Surrogate Daughter

By Gina Easley

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

When the dead visit my mother in dreams, they always come bearing information, like a character in an Isabelle Allende novel. Her older brother, who died of liver failure when she was eighteen, made only one visit over the decades to reassure her he was at peace, and then not again until long after both their parents had passed. My grandmother made a similar walk-on appearance. These ghostly visitations in the realm of slumber are often a sign of peace or acceptance for my mother. But not with Gayle, my mother’s best friend of forty years, also my godmother, who passed away September 2013, slipped off the edge of our knowing, her end a question.

“I dreamt she was a prisoner upstairs in that bedroom crying for help and mercy and not able to get to the bathroom,” my mom texted me this week. “She even called out my name and said she was in such pain.”

The dream repeated on an exhausting loop all night, she said. The same loop that works its way through my brain every day. Like a badly written mystery novel, pieces keep falling into place since we learned, six months after the fact, of Gayle’s death.

Learned after the fact, long after the chance to say goodbye, because her husband, too, ghosted away, line disconnected, house sold, a man still flesh becoming phantom.

Our facts have been gleaned from those practitioners of health and death—the doctor, the dentist, the mortuary attendant.

Denied the chance to attend a funeral, my mother and I arranged a memorial, just a handful of Gayle’s oldest friends, clustered around the coffee table. After I’d gone, Mary Lou, with short-cropped hair, a self-professed “psychic” to whom my mother had not spoken in over thirty years, told her: “Gayle was here, I felt her. She said her greatest regret is what happened between Jordan and Jeff.”

There’s no way that Mary Lou could have known about the falling out between me and my godfather.


Children give love the way the sun gives light—without reserve, daily, radiant. Unless it’s beaten or broken or shamed out of them. Children see the world with awe and love. Sometimes in the midst of a grumpy rushing morning, my six-year-old son will stop and notice a simple thing—a puddle looks like a frog or the cloud like an anvil, and my heart will tumble downhill at how much beauty I fail to see. I saw it once, too, though; I remember the dust motes streaming through slivers of light in my godparents’ New York apartment when I was about his age. Only, I didn’t think of it as dust, but particles of separate universes escaped from the books they stacked nearly to the ceilings, a tower where Rapunzel would never have been bored, with reading material for ages and Chinese food delivered at any hour.

Can I really remember such specifics from these early years? But I do—wooden floors that shined with a rare light. A red velvet couch, decorative buttons bulging off the taut fabric like the teats of a nursing bitch. Magazine pages, glossy and spilling open their stinky perfumed pages with half dead models in painful contortions that equaled beauty.

My godparents were mythical creatures—Gayle commanding us from her perch in the chair, or on the book-laden bed—small as a child, with an old cancerous bite scooped from her side, but a Goddess in her power. “Bring me those Malomars,” she’d command Jeff. “I’m hungry.” And he’d scurry off on his sinewy calves, a man-servant to do her bidding. Sometimes I imagined her holding a scepter of snakes entwining, a tiny clay urn of poison hidden around her neck. And Jeff, his mind a hoarded library of facts and verses, his super power in memory, recitation and detail, Shakespeare and Elliott, Baldwin and Foster Wallace, a shield woven of words to keep him safe from the world.

When I visited, I was the lone child, Eloise in my freedom to roam their rooms, while clouds of pot smoke filled the air. They’d let me sink my loosening little girl teeth into oily, creamy cannoli, tri-color marzipan cookies from Vignero’s bakery around the corner, greasy, fragrant NY pizza, cool cups of bubbling soda.

My godfather crooned stories to me, his accent musical, his eyes always slightly glazed. Soft brown bangs fell in his face—thin and fine like mine. John Lennon glasses. Skinny calves always thrusting out of long shorts.

When the New York apartment gave way to a bright San Diego condo for Gayle’s new job, I missed the luminous magic of that urban pad, even though the view was traded from back alley to blue ocean. The people here were surfer tan instead of poet pale. But the stacks of books were just as high. Jeff gave me strange and captivating books full of broken men and eccentric women. William T. Vollman and Burroughs, Steven Milhauser and R. Crumb.

I was a product of stories, those I read and those I wrote, mimicking the worlds of my reading. An only child until fourteen, I fancied myself a lonely orphan, my divorced but friendly parents preoccupied by their addictive monkeys and bare survival, making a living, making a score, making it through the night.

