Motherhood never slowed Carol Roberts. Not when she'd first had Hannah fifteen years ago, and not now.
Back when Hannah was born, her father took care of her. He was smitten by the dark-haired, blue-eyed baby from the moment she came home. Hannah was a good girl. When she was old enough for kindergarten she was easily top of the class, and she held that distinction up until her current year as freshman at Thomas Jefferson College Preparatory. Carol was proud of her. But Hannah was still a child, and ambitious career plans didn't mix with children. Even the nicest children.
That's why Carol didn't mind living half a world away from Hannah. The two kept in touch through E-mail and phone calls, and twice a year-summer and Christmas-Carol and her husband found their way back to the States for a visit. Hannah wouldn't have had any normal sort of life living overseas, and it wasn't as if they had any choice.
Carol's husband was ambassador to Sweden. The role of ambassador came with a host of responsibilities- some political, some practical, and some purely social in the name of goodwill. That November numerous dignitaries had passed through the office, and plans had been made for a round of holiday parties that would involve key international politicians-all of whom deserved the attention of Jack Nelson Roberts Jr.
Carol loved being in the middle of it all. Whether the day's work included a luncheon with visiting influentials or a party at a nearby ballroom, she thrived in her husband's arena, being a part of what he did-not only to help him look good, but because she had political aspirations of her own.
Maybe when Jack was finished with his work at the Swedish embassy, they could return to Maryland and she could try her hand at an office-something small to start with-and eventually work her way to being a representative, or a senator, even. She would be closer to Hannah that way. By then her daughter would be older-old enough that Carol could hire her as an intern and the two could get to know each other better.
For now, though, that type of day-in, day-out relationship would have to wait. Life at the embassy was simply too busy, too important, to take a chance on missing a key party or business dinner. Never had there been so many people to connect with, so valuable a host of politicians to get acquainted with. They were doing the United States a favor by giving the job their complete attention as winter approached. That was the reason they'd made their decision about the holidays.
This Christmas-for the first time-there would be no trip home. The holiday social demands on the embassy were too great to leave behind. Late the night before, Carol had alerted Hannah about the conflict. There would be a change of plans, she told her daughter. "Your father and I won't be coming home for Christmas after all," she wrote. "Not this year."
She'd hoped Hannah would understand. Christmas was just another day, after all. Another day in a round of parties and celebrating and merriment that went from September to January, and January to June, one year into the next for the Roberts family. Certainly Hannah could get through one Christmas without being dragged to a round of adult parties in Washington, D.C. In fact, Carol had expected Hannah might be relieved. The revised plan meant Hannah could spend the holidays relaxing with her grandmother or visiting her school friends.
But Hannah's response had been short, almost jaded. "Fine, Mother," she'd shot back in an E-mail that morning. "How completely understandable that my parents would choose parties in Sweden over Christmas with me. Love you, too."
Love you, too? Carol had stared at those words, puzzled.
What sort of response was that? The letter made Carol wonder if she'd made a gargantuan mistake with Hannah all these years, if she'd grossly underestimated Hannah's acceptance of her lifestyle.
Ever since returning to the D.C. area, Carol had assumed her daughter understood her position. The Roberts family wasn't like regular families. There was a price to pay for Jack's title, both when he was a senator, and now as an ambassador. It wasn't so unusual, really. Nearly all of Hannah's school friends had parents whose lives involved political obligations. Senators stationed in Washington, D.C., spent half their time with their constituents in offices across the country. And those involved with international politics spent most of the year overseas.
It was a way of life. So why the attitude from Hannah? As if Christmas wouldn't be the same if she and Jack didn't come? Carol fixed herself a salad for lunch and mulled over the situation. Hannah was beyond the sentimentality of the working class, wasn't she? The girl understood their lifestyle, how power and position came with a certain type of independence, one that didn't have room for hurt feelings or needy pairings between parents and children.
She loved Hannah, of course-loved her the way mothers in her social strata best loved their children. Not with gushy hugs or kisses or flowery words, but with actions. The proper way. Carol and Jack paid for the house in The Colony and tuition at TJ Prep, the best education a child could ask for. Beyond that they provided Hannah private instruction in dance, voice, and piano, and finishing school. In a few short years, Carol had plans for her daughter to work with her.
That was love, wasn't it? But as Carol finished her salad, as she made her way to the back door and studied the meticulous gardens around the cobblestone patio, she thought of something she hadn't before: maybe Hannah was lonely. She was still young, after all. Maybe her schoolwork and lessons and practices had worn her out, and left her wanting adult company more than a quiet grandmother could give.
The clock ticked out a steady rhythm in the background and a pleasant lemony smell wafted through the kitchen, the result of something the housekeeper was working on in the next room. Carol squinted at the sunsprayed shrubs in the back of the yard. Yes, that had to be the problem. Hannah simply wanted a little life in the old house.
So who could spend Christmas with Hannah? She and Jack were out of the question, at least for now. But there had to be someone in their circle, someone besides Grandmother Paul, who could spend a few days with Hannah over the Christmas break.
Then, for the first time in years, a thought came to Carol.
Maybe it was time to tell her about Mike Conner. Mike, who had been Carol's first love, the man she lived with for nearly four years after Hannah was born. The man Hannah knew nothing about.
Her biological father. Carol had hoped to wait until Hannah was eighteen to tell her, but she was fifteen now. That was old enough, wasn't it? She held her breath as she made her way through the kitchen and into her office. The box was still tucked away under the desk, in the corner of the room. The box held everything that reminded Carol of her old life, the one she'd lived before she married Jack.
