The Mommy School
Gib Coulter nibbled one perfect pink toe and was rewarded with a high-pitched
laugh. He raised his head to look into Lissa's startling blue eyes. "Did
I ever tell you how beautiful you are?"
A sigh was her only response.
"Oh, a woman of mystery, hmmm? We have ways of making you talk." Pressing
his pursed lips to her stomach, he made a razzing sound, and Lissa shrieked
"Okay, enough fun for one diaper change." He pulled the one-piece romper
down over her fat little six-month-old belly and fastened the snaps. "Let's
go find your mom." He slung the baby upside-down over his shoulder, provoking
further delighted screams, and carried her down the stairs.
Laura Jason stood at the base of the stairs, wringing her hands. The
threat of tears shone bright in her eyes.
Gib gave her a kind smile. "Don't worry, Laura, you're going to do fine."
He handed Lissa to her mother. "You're ready to be on your own. More than
Laura's eyes filled with tears. "Please don't go. I need you. Lissa
This always happened. No matter how clearly he told them he'd be leaving
someday, no matter how readily they agreed to his terms, they always ended
up begging. It wasn't that he wanted to cause them any pain. He didn't.
It was just that he wasn't looking for any long-term commitments. On any
And besides, he really did know what Lissa needed right now-- and that
was a mother with her confidence back. Laura, pretty in a vague, undecided
way, had completely lost confidence in her ability to care for her baby
after the child had fallen down a half-flight of stairs in her walker.
The stairs were carpeted, and Lissa was bruised but basically unhurt, but
to Laura the world had suddenly become a frightening place, full of unpredictable
dangers. Gib had been here for two weeks, and he could see she really was
a very good mother indeed, but she needed to see it for herself. And she
couldn't, until he left. So he was going, tears or no tears.
But Gib never liked to see a woman cry. And he really hated it when
he was the cause. Unfortunately, in this job, he was the cause all too
often--every time he walked out a door, in fact.
What he wouldn't give to have a client, just one, suggest he leave--tell
him he'd done his job perfectly and there was no more reason for him to
stay. He just wanted one client to say, "I can manage on my own now. You
can go. We'll be fine without you." Was it so much to ask?
It didn't really matter, though. He was going to take one more job after
this one, make one more addition to his sister Sheila's college fund, and
then he was through for good. Through with diapers and babies and raising
other people's children for them. Through with responsibilities and duty
to family. His own life had been put on hold for twelve years now. It was
long enough. He had a chance at the brass ring, and he was going to take
So he made his voice as gentle as he could, but he was firm. "You knew
I couldn't stay when we started. We talked about the fact that I wouldn't
stay. I told you this day would come."
"But I didn't realize how much ..." Her voice died away in a heaving
sob. A single tear ran down her cheek as she followed him to the door,
hugging Lissa to her chest.
"Do you really think I'd leave if I didn't think the two of you would
be okay without me?" He leaned in close to kiss Lissa's cheek. "'Bye, sweetie."
He bent to pick up his carryall. "Laura, you're a good mom. You're going
to be fine."
She watched him cross the lawn to his white van. As he drove away, the
name on the back of the van grew smaller and smaller, until her tears obscured
the red-painted words: The Mommy School. Everything Mom Forgot to Teach
You About Being a Mom.
Janet Resnick frowned as she tried to fasten the tape-tabs on her eleven-month-old
niece's diaper. They just wouldn't stick, and of course it was the last
diaper in the house. She'd tried not to get the tabs wet this time. Maybe
they had talcum powder on them. She leaned in for a closer look, and baby
Emma grabbed a handful of Janet's curly auburn hair.
"Ouch!" Janet groped for the tiny fist and peeled open one finger and
then another to release her hair. Just as she freed herself, Emma's other
hand fastened on her earring. In one movement, the purple clip-on disk
went from earlobe to tiny mouth. "No, Emma!" Janet grabbed the little girl
by her chin and nose and pried. Emma gagged, but she opened her mouth,
and there was the earring, still right in front. What a relief. Janet let
go of Emma's chin to grab the earring, and Emma snapped her mouth shut
Once more Janet pried the small mouth open. This time she flipped the
little girl over and jiggled her up and down. The earring dropped out,
and Emma gagged and spit up. Onto the bedspread.