Did I love him simply because he was there, appointed by the guardians of my care in the interim between their own availability? Or did I love him the way that we accept the gravity that holds us to the earth? I took his presence as a sign that he must love me, too. After all, he didn’t have to spend a week entertaining a barely-teen girl every spring break. The kind of girl who alternated between scribbling in her journals in a fury and brooding over blasted MTV music videos, roaming the condo like a rangy young beast in search of snacks.

My instincts, even as a child, were sharply honed. Once, at the age of seven, a stoned friend of our downstairs neighbor found me playing alone outside and told me that he had “a little dragon friend” who was cute, but “not as cute as you.” Somehow, I knew this man for what he was. I stood up and shouted, “You can’t talk to me like that, I’m just a little girl.”

Perhaps I loved my godfather because I had known him all my life, the mythical man who could quell my bellowing baby howls with opera played full bore. Maybe I loved him because he came attached to the warm, sweet, often laughing, dirty-joke–cracking presence of my godmother. But I never trusted him. He always kept a mug beside him, retreating often to the kitchen to refill it. By the time I was fourteen, and visiting for spring break, my own mother having already gone to drug and alcohol rehab, I no longer wondered about the origins of that potent sweet-chemical scent; further, his slurring, babbling, suddenly-sitting-too-close told me that he was drunk.


I knew that Jeff had a daughter: the mysterious “Beth” who lived in the same South that had carved his own verbal cadence, tight and twangy. She was older than me, and I pictured her like wild Mary of The Secret Garden, unkempt and blonde and inconsolably unhappy because her parents had abandoned her. Well, unlike Mary, only Beth’s father had left, however, and now he was mine, on loan, a fatherish figure who kept me company because he did not have to work. I don’t know whose not-quite-whispered whispers suggested that Beth despised me, usurper child who had stolen what was rightfully hers by my loving him.

This is also a story about selfishness, how a child wants what she wants and takes what she can get. Pocketfuls of stolen change scooped from her father’s drawers, or candy from 7-11 shelves snatched right behind a clerk’s turned back. This is a story of how one little girl never thought to wonder why her godfather had a faraway daughter, a child of imagined swamps with a sweet drawl, who never came to visit, or why he rarely went to visit her. Not until the faraway daughter had a child of her own, then two, did pictures appear of the then twenty-something daughter and her gleaming, golden-haired babes.


Only those you have loved can break your heart. It doesn’t matter if they ever loved you back. The adult forms like a stone shell around the seed crystal of the child.

Life moved in tidal ways. Ebbs of happiness and dark depths, followed by riptides pulled into fissures where I pressed facedown, spitting out sand and bottom dwellers. As my godfather shifted his loyalties toward the clear liquor that he loves more than daughters or wives or having a job or reading or the genius IQ chipped away by years, the crystal of girl that I was responded in pain. She said hateful things and wrote them down. She aimed them with lethal precision.

Children give love like the sun gives light.

Adults transmute light into pain.


One month after the one-year anniversary of Gayle’s death, after several unsuccessful attempts to contact Jeff, suddenly I found a friend request on my Facebook account from the faraway daughter herself, Beth. For a moment I could not swallow. Was she coming to take me to task for pushing him away? For taking what wasn’t mine?

And yet she was my only possible connection to the answers that my mom and I have been seeking for nearly eight months. Hands at tremble, I accepted, unsure of what was true: would she turn out to be the harpy full of hatred who I’d been warned about, who disliked me on principle for being the surrogate?

Her message to me suggested otherwise, breaking open a bloom of relief. She had not seen her father in over a month, though he’d been living in a house provided by her and her husband for the year since Gayle had passed. When Gayle’s life insurance came in, a sum roughly four times the amount my husband makes at his job every year, Jeff, she said, quite literally took the money and disappeared without a word, ran with the widow of one of Gayle’s cousins.

Beth bore witness to the aftermath of Gayle’s end. The feces dried upon the floor of her bedroom. Death by infection of the bowel. A pitiful end. Neglect or fear, shame or hate, I do not know. He was relieved not to hear her shrieking his name in the end, shrieking for help to the toilet. Calling to be rescued from the insult of her body, from the ravages of its unwanted pain.

“What I really need now,” Jeff said to Beth in the hours after Gayle was buried, “Is a wife.”


When the wannabe orphan and the faraway daughter, both grown women, spoke to each other at last, voices slinking across state lines, there wasn’t any hate, only understanding.

