Ellie Bennet moved the bouquet of flowers to the center of the dining room table. Too bad if her husband didn't like them, she thought, enjoying them more now that they were in the sunlight. She felt she was entitled to enjoy them, taking the card's message to heart.
She remembered the afternoon of the delivery. She insisted it had to be a mistake and when she asked who had sent the order, the clerk said it was a secret admirer. Ellie had hoped Gene had ordered them for her. But, when he came home and asked what the deal was with the flowers, she knew. Part of her had known he would never do such a thing. It wasn't his way. It hurt her all the same.
Ellie ruled out her daughters Megan and Kirsten. Megan still held some resentment against her for the affair. And Kirsten... While she was getting better, she wouldn't have done something like that on her own.
Thinking back to the day her relationship with Kirsten was put to the test, it occurred to Ellie that there was one person who listened to her without judgment, had defended her to Kirsten despite what risks it put on their relationship. Then, the one time he asked Ellie for support, she let him down. But, what else was she suppose to do? She had to put her daughters well-being first, didn't she?
She read the card one more time. 'Just Because.' That was all it said. 'Just because.' Two words on a simple card that had brightened her day.
"She wouldn't let me make my card!" Owen yelled. "So I hit her!"
"Just because someone makes you mad, Owen, that doesn't give you the right to hit them," Charlie said. "Go get your things."
Kelly, the assistant in the childcare room, came up behind him. "It caught me off guard. I mean, I was working with the other students when I heard Ms. Boyle, the substitute, raise her voice at him."
"What happened?" he asked, having already heard Owen's version.
"You know Chrissy writes her art projects to be general. She had 'Make cards.' That was it."
"Yeah, go on," Charlie said. He shifted Owen's bag from one hand to the other.
Kelly let out a long sigh. "Well, Ms. Boyle insisted that the students make Mother's Day cards. I had intercepted most of the children and told them to decorate the inside first. We'd write the words later. Same way we always did it. Ms. Boyle got to Owen first, asked him to read the card to her then proceeded to correct him. That's when he hit her. She responded by taking snack away from him."
Charlie nodded in understanding. "So, has anyone had a chance to set this Ms. Boyle straight?"
She shook her head. "I had my hands full trying to keep the children in line as it was. The parent volunteer called in sick today." She glanced at the calendar. "They had to cancel tomorrow as well. Is there any way you could come in and..."
"No problem," Charlie said. "Morning's free tomorrow so I can help out at about...what time?"
"Whenever you can get here. Hopefully, Chrissy will be back."
Claudia had her hands full with her violin case, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a can of pop. "Julia's downstairs," she said before Charlie could ask.
"You're not calling that dinner, are you?"
"No," she said, her mouth full with a morsel. "Ross is running late. He had to take Tess to the doctor's office. Oh, and this is extended practice night. He invited me to stay and have dinner with them. That's all right, isn't it?"
"Sure. Just keep an eye out on what you think would be a useful gift for his birthday coming up."
"Okay." She pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from her backpack. "Family Tea is coming up. I reserved two spots. You and me. Don't forget to get that day off!"
"Refreshments needed or anything?" He glanced at the small print at the bottom. "What's with the entertainment segment?"
"No food needed. Just you and me, mister. Oh," she said hanging her head guiltily, "if I teach you how to play 'Chopsticks,' will you join me for one of the performances?"
He looked at her in disbelief. "Chopsticks, Claudia? No way."
"Great, I guess I'll not put our name on the list for that after all." Disappointment was clear in her voice. Her eyes turned in Owen's direction; the toddler was happily coloring pictures.
"I didn't say that. I'm just questioning the selection. Let me think about it, all right?"
A horn honked outside. "That's Ross! I'll see you later!"
Charlie found his other sister leaning against one of the old stools with a box in her hands. 'Whatcha got there, Jule?