Janet sighed in exasperation and set her niece down. She was going to
have to wash the bedspread. Again. When would she learn? The changing table
was stacked high with clean clothes, so she'd taken a chance and changed
the baby on the bed. A little talcum powder on the spread was no big deal--at
least Emma hadn't peed on it like she did last time--but curdled formula?
Yuck. As Janet mopped at the puddle with a baby wipe, Emma pushed herself
onto all fours and started toward the head of the bed, where the cat lay
"Ah! Gah!" Emma gurgled, obviously pleased with herself, as she reached
for Clementine's tail. Clem opened one eye and twitched her tail out of
the way. Emma shrieked with delight and reached for it again.
"Oh, no, you don't. No fun and games 'til we get this diaper on." Janet
grasped one chubby ankle and pulled the laughing baby back to the center
of the bed. Okay, she needed something to fasten a diaper with. Masking
tape? Maybe if she got a long enough piece and wrapped it around Emma's
waist a couple of times, the diaper would stay on. She picked up Emma and
the diaper and carried them both into the temporary office she'd set up
in the spare bedroom of her mother's house.
She winced at the condition of her in-basket--and it hadn't even been
four whole days yet. Had she actually thought she'd keep abreast of her
employees and clients while taking care of her three nieces? But her mom
had really needed the vacation, and the girls needed someone to stay with
them. And Janet's mom was right--after losing their parents, the poor kids
really needed a family member, not a babysitter. So Mom had gone to Florida
to visit Aunt Mary, and Janet got stuck with the kids for two weeks.
Well, not exactly stuck, she thought, smiling at Emma as the naked little
girl twisted in her arms, giggling as she reached for Janet's earring again.
Luckily they were really great kids. And it almost took Janet's breath
away how much all three of them looked like Georgie.
Georgie'd been such a great mom. Her oldest daughter, Carly, had learned
to read by the time she was four because Georgie read to her so much.
And Heidi--what a kid! She was Georgie all the way, full of fun and
high spirits and always, always, saying the exact wrong thing at
the exact wrong time, just when it would be the most embarrassing. Georgie
had done that all her life.
Janet hugged Emma tighter, sticking her nose in close to breathe in
that delicious warm-baby smell. Of the three girls, only Emma didn't remember
how wonderful Georgie was, what kind of mom she'd been, how nurturing and
supportive and patient. Janet couldn't even remember ever hearing Georgie
raise her voice to one of the kids.
Janet, on the other hand, wasn't really much good with children. She'd
always been a swoop-in-bringing-presents-and- swoop-back-out-again kind
of aunt rather than a stay-overnight- giggling-and-making-popcorn kind
of aunt. Janet took after her father--everyone always said so--a good mind
for business, but not much else. As a single mom, even a temporary one,
she was the pits. No one had any clean clothes, and it was amazing how
quickly even a four-year-old would start to complain about having pizza
She had gotten herself a new client yesterday, though. On the way home
from picking Heidi up from preschool, they'd stopped for ice cream. Inside,
the woman behind the counter had handed Janet the cones and smiled in a
friendly fashion, but she'd looked a little harried.
Janet had smiled in sympathy. "Busy day?" The little shop was empty
except for them, but you could never tell.
The woman shrugged. "Busy enough, what with doing everything myself.
I just opened a couple months ago. I can't afford any help yet, and I'm
just about drowning in the administrative details."
Janet gave her ice cream cone a thoughtful lick. "If you could get rid
of one job, one administrative hassle, what would it be?"
"Easy. Bookkeeping. But I can't afford to hire even a part- time bookkeeper."