Mendacious Synecdoche, he had once called me. Liar, stupid girlDon’t humor yourself. And to the faraway daughter: Drunken cunt.

Between us daughters, only sharp-edged clarity about loss, about leaving, about the gnawing ache left behind in the hearts of daughters, no matter their prefix: born or borrowed.

And in the end, through each other, we found pockets of leftover love, crystallized, untarnished, that through it all, remain uncorrupt.


JORDAN E. ROSENFELD is author of the novels Forged in Grace and Night Oracle, and two writing guides. She is Managing Editor at Sweatpants & and her writing has appeared in Medium’s Human Parts, Modern Loss, the New York Times (Motherlode), Ozy, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and more. Her website is And on twitter: @JordanRosenfeld

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A Gift for My Mother

By Gina Kelly

By Amber Stevens

My mother called today to tell me her dog died. She spoke in halting, measured tones; she expected me to be devastated. I should have been. After all, I had loved that dog and had chosen her myself from a motley litter of neglected pups shivering in a hole in some asshole’s backyard, a piece of plywood thrown over the top for shelter.

“Twenty bucks for her,” he’d said, then spit a stream of tobacco by my shoe. “Hell, take two. Ain’t got room for ’em pups. Second goddamn litter this year.”

I glared at him. I was fifteen, fearless. These puppies were no more than four weeks old; I could see that. The one I chose would probably be the only survivor. I scooped her out, a trembling golden pup with liquid brown eyes, a gift for my mother, although I was really the one who wanted a dog. Her belly, pink and soft, thrummed against my palm; she mewed like a kitten. I shoved money at the man, muttered thanks, and walked home with that tiny, trembling body tucked in my coat. I loved her already, of course. Her uncomplicated love would fill a void for both my mother and me: for me, she would provide affection and acceptance, and for my mother, she would be the perfectly yielding and submissive creature she’d longed to raise.

When I left home nine years ago, fleeing cool mountain air for desert sky, my only regret was seeing that cocked head poised at the front bay window, watching me drive away. I couldn’t explain to her that I wouldn’t be back that night, or the next, or maybe ever. She had slept piled on my feet for four years, but she was technically my mother’s dog. I’d driven away and left her there and, after a few days, stopped imagining her sitting at the window waiting for my return. It’s a talent I have. Out of sight, out of mind. But I did know this, from conversations I had with my mother over the phone, when conversation with her was still possible: the puppy I’d once rescued from a hole in the ground had grown old, couldn’t run anymore, couldn’t climb stairs, had gone blind in one eye, and suffered from bad hips. So maybe that’s why I didn’t cry. I knew it was just her time to go.

With my mother, it wasn’t so easy. I pictured her on the other end of the line, frowning, broken heart warring with bruised ego, waiting for me to offer her some form of compassion, or break down in tears, or anything to flood the dam between us. I could hear her questions in the silence. What happened? What did I do? I was grateful for her pride, which I knew would protect us both from the answers. She would never ask out loud.


“Molly died,” I told my husband after dinner. Greg was at the kitchen sink, scraping leftover mashed potatoes and corn into a large coffee can. We’d recently begun composting, determined to transform our nutrient-depleted soil into something that could nurture a garden. That had been my idea. I had visions of sprawling zucchini, tomato plants with plump red fruit, flowering broccoli and crisp lettuce, thriving under the fierce desert sun. A garden against all odds. I soaked the hard ground and split it open, battling dry, unyielding earth with shovel, sweat, and stubborn will. I spread bags of musky fertilizer, breaking soft clumps against my gloves and sifting them through my fingers. I picked out stray bits of gravel and turned the soil until it was like silk, shaping perfect, even rows for sowing seeds.

The whole family planted together. My seven-year-old daughter methodically placed each seed according to the measurements on the packages, gently pressing a fresh layer of dirt on top. My son, who was two, dumped his seeds in a pile and brushed them roughly across his row, brow furrowed in concentration. Greg sprayed a fine mist of water across the plot, and we smiled at each other, hopeful. We watched the water sink in the ground, watched the ground deepen into rich, fertile black. The wet earth released pungent waves on the evening breeze, and the kids groaned, giggled, and pinched their noses.

Greg peered over the stove. “Who died?”

“Molly. My mother’s dog.”

“Awww. That’s too bad.”

