three weeks."

We began talking, and he walked with me into the building and together we rode the elevator to the fifth floor where I picked up my check. Afterwards, he asked me to join him for dinner that evening. Fool that I was, I agreed.

What followed was a very stormy two-year relationship, Joanna and Alain - Part II. And through it all, I never felt comfortable with him, but I just couldn't seem to let go. Not until May of 1983.

I was going to San Francisco to visit my grandparents. My grandfather was recovering from a series of small strokes, and I had become worried that I might never see him again. Alain's brother Geraint and his wife Melise had just arrived to visit from France, and Alain thought they might enjoy a trip up the coast. I had met them before and found Melise to be a thoroughly unpleasant woman. The thought of being confined in a small space with her for several hours was appalling to me.

"We can take the scenic route up Pacific Coast Highway. We'll go in your car so that you can go wherever you want to go when we get to San Francisco. I'll rent a car there for the three of us and show them the town. Then we'll fly back mid-week."

"I don't really want to do this, Alain. I only have two days off from work plus the weekend, you know."

"We'll make one stop for lunch along the way and that's it. Come on, the weather is great, it will be a beautiful drive."

Somehow I actually bought into this. I really thought that perhaps Melise had become a nice person in the years since we had last met. I reluctantly agreed to the drive. My car seemed rather small for such a long trip with so many people, but Melise and Gerry were not very large people, and if Alain thought my car was adequate, I was not going to press the point.

I left my apartment at 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning and headed for Alain's house in the Palisades. I had my cat Chloe in her carrier on the floor in front of the passenger seat. She needed medication every day and was kind of ornery in her old age. I couldn't find anyone who could get a pill down her and she was usually upset when I was gone for a long time, so I often took her with me, even if I was only gone overnight.

The sun rose through a thin layer of high fog, and by the time I arrived at Alain's the sky was blue and there wasn't a cloud in sight. We had agreed to leave at 8:00 a.m., which I hoped, with a lunch break, would get us to The City by about 6:00 p.m. I knocked on the door and Alain finally answered. Melise was not yet ready. I waited for a half an hour, and finally everyone descended on the car.

"Il n'y a pas assez d'espace," complained Melise, as she tried to fit two very large suitcases — the smaller of the two being bigger than mine and Alain's combined — into the trunk. Alain and Gerry tried to help her, but it was not possible to get both into the trunk.

"Tu n'as pas besoin d'amener deux valises," said Gerry impatiently, wondering why she needed so much baggage for such a short trip.

"Et tu ne sais rien de ce que j'ai besoin," she retorted angrily, as she tried once again to cram her bags into the trunk.

"Melise," I said, trying to be polite, but also trying to get the show on the road, "your bags will not both fit. You can bring either the big one or the smaller one, but not both."

She pouted, rolled her eyes, and stomped off to the house, Gerry following behind her with the bags. They emerged ten minutes later with the bigger suitcase, which Alain managed to squeeze into the trunk.

As we pulled out of the driveway, Chloe cried out, something she rarely did except for the first minute or so after the car engine started.

"Un chat?" exclaimed Melise, with all the disgust her whiny voice could muster.

"Yes, that's my cat, Chloe. She's in a carrier and she'll be quiet once she settles down."

"I am not like to travel with animals," she announced emphatically in broken English.

Alain and Gerry said nothing. I did likewise. Melise said nothing else on the subject.

We had left Malibu and were on the highway just past Pt. Magu and near downtown Oxnard, when Melise began to complain about the amount of room in the back seat.

"Cette voiture est trop petite. There is not room for my foot," she whined to no one in particular.

"If you want to stop in Oxnard and rent your own car, I would be happy to leave you at the car rental company of your choice," I offered.

Melise said nothing, Gerry was dozing, and Alain ignored her.

When we had just passed Ventura, Melise had begun the last of three arguments with Gerry. She then launched into a series of complaints about my driving, which ranged from my speed to my changing lanes to the distance I maintained between the cars around me. She spoke mostly in French and I understood the majority of it, but I decided to use Alain and Gerry's method of ignoring her. But inside, I desperately wanted to slap her silly.