"How many hours a week do you spend on bookkeeping?" When the woman
gave her a strange look, Janet laughed and introduced herself. "I'm sorry,
I sound nosy, don't I? I have a business that provides home-based temp
workers to people just like you. If you can give me a few details, I might
be able to find you a way to afford that bookkeeper after all."
While Heidi finished off her ice cream cone and Emma spooned most of
hers down her shirt, Janet discussed the ice cream parlor business with
Mrs. Goody, the owner. By the time the ice cream was gone, Janet had estimated
that Mrs. Goody could probably hire someone for an hour or two a week and
save herself around five hours a week. "Since you're not really an expert
at bookkeeping, plus you keep getting interrupted to deal with customers,
it probably takes you two or three times as long to do the books. An experienced
bookkeeper working at home, with no interruptions, could probably do the
job a lot faster. If you like, I can send you a detailed cost estimate."
Mrs. Goody, surprised and delighted, had agreed, and Janet had left
the ice cream parlor feeling rejuvenated. Another potential client. It
was amazing how there was one on every corner.
But it really did go to prove how much she was like her father--he had
always been turning pleasure into business.
Well, she only had ten more days to go, and then she could go back to
her own apartment and peace and quiet. And back to being just an aunt,
instead of a temporary single mom.
She balanced Emma on her shoulder and dug through the desk drawer for
something that would fasten the diaper shut. No masking tape. Scotch tape?
No, it probably wouldn't hold. Stapler? She laid Emma on the desk chair
and carefully balanced one knee on the infant's chest to hold her still
while she stapled the diaper shut.
When she finished, she smiled at the baby in satisfaction. "And your
grandma thought we wouldn't be able to handle this for two lousy weeks.
Not a problem! But remind me to get some more diapers soon." Emma, obviously
delighted she was being consulted, gurgled a happy response.
Janet carried the baby to the stairway and started down. The first floor
was silent as she reached the landing.
Where were the girls? Mrs. Murphy would be here any minute. There was
no time to lose to make sure everything was in order, or there'd be trouble.
There'd been enough trouble already with Mrs. Murphy.
She pulled Emma upright against her shoulder. "Carly? Heidi?" She listened
for a moment, grimacing when Emma drooled into the neck of her sweatshirt.
"Hey, guys, where are you?"
Nothing. That was odd. She frowned and pushed open the door from the
landing into the kitchen.
Janet gasped. The entire kitchen was afloat in a fine white powder.
"What in the ...?"
Sunlight streamed through the windows, giving the floating dust a fairy
glow. It had an almost mesmerizing beauty, but just then Emma sneezed,
and Janet backed out of the kitchen fast, pulling the door shut behind
She held the baby up and anxiously examined her face for signs of blueness.
Emma, pink as ever, sneezed again. Relieved, Janet rushed into the living
room and plopped Emma in her walker. Taking a deep breath first, she opened
the door into the kitchen again. The dust was starting to settle on the
counters. She stuck her finger into it, and then touched it to her tongue.
It tasted like ... flour?
She took a step forward into something slippery, and her legs flew out
from under her. She landed flat on her bottom. From her new vantage point,
she could see under the table and into the shocked faces of Emma's sisters.
Carly, age eight, stared back at her, her hands over her mouth, eyes round.
Heidi, age four, had her hands over her eyes.
Janet bit her tongue to keep from laughing out loud.
"We were making pancakes for breakfast, Aunt Jannie." Carly's voice
was a bare whisper. "We didn't mean to make a mess. Heidi dropped the eggs,
and when I stepped on them, I knocked the flour down. It went all over."
Another firm chomp on her tongue kept Janet from smiling. "I see it
went all over. And then you went under the table?"
"We had to. We heard Mrs. Murphy's car."
Right on cue, a key scraped in the back door, and Janet heard a gasp
as Mrs. Murphy saw the state of the kitchen.
Mrs. Murphy sneezed.
Janet ducked her head in pained anticipation. This was it. This was
the end of life as she knew it.
She covered her ears. Carly's hands went back to her mouth. Heidi never
had uncovered her eyes.
Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Janet couldn't help herself.