He came back into the dining room, where I sat shoving food around my plate. The kids had already bolted to the backyard, Anne scattering bubbles across the lawn for the benefit of her little brother, who chased them maniacally, collapsing in laughter as they popped in his chubby hands. Greg leaned against the patio door and watched, grinning. “Look at those two. A ninety-nine cent bottle of detergent and they’re happy as clams. We could have wrapped some bottles for Christmas and saved a few hundred bucks.”


He turned to me. “What’s wrong?”

“I told you. Molly died.”

“She was pretty sick, wasn’t she?”

“Sure. But still.” I pushed my plate away. “She was kind of my dog, you know, before I left home.” It was an accusation.

“You never told me that. I’m sorry, hon.” Greg tipped his head and smiled gently. “I’m sure it was for the best.”

I looked away from his sympathy, hating it. It felt better to chastise him instead of myself, for feeling nothing. I was a wonderful person. I stared past him, at our children playing. Anne stood like a gazelle, her legs long and graceful. When she had slid into the world, slick and purple and showered in blood, my heart had swallowed her whole. How exquisite, the relief that swept through me as I clutched her tiny body to mine, gasping at the final expulsion of my pregnancy and all its secret fears. You can love a daughter, I’d thought. You can be a good mother. There is nothing wrong with your heart.


After Anne was born, we flew north to the little town nestled in the mountains where I’d grown up. Anne was my mother’s first grandchild; I wanted to give her every chance to form the bond with her granddaughter that had somehow eluded her with me. Perhaps the baby will even bring us closer, I thought on the plane. I imagined the hard lines of my mother softening as she watched me stroke my daughter’s smooth round cheek, sponge her tiny body clean, and swaddle her in soft towels; I imagined my mother gracefully relinquishing control and accepting her role as a grandmother.

The visit had been hell. She swooped in like a bat, folding Anne into her black embrace that was always more possession than affection. She pinned the baby against her shoulder while she stormed through the house collecting laundry; she clucked disapprovingly at Anne’s outfits, bundling her in blankets and whispering loudly to her husband, Tom, “The poor thing must be freezing!”

Tom would wink at me and shrug his shoulders. My anger at her dissolved into pity, for him. How could he stand it? But of course, he loved her. They had met and married shortly after I’d left home, eloping in Vegas in a move that shocked everyone. This woman who had never tolerated anyone. Tom was a good provider and she was able to quit working as a housekeeper; she took a part time job at a bookstore, spending her days quilting and working on her home. I was grateful that she had found someone she could live with; it relieved my burden of imagining how I would ever care for her later. It’s difficult to say who would be more miserable.

One morning on my way to the coffee pot, I glanced out the window and saw my mother feeding Anne a bottle of breast milk. She had spread a blanket on the grass and sat with the baby cradled in her arms, pressed against her bare chest where her button-down shirt fell open. Skin to skin contact. So Anne would know her smell. My stomach turned and bile burned my throat. You had your chance, I thought. I wanted to run out there, snatch my daughter away, and never return. Instead, I went back to bed, flinging myself down on the mattress she’d fitted with sheets from my childhood. I should never have come back here, I thought, and I began to cry, feeling all the ground I’d gained since leaving home shift underneath me, knocking me down.


She’d come to visit us several times since then, alone; Tom hated to travel. The pattern was always the same. We began cautiously hopeful, skirting the landmines of each other’s egos. She lavished praise on my housekeeping, my children, my career. I stayed up longer than I wanted to, listening to her plans for the garage shelves, the arguments with her neighbors, the peace she finds in her rose garden. How badly I wanted to love her. In those first days, we even shared secrets. She once confided her recent lab results, and how she woke the next day facing her own mortality. I once admitted to feeling like an inadequate wife, never completely at ease with an ironing board or a skillet. We smiled at each other, tentative.

By the third day, our smiles had worn thin, and all efforts to reach each other receded in mutual irritation. Her compliments would grow louder, thinning and tapering into sharp points that punctured the air, her sincerity popping like a balloon.

“It’s so smart that you let Matthew eat whatever he wants! They’re only little once, so what if they’re chubby? It’s so cute at that age!”

“Anne certainly has her own mind, doesn’t she? My goodness, what a feisty thing! I guess the less you discipline your children, the better off they are, right? So they’re strong, independent. Yes, things are different now, and I’m sure it’s for the best.”