By the time we were on State Street in Santa Barbara, I could not take it anymore, and Gerry clearly had no control over her behavior, nor did Alain.

"Arrêter la voiture. Je veux tendre mes jambes," she demanded.

"Melise, we are already running late," I said, fully aware that she was only about five foot one, and she could wait awhile longer to stretch her legs.

"Gerry," she pleaded. "S'il tu plaîs demander qu'elle arrête la voiture."

"Joanna," said Gerry ashamedly. "Do you mind just a quick stop."

Well yes, I did mind, and after only two hours of driving, we could all probably have used a few moments to stretch our legs, but I was sick to death of Melise. I was not going to endure one more minute of her. I said nothing as I signaled a right-hand turn that took me to a city building and a bank of phone booths. I stopped in front of the phones, went to the trunk and removed all the luggage except my own and set it on the ground. Everyone was out of the car when I slammed the trunk shut.

I got back inside, looked around and saw Melise's purse on the back seat next to Gerry's jacket. I grabbed both and thrust them at Alain through the passenger door's window. I will never forget the look of surprise on his face as he took them, and I quickly drove away.

The chance meeting in Safeway was the first contact we'd had since Santa Barbara. The thought that I was possibly entering into a relationship with Alain again was disturbing to me. I even called my therapist to discuss it. She did not think it was a healthy idea, and neither did I, but something told me it was going to happen, no matter how much I intellectualized it and tried to end it in my mind before it ever had a chance to start.

Alain began calling me regularly after our lunch at the Sidewalk Café. Most of the time we went out alone, but on a few occasions he brought Julianne, and I fell in love with her immediately, and she with me.

"I can't believe how attached she is to you," remarked Alain one afternoon at the Los Angeles Zoo. We were looking at the elephants, and I was holding Julianne while Alain went to get us some drinks. After he returned, he tried to take Juli from me, and she refused to go.

"I'm quite attached to her too," I said, and kissed my little cherub on her nose. There was only one problem, and that was the fact that Julianne did not speak much, and what she did say was in French. Alain's English was perfect with a French accent, so understanding him was never a problem. My French was mediocre and two year olds aren't exactly known for their impeccable pronunciation in any language, so I rarely understood anything she said.

However, in the months that followed, Julianne became quite the linguist, mixing French and English and going from one to the other on a moment's notice. On the occasions where I stayed the night or she stayed at my apartment overnight, I read to her in English, and after a year, we really began to communicate.

"Mommy," she said. "Mommy, come look." She was almost four at the time and was

watching a children's program on TV when she called me from the kitchen.

"What is it?" I asked. She pointed to the screen and made some remark but I was too preoccupied with the fact that she had called me Mommy to understand what she wanted me to see. "Juli," I said, pulling her onto my lap. "You know, I'm not your Mommy. I don't know if Daddy would like you to call me that."

"I know," she said, shrugging her little shoulders. "But I want to call you Mommy." She wriggled down from my lap and on to the floor in front of the TV. I left it alone at that point. She continued to call me Mommy to my face, and I didn't know what she called me when she was with her father.

The years went by — ten of them — and my relationship with Alain ran its predictable hot and cold course. But, my relationship with Julianne was always solid. When she was in grade school, and then in middle school, I was the one she came to for help with her homework. We went shopping together and to the movies. We spent days together when Alain was out of town or country on business. She called me almost daily, and I missed her terribly, whenever Alain took her to France for extended periods of time.

It was wonderful being Julianne's mother, even if I was not really related to her, even if I was not married to her father, even if I had no legal right to call her mine. I loved being a mother, having that precious child call me by that magical word, "Mommy," that made my heart burst with joy at every utterance. I enjoyed every minute we spent together, and when we were apart, I counted the days, the hours, and the minutes until we would see each other again. I could not imagine a life without Juli. Somehow, my prayers for a child had been answered. It was so like the phrase from a Prayer Book: "He maketh the barren woman to keep house; and to be a joyful mother of children." I was barren, I was not keeping house, but I was truly a joyful mother.