Mrs. Murphy, her flowered dress starched to stiff attention, stumped
over to stand in front of her. Janet raised her eyes to look up at Mrs.
Murphy's face, set into disapproving lines and topped by a tight iron-gray
"I'm glad you find this situation amusing, Janet. I'm sorry to say I
don't see it the same way."
Janet scrambled to her feet, skidding as she rose. She wiped something
sticky from her palm onto her jeans. "I'll clean it up! I'll clean up the
whole thing. You just sit for a few minutes and relax, and I'll make you
a cup of tea, and then I'll clean everything up."
Mrs. Murphy rolled her eyes and shook her head in rejection of any such
idea. "If you'll remember, the last time you cleaned up, it took me two
days to find everything you'd put away. No, thank you, Janet. I've had
just about all I can take of your solutions to this problem. I'm not a
young woman. Your mother understands that. I do my work, and she manages
the children. You, on the other hand, are managing nothing." She turned
and stumped back to the door, waving her purse to clear the flour dust
from the air in her path.
Janet, heart pounding in panic, followed her to the door. "Please don't
leave. I need you. The girls need you. What will my mother say?" She'd
never cooked an actual meal in her life-- what was she going to do to feed
three kids for ten days? "Wait!" Mrs. Murphy stopped and turned around,
her hand on the knob. "At least tell me what kind of baby food to buy!"
Mrs. Murphy rolled her eyes again--the mannerism was starting to grate--as
if the situation was so hopeless, no amount of last- minute coaching could
save it. "I've been cooking and cleaning for your mother for ten years.
And they've been good years. But, as I told you last time, and the time
before, I can't keep walking into messes like this. When your mother gets
back, tell her she may call me." And with that, Mrs. Murphy turned and
Janet slumped onto a kitchen stool. She'd been barely scraping by for
the past four days with Mrs. Murphy's help. And tomorrow was Friday and
the last day of school before spring break--both older girls would be home
all day, every day, for a whole week. How was she going to manage alone?
When the phone rang, Janet knew the gods were out to get her. It could
only be one person. One person whose radar was precisely attuned to Janet's
stress level. One person who could take even the minor disasters of Janet's
life and somehow turn them into looming catastrophes.
Janet picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"Janet? Is that you?" Her mother's voice sounded weak. But then, her
mother's voice always sounded as if the distance it had to travel was too
much for it. But there was something more. Her mother's voice also sounded
stressed, and Janet had a paranoid moment where she wondered if her mother
had already talked to Mrs. Murphy. Maybe they'd been discussing her inadequacies
Maybe the whole situation was all some big experiment cooked up by Mrs.
Murphy and her mother to see how quickly Janet would go over the edge.
She almost laughed at herself.
Okay, she'd gotten that out of her system. She took a breath, determined
to hide the hopelessness of the situation from her mother. "Hi, Mom."
"Janet, what's wrong? You sound anxious."
Leave it to her mother. The woman had some sort of crystal ball. Janet
manufactured a couple of panting breaths. "Nothing, Mom, I was just running
up the stairs to get the phone."
Suspicious pause. "Has Mrs. Murphy been complaining about Clementine
again?" Okay, so the crystal ball was working, but it was a little foggy.
"No, Mom, Mrs. Murphy hasn't said a word about Clem." How nice not to
have to tell a lie. Janet suppressed a nervous giggle. "What's up?"
"Well, dear, I'm in the hospital."
Janet jumped to her feet. "Mom! What happened? Are you okay?"
"Oh, yes, I'm fine now. I thought I was going to die yesterday, though,
I really did. I had a gall bladder attack yesterday afternoon. I really
thought it was my heart, Janet, but it was my gall bladder, can you imagine?
The pain! And they had to do emergency surgery."
"Surgery! But...what happened? Are you coming home? Do you need me to
pick you up at the airport?"
"Well, no, that's the problem, dear. Between the medication, and the
surgery--as I understand it, abdominal surgery is really quite a problem.