Only I understood her. My husband was oblivious, and my children didn’t recognize sarcasm. I remembered the secrets I’d shared with her, and I felt embarrassed and angry for giving her more ammunition. Soon I was slamming cupboards and taking long walks at night, carrying on imaginary conversations where I politely told her to go to hell. I didn’t have to say anything; she knew. When it was finally time for her to go, she would ask Greg to take her to the airport, and we’d stiffly nod our goodbyes on the porch.

The guilt set in instantly, a churning in my belly, a fist around my heart. I pictured her at the terminal, sitting stoic, jaw set, wiping away angry tears. I cursed my weaknesses. What would it cost to indulge her? Why couldn’t I take the higher road? In another six months, I promised myself, I’ll try again. I’ll invite her down, and we’ll watch Anne of Green Gables and The Sound of Music and go out for huge, dripping hot fudge sundaes and swap our best salsa recipes.

And so I would invite her, and she would accept, and the goddamned trip would be just the same. Until the last time when everything changed.

When my mother called to tell me about her dog, I hadn’t seen her in two years. My husband had stopped asking, but of course, Anne persisted, fueled by the lovely, blind innocence of children. “Why doesn’t Grandma come anymore? When can we see Grandma?” I kept telling her, “soon,” hoping the knowledge would one day sink in and leave me blameless, like the truth about Santa Claus.


I stood to clear the table, glancing one more time at my son, chasing rainbows spun in soap bubbles that burst on the grass. I saw the breeze shift, saw the bubbles suddenly change course and drift toward the garden.


The dishes clattered back to the table; I threw the patio door open just in time to watch Matthew crash through the freshly cultivated plot, crushing onion stalks beneath his knees as he tripped. His arms flung out, his fingers driving through the dirt and ripping out several newly-sprouted carrots. He stared at their exposed, spidery roots, then looked up at us, uncertain.

“Bubba,” he explained.

“Oh, honey.” I stepped gingerly between the rows, scooped him out, and brushed the dirt from his clothes.

“It’s not his fault,” I said to no one in particular. “I meant to get a little fence up.” Matthew twisted away and raced back to the yard. I knelt at the edge of the garden to survey the damage, careful to avoid my husband’s gaze. Warm tears were slipping down my cheeks and I dabbed at them with my sleeve, feeling ridiculous. Here were my baby carrot plants, torn from their cool, dark shelter, where their roots had already begun to spread hungrily. I picked one up and gently placed it back in the ground, securing it with a fresh mound of earth, hoping it might survive. Greg knelt beside me and began to do the same.

We worked quietly together as the sun began its slow descent and cast honey-colored shafts of light across the patio. I felt his gaze pass over me like a shadow. He had learned not to ask. After several years together, I still didn’t know what you could and couldn’t share with a husband. No one can hear the whole truth of a person, and not walk away.

Later we made love in the dark, and after, the tears came again. I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest, wrapped my body in the blanket. I told myself it was time. In the dark, I wouldn’t have to see his face.

I told him about the last time she came, right after Matthew was born, when Tom came with her. I told him how one day, when I turned the water off in the shower, I heard Matthew screaming from the bed. I told him how I rushed into the room, laid next to my baby and nursed him, dripping water on his cheek. How I jerked the sheet over my naked body when someone knocked on the bedroom door, and then entered. How Tom paused at the bathroom door, then turned back and asked if he could watch. “I’ve never seen a woman nurse a baby before,” he’d said, and I thought it was all right, he’ll just look for a minute, and I was covered up, the baby latched on.

I told my husband how I wasn’t prepared when Tom sat on the bed and found the baby’s leg under the sheet, how I was too shocked to protest when he began stroking Matthew’s leg, rubbing my thigh in the process. I told him how my throat locked, and it seemed like it went on forever but it was probably only a minute and then the baby let go and my breast was exposed, wet with milk, and Tom gasped and then he stood and walked stiffly to the bathroom without saying a word.

Greg was silent. And then he said, “But are you sure he—”

“Don’t,” I hissed. “Don’t you dare question me. That’s why women don’t tell. But I’m telling you. A woman knows.”

Later, Greg held me under the bright lights of our kitchen. He stroked my hair. He asked me what I wanted him to do.

And I told him. Nothing. Because she needs him more than she needs me. Because their marriage is worth more than our fractured relationship. Because it’s too late for her to start over. Because I think the best gift I can give her is to let her go.


AMBER STEVENS is a pseudonym, for obvious reasons.