Sitting with her mother in the coffee shop, listening to Louise’s acknowledgement of the pain she’s caused, her apology, her hope for forgiveness, Jessie recalls one particular episode from her childhood.
“Do you remember my tenth birthday?” she asks Louise. She sees a flicker of panic in her mother’s eyes, and understands. Louise was too drunk that day. “It’s okay, Louise, it’s okay. I thought you probably wouldn’t.” Jessie closes her eyes for a moment, breathes in the aroma of coffee and pastry, and conjures up that morning.
“I was living with the Smithsons that year. They were among the best, you know. Really kind people. Mrs. Smithson made me french toast, my favorite, for breakfast. Mr. Smithson wasn’t around, I don’t remember where he was. She tried so hard, that woman. There always seemed to be dozens of kids, their own, the fosters, all their friends, kids who wandered in. She wanted to be good, to take care of all of us. Mostly on her own. Her husband – I barely remember him, he was so rarely there.
“Mrs. S bustled around the kitchen while I ate my birthday breakfast. The chair I sat on was too tall for me, my feet didn’t touch the floor. Maybe I was a super small kid? I’m not sure. Anyway, she talked to me while she made a dozen different breakfasts for all the kids, accommodating the picky eaters. She talked about how much she loved us all, how grateful she was to be able to care for us.
“She even said she was grateful for you. I stopped chewing. I couldn’t understand it. Grateful? What had you given her? You came over for lunch that day. Well, it was supposed to be lunch, but you were a few hours late, and pretty drunk. Sweet drunk, sloppy drunk, hugging and kissing me and telling me how much you loved me. I remember a sickly sweet mint smell on your breath as you promised you would take me back home, soon. And then I would get the present you forgot to bring with you.
“When you left, I ran to the room I shared with the other girls. Mrs. S followed, with a warm washcloth for me to put on my face. ‘Jessie,’ she said. ‘Your mother loves you. It’s the alcohol that poisons her. Never forget that. If she could choose, she would choose you.’”
Jessie pauses, takes another deep breath. “Louise. Mom. I forgave you then. That day. You’ve been forgiven this whole time.”