And my doctor is really quite adamant on the matter, he's really almost
a bully. I'm not allowed to fly for six weeks. Oh, Janet, I just don't
know what we'll do!" Her voice rose to a wail as she reassessed the enormity
of the problem.
And the walls came closing in on Janet. Six weeks! She'd barely survived
four days, and that was with Mrs. Murphy's help.
With one part of her brain, Janet continued to talk to her mother, reassuring
her that they'd get through this latest tragedy. With the other part, she
held a small, private pity party for herself.
Slightly dazed, phone cradled to her shoulder, her mother's voice fretting
in her ear, she went through the motions of mopping the kitchen and loading
the dishwasher. She reached under the counter for the dishwasher detergent--then
remembered. They were out of that, too. Mrs. Murphy had complained about
She reached for the bottle of dish soap on the counter, squinted at
the label. Not for use in automatic dishwashers. Probably wasn't
as strong--she'd just use a little more. She squirted it into the dispenser
in the door of the dishwasher, closed it tight, and started it up.
"And, honey, maybe you should get Mrs. Murphy to start coming every
day. Sometimes she'll do that, if it's important. Keep the children away
from her, though. You know how she gets about the kitchen."
Janet decided not to tell her mom about Mrs. Murphy yet. "Mom, you just
concentrate on getting well. Don't worry about us--we'll get by." Somehow.
They'd have to.
"All right, honey. Now, don't forget Heidi's ballet class-- Miss Rita
doesn't like it if the girls miss. And the recital, of course. Clementine's
got an appointment at the vet's in two weeks--it's marked on the calendar.
She's having her teeth cleaned, poor baby. She just hates it. And Carly's
birthday, get her a Baby Talks A Lot, she's been asking for it for weeks.
And I told her we'd have a party if she'd just stop checking with me about
it every day, she's just so anxious since Georgie and Paul ..."
Her mom's voice trailed off into the threat of tears. They'd all been
so worried about Carly, who had retreated into an anxious shell after her
parents had been killed in a plane crash. Carly still had a difficult time
telling anyone she loved 'goodbye,' even for short periods. The poor kid
had wrung her hands, an occasional tear running down her face, for the
entire two hours between the time her grandmother's airplane had taken
off in Ohio and the time it landed in Florida.
Janet cleared her own throat and broke in before one of them could start
to cry. "Don't worry, Mom. I have everything under control. We're getting
along fine. You just take care of yourself, and I'll take care of things
But as she hung up the phone, Janet knew she was in trouble. She hadn't
worried too much about neglecting her business for a week or so, but another
month and a half? She had a million phone calls to make just today, and
it was already past ten o'clock. If her business was going to survive,
she had to get upstairs, shut herself into her office, and get some work
done for her clients.
First, she made sure Carly and Heidi were absorbed in a video and Emma
was still happy in her walker. "You kids stay right there on that couch.
Do not, under any circumstances, go back into the kitchen. I will make
lunch. Understand?" She looked from face to face, getting a solemn nod
from each. "I'll be right upstairs."
Upstairs, Janet dug into her in-basket, which she hadn't seen the bottom
of since she'd gotten here. Usually, her goal was to touch each piece of
mail only once before dealing with it. Today, she just wanted to put out
The first two pieces of mail were junk. She threw them in the trash.
The third needed a quick letter response. She dashed it off on her computer
and slotted it into an envelope, ready to be mailed. The fourth piece of
mail required a phone call. As she reached for the telephone, she heard
a timid knock. She groaned and looked at her watch. She'd only been working
for ten minutes. What could they possibly need already? She got up and
opened the door. Carly stood there, her face a tight knot of worry under
her silky light-brown bangs. Heidi peered around from behind, her tiny
features screwed into a conscious imitation of her sister's frown.
"What is it?"
"Aunt Jannie, there's a funny noise in the kitchen."
"A funny noise?" Janet walked to the railing to lean her head over.
"Did you look?"
The girls exchanged an uncertain glance before Carly answered. "You
told us not to."
Now Janet could hear the noise herself, an ominous gurgling sound. Almost
a heaving, like some giant cat was bringing up a hairball. Not a pretty
She squeezed Carly's shoulder in quick reassurance, then brushed past
the girls and down the stairs. Pushing open the door, she stepped down
the last step into the kitchen. Her feet went out from under her, and once
again she landed flat on her bottom.
Only this time, she was sitting in a pile of white suds leaking from
the dishwasher and fast threatening to overtake the kitchen table.
As she watched in wide-mouthed disbelief, more suds poured out of the
machine. She scrambled to her knees and splashed over to flick the power
off. The suds slowed and lost their vigor, and soon they dripped out only
She frowned at the dishwasher and the suds covering the floor, then
looked at the girls, who had followed her down. "Has that ever happened
"No." Carly looked at Heidi, who shook her head.
Janet picked up the bottle of dish soap and squinted at the back of
it. "Maybe I used too much?"
Carly sighed, a huff of exasperation she must have learned from Mrs.
Murphy. She stuck her hands high on her non-existent hips. "You can't put
that in. You can only put the powder stuff in. The blue stuff in the bottle
is only for delicates."
"Delicates?" Janet frowned. "Delicate dishes?"
Almost an hour later, Janet sighed as she finished mopping the kitchen
floor. Straightening, she put a hand to her lower back. Without a doubt,
this was the cleanest kitchen floor in all of Cincinnati. Maybe in all
of southwestern Ohio. And she didn't care if a bomb went off in here, she
wasn't mopping another square inch today.
She'd gone ahead and fed Emma, as long as the floor was going to be
mopped again, and given Heidi and Carly a peanut-butter sandwich and half
a jar each of something called capers which looked like it had been in
the pantry forever and which both girls rejected out of hand. Janet didn't
blame them--whatever capers were, they didn't look or smell very good.
But they were the only thing resembling a vegetable left in the house.
This afternoon, she really had to go grocery shopping, three kids or not.
Finally, back to work. Then she groaned, remembering the bedspread.
Who would have believed three little girls could cause so much work? After
the last few days, Janet had a new respect for her mother. For all mothers.
Especially single mothers.
Emma fussed as she walked past, so she took the little girl out of her
walker and set her on a blanket on the floor in the family room, where
Carly and Heidi were playing with their toy kitchen. As Janet watched,
Heidi stuffed everything she could find, including a doll and a toy box
of crackers, into the toy dishwasher and slammed the door. "And stay in
there!" the little girl scolded the machine. Janet bit her lip, torn between
laughter and chagrin.
"Carly, watch your sister for a minute while I strip the beds and put
a load of laundry in. If you hear anything funny, come and tell me right
With the master-bedroom bedspread and the sheets from all the beds in
her arms, Janet carefully felt her way with her toes down the stairs into
the basement. She loaded the bedspread in by itself and started the washer.
Then she took a moment to sort the sheets into whites and colors and pull
a load of dry clothes out of the dryer. As she was folding the last of
them, she heard Carly shrieking her name.
"Aunt Jannie! Aunt Jannie!"
Janet took the stairs two at a time and skidded to a stop in the kitchen.
Carly stood there in tears, holding Emma up by her armpits. Emma's face
and hands were smeared with something clear and sticky.
"She ate it! She ate the whole jar!"
"Jar of what? What did she eat?" Janet grabbed the baby and swiped her
fingertip through the smear. The goop came off on her finger. She sniffed
it. No odor. "Carly, what is it?"
"V-v-vaseline!" Carly hiccupped. "She ate the whole jar!" She held up
an empty one-pound jar of Vaseline, which Janet knew had been at least
three-quarters full that morning.
Janet grabbed the jar and turned it over to look for warnings. "Not
meant for internal use. If ingested, call a physician or poison control
center immediately." Poison Control! What was the number?
She skidded over to the phone, flipped open the phone book to find the
number, and punched the buttons with shaking hands.
A woman's calm voice spoke in her ear. "Poison Control."
"Vaseline! I have a baby here who just ate Vaseline!"
"You mean the petroleum jelly?" The woman's voice rose in disbelief.
"Well, that's a new one. Let me check." The woman clicked off.
Janet clamped the phone to her ear with one shoulder and peered into
Emma's face. Emma looked okay from the outside, but who knew what petroleum
jelly could do to a baby? She tried to pry open the little girl's mouth
to look inside, but her fingers kept slipping.
After a few seconds that seemed like hours, the woman was back on the
line. "Hello, ma'am?"
"How much of it did she eat?"
"About three-quarters of a pound, I think. Maybe a little less."
"Does she seem upset in any way?"
Janet's fingers slipped a little as she pulled Emma's face around to
take a look. The baby grinned at her. "No, she seems fine."
"It doesn't look as if there's any problem with petroleum jelly. Call
your pediatrician to see if she wants to see the baby, but our information
indicates that the petroleum jelly should just pass right through. You
might want to keep an extra- sharp eye on her diapers, though, and change
them right on the dot. When that stuff does come through, it's going to
come through with a vengeance."
Janet fought back tears of relief. "Oh, thank you."
"I just need a little information from you for our files. First, can
I have your name and address?"
After Janet hung up, she sagged to the floor, shaking, cradling the
slippery Emma in her lap. She held out her free arm to Carly, who was wringing
her hands, silent tears streaming down her face. "Come here, Carly. Emma's
going to be fine, they said the Vaseline wouldn't hurt her." She pulled
the older girl in close, and the three of them sat on the kitchen floor
for a moment in silence.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Jannie."
"Oh, Carly, no. I'm sorry, honey, it's my fault. I told you I'd be right
back upstairs, and I should have been." And besides, what sorry excuse
for an aunt would leave an eight-year- old in charge of an infant, anyway?
Before she went back to work, Janet set up the playpen against the wall
in the family room. "Here you go, Emma, you can play right here by the
window. Look at all Grandma's pretty plants." She brought her in-basket
downstairs and sat at the kitchen table, where she could keep a closer
eye on things. While Emma played happily in her pen, Janet reached for
the next piece of mail.
A few minutes later, Janet looked up to see Emma gurgling happily in
her playpen while Heidi stood by her, handing her things to play with.
Janet smiled. "Are you playing nice with Emma? That's nice."
Heidi giggled. "She thinks they're good."
"That's sweet." Janet looked down again at the letter in her hand before
her brain pounced on Heidi's word choice. "Good?" She jerked her head back
up for a second look. "What's good?" What was that on the floor of the
playpen? She walked over for a closer look and reached down to pick up
what looked like a leaf. A wet leaf. A chewed-up wet leaf. She gaped at
Emma, who gave her an open-mouthed grin. As Janet watched in horror, a
second half-eaten leaf fell out of Emma's mouth and fluttered to the floor
of the playpen.
Janet grabbed the baby and the two goopy leaves, ran to the phone, and
hit the redial button.
"Poison Control." The same calm voice.
"Hello, Poison Control? This is Janet Resnick again, I just talked to
you, just a little while ago, the baby who ate the petroleum jelly, Emma?
She ate a leaf from a houseplant."
"What kind of plant, and how many leaves?"
Janet looked at the chewed leaves in her hand. "I guess it's a Boston
fern, and I don't know how much, exactly. I was sitting right there!"
"A Boston fern won't hurt her. But you might want to check the house
for any poinsettias or philodendrons, they're poisonous. Get those up out
of her reach. Also dieffenbachia."
"Thank you ... what's your name?"
"Rhoda, Ms. Resnick."
"Thank you, Rhoda. I'll be more careful from now on."
When Janet sat down again to work, she kept Emma safely in her lap.
When she needed to make a phone call, she carried the baby with her upstairs
to her desk, and held her, squirming, on her knee while she pulled open
the desk drawer and dug out some index cards. She handed one of the cards
and a pen to Emma, hoping to occupy the baby while Janet made a quick phone
call. One arm around Emma's waist, the phone shrugged to her shoulder,
Janet leaned over her desk and wrote notes to herself with her free hand
while she talked. As she hung up, she looked away from the notes she had
taken just in time to see Emma bite down on a plastic ink cartridge. The
pen lay in two parts on the desk. As Janet watched in paralyzed disbelief,
Emma coughed and swallowed, and a little trail of blue-black ink ran out
of the corner of her mouth. She looked up into Janet's horrified face and
"Poison Control." Rhoda again.
"Hello, Rhoda. This is Janet. Emma just drank ink."
"How much ink, and what kind?"
"As much as comes in one of those refills for fountain pens."
"Hold on a minute, Ms. Resnick." Rhoda was off the line for a moment.
"Ms. Resnick? That much ink won't hurt her, but we'd like to send someone
out for a visit this afternoon. Will you be home for the next hour or so?"
Not long after, an earnest young man with horn-rimmed glasses and a
notebook showed up at the door. He introduced himself as her caseworker,
Mr. Dooley, and he followed Janet around the house, taking notes and saying
"Mmm-hmm" every once in a while.
At least the kitchen floor was clean.
Janet led him into the family room, where the girls were playing. As
the social worker watched, Heidi planted her doll in a toy highchair and
shook her finger at it. "No, no, baby. Do not eat the dish soap!"
Then Emma turned to grin at them, her mouth a wide black- smeared crater
with six ink-stained teeth.
Way past the point of embarrassment, Janet just gave the social worker
a sick smile.
Mr. Dooley asked Janet a few questions ("The law requires us to ask
these," he explained in a dry voice). He spent some time alone with the
girls, playing on the floor ("Just routine").
Then he told Janet he was satisfied. "I can see you have your hands
full here." He pulled a brochure from a pocket in his notebook. "These
folks are good. We've recommended them to a lot of people. Give them a
call. You'll be glad you did." He looked her straight in the eye and flickered
a perfunctory smile. "We'll be glad you did."
Janet got the drift.
After he left, Janet looked at the brochure. The Mommy School. Everything
Mom Forgot to Teach You About Being a Mom. And in smaller print: Immersion
Programs and Refresher Courses Available.
Sounded expensive. Well, there was Mrs. Murphy's salary--Mrs. Murphy
certainly wouldn't be using it. And there was always the girls' money.
Her mother tried not to dip into that because the money was earmarked for
the girls' education, but she'd given Janet access to it before she left,
in case of emergency.
Janet had been sure she wouldn't have any of those.
She needed help, no doubt about it. Maybe she could get some nice, grandmotherly
type in here to help take care of the kids. And now that Mrs. Murphy wasn't
going to be coming by, she could sure use some help with the cooking and
housekeeping, too. She picked up the phone and dialed the number.
"The Mommy School, this is Sheila."
Janet pictured a smiling brunette to go with the warm, strong voice.
"Hi, Sheila, my name is Janet Resnick." Janet's voice cracked, and she
took a deep breath and started again, trying to keep the desperation out
of her voice. "I'm having some trouble keeping up with my three nieces.
I need some help."
"Well, ma'am, you've come to the right place."
Just listening to Sheila's voice made Janet feel calmer already. "What
all is it that you offer?"
"Ma'am, it's probably best if we just send someone out for you. It's
a lot easier to explain it in person."
"Are you going to be sending whomever will be working here?"
"Well, fine. Just make sure she's got plenty of energy. I've got three
active little girls here and a big house to take care of. This is not going
to be the easiest of assignments."
"No, ma'am, it never is. Motherhood is not for wimps."
"Uh, when can you get someone here?" Janet hated to sound desperate,
but she was beyond trying to keep up a front.
"How about tomorrow morning? Say, Ten a.m.?"
That meant Janet would have one more breakfast to deal with, and then
she'd be home free. "Perfect." Janet hung up. She was exhausted.
What a day.
What was she going to tell her mom?
End, Chapter One.