She remembered to exhale. Then, with quiet steps, she crossed the room, pulled the box into the middle of the floor, and removed the lid. The first thing inside was a manila envelope with a single name written in black permanent ink across the top: Mike.
A rush of feelings came over her and she could see the vast stretch of Pacific Ocean, hear the steady rush of waves against the shore, feel the warm sand between her toes as she sat on the beach watching him surf. She'd met him there, and from the beginning he'd had a surfboard tucked under one arm.
Carol closed her eyes and allowed the memory to have its way with her. She had been a dreamer back then, and Mike her blond, blue-eyed dream boy. Her parents had taught her about prestige and propriety and marrying well, but Carol ignored their advice. She'd been a hopeless romantic who had her own ideas about love, and all of them centered around Mike Conner.
"He's a drifter," her mother had told her. "With him you'll never amount to anything."
"He loves me, Mother," Carol insisted. "We'll find our own way."
"He's not the marrying type." Despair rang in her mother's voice. "You'll find nothing but heartbreak."
In the end, she'd been right-after four years of scrimping and barely getting by, Carol and Mike began fighting. The magic was long worn off by then, and Carol had to admit the truth in her mother's prediction. Mike wasn't the marrying type. He'd never even asked her, not until she first brought up leaving. But by then it was over. Mike had enlisted in the Army and gone to Fort Seal in Oklahoma for training. Three weeks later, alone and anxious for her old life, Carol and Hannah left one rainy April morning and never looked back.
Knowing she couldn't marry him, Carol hadn't put Mike's name on Hannah's birth certificate, and he hadn't argued about the fact. Not at first, anyway. Probably because he'd figured Carol would come around eventually, and the two of them would marry. Then he could easily add his name to Hannah's birth records.
In the months before he enlisted, he'd been anxious for it all-marriage, a proper place on Hannah's birth certificate, a family life together. But by then, Carol was ready to go home, ready for the life her parents had wanted for her. When she and Hannah said good-bye to the small beach house, Carol left behind no information or letters or forwarding address. She returned to Maryland and picked up with Jack Roberts-high-society politician and former playboy. The two were married within a year, and Carol's mother moved into Jack's guesthouse while she and Jack and Hannah took the main house-a veritable mansion.
Life improved overnight for everyone except Hannah. For two years Hannah had talked about her daddy, asking where he was and crying for him. Sometimes Jack would hold her and rock her, telling her that he was her father now. Always, though, they had known Hannah would be fine-and she was. In time she forgot about the daddy they'd left behind, believing that Jack was, indeed, her father.
But she deserved to know about Mike, and now was as good a time as any.
Carol held the envelope to her face and breathed in. It smelled old and musty and faintly like the sea, the scent of forgotten days and bygones. She opened the flap and pulled out the first picture. It was a photo of Mike and Hannah, just around the time when Hannah was starting to walk. The two were cuddled in a wornout recliner, and Mike was reading to her. He'd always been reading to her. Hannah had one pudgy arm draped along the back of his neck, her grin reached from one ear to the other.
Carol set the picture aside and sorted through the rest of the envelope. After a few minutes she chose two photographs-the first one, and one of Mike with his surfboard, his blond hair cut short per the instructions of his Army enlisting officer. She sifted through the bag again and found a metal lapel pin-a pair of wings Mike bought in the days before he left for training.
"Daddy's gonna be a pilot one day, Hannah. An Army pilot. Then I'll have a real pair of wings." She could hear him still, full of confidence and hope that he'd make good on his dreams and give Carol the life he thought she wanted.
By the time Mike had plans to leave for training, he was worried Carol would bolt, that she'd pick up her things one day, leave with Hannah, and never look back. Before he left he'd pulled her aside and given her the wings, the ones he'd bought. Sincerity rang in his words. "I want Hannah to have these. Make sure, okay?"
A gust of guilt blew over Carol. She'd forgotten his request until now. Forgotten it as if he'd never even asked. She blinked and set the wings in the pile with the two photographs. At least she was taking care of it now. It wasn't too late. Besides, if Hannah were any younger she wouldn't have appreciated this-not the pictures nor the wings nor the information about Mike.
Carol sorted through the envelope and pulled out a list of details scribbled on an old, yellowed piece of notebook paper. The list represented all the information she'd had on Mike Conner back then.
She studied the sheet: his name, an old address and phone number in Pismo Beach, California. His age back then-twenty-three-and his birth date. And the fact that he'd joined the Army in early spring 1994.
That was it-all she had to remember him by. For nearly a minute Carol studied the sheet and wondered. Was this the right thing for Hannah? The right timing? Would she be angry that she hadn't been told sooner? She hesitated and stared at the photo. It had been her decision to keep the information from Hannah. If Hannah was upset, they'd work through it, the same way they'd work through spending a Christmas apart.
Parenting wasn't much different from a business arrangement where most of the time the details ran smoothly, but some days brought disturbing news and hard work.
Carol made a copy of the detailed information and slipped it with the photos into a new envelope. Then she typed a quick letter of explanation. She was sorry about the past, but there was nothing she could do about it. Hannah needed to know. Maybe if the girl spent the holidays looking up Mike Conner, the distraction would keep her from being lonely.
Carol sealed the envelope, addressed it, and set it in the outgoing mail tray. She glanced at her watch. It was time to put together the invite list for the black-tie Christmas party.
Copyright © 2005 by Karen Kingsbury