The problem was Alain, or more specifically my rocky relationship with him. I knew it couldn't last, and I don't know to this day why I was so hell-bent on trying to stay with this man. I didn't love him, and I don't think he ever loved me. The idea of a karmic relationship like my friend the psychic had suggested so many years before seemed like the only logical reason for our connection.

It was just a few weeks after Juli's twelfth birthday in 1998 that Alain and I parted company again. It was not like our previous partings where we simply went our separate ways. Juli was involved in all of it. Alain came to my apartment to collect her things.

"I don't want you to see her again," he said sternly, anger evident in his tight jaw and squinted eyes. "It is too confusing for her. Better to end it now."

"Better for whom?" I exclaimed, my voice rising an octave and my heart throbbing so hard I felt it would explode from my chest. "She thinks of me as her mother. Can you honestly say that it is okay for her to be separated from the only mother she has ever known?"

"Joanna, she is not your child. And she will get over it."

"But why should she have to get over it at all? Just because you and I don't get along doesn't mean that she should have to suffer the consequences." I was desperately trying not to cry, because I knew how Alain hated it when I got emotional.

"It is over. You, me, Juli. C'est finis." He went around the apartment as he talked, picking up two of Juli's books, her purple sweater, an old stuffed animal, and a few other odds and ends that were unmistakably hers.

"Alain, please. Please don't do this," I had resorted to begging. I couldn't have been more pathetic had I dropped to my knees and clung to his pant leg. He ignored me entirely and walked out the door.

I didn't hear from Juli for several weeks. I was at work, the place where I now buried myself in an effort to escape the emptiness that was left without Julianne. I was on a tight deadline and was expecting to hear from a client when I answered the phone.

"Mom, it's Juli."

My heart sang. "Where are you?"

"I'm at the house in the Palisades. We just came back from Herault. I can only talk for a minute. Dad's outside talking to the gardener."

"I miss you, darling," I said, holding back my tears.

"I miss you too. Mommy, I love you and I will try to see you whenever I can."

"I love you too. Don't do anything to get yourself in trouble."

"I won't. Don't worry about me, okay."

We had many of these clandestine conversations in the years that followed. Whenever she was able, she would call and we would talk, usually for not more than five minutes or so. I consulted an attorney to find out if I could in any way legally have visitation with Juli. He contacted Alain's attorney who informed us that Alain would not hear of it. Apparently Alain had no idea that Juli and I had any contact at all, because Alain's attorney told mine that Juli wanted nothing to do with me. My only hope was to wait. Wait until Juli was eighteen.

The years passed slowly. In 2000, I opened my own landscape architectural business. I wanted to work out of my home, and my place was too small, so I left the apartment I had lived in for nineteen years and rented a three-bedroom house on 22nd Street in Santa Monica. With the landlord's permission, I landscaped the property so that I would have an example of my work right at my front door, if or when clients came by. I made one of the extra bedrooms into an office and one into a guest room, in which I hoped one day Juli would stay.

I continued to immerse myself in my work. I dated sporadically, but didn't really see myself in a relationship. I discovered that I liked myself, my career, my family, and my friends, and I was okay without a boyfriend or a husband. But I missed being a mother, and I had to content myself with the occasional phone calls from Juli, and from several in-person glimpses of her at school functions, such as plays and musicals or art shows in which she participated. She always invited me. I wished I could give her the congratulatory hugs that parents gave their children. I wished I could be the one to talk to her teachers and discuss her studies. She was such a talented artist and she wanted to be an interior designer.

The day I had long waited for finally arrived. The wind was blowing but it was a sunny day, with giant, billowy, white clouds cruising the vivid blue ether. It was March 3, 2004, Julianne's eighteenth birthday. We spent it together. She moved into the guest room — her room — the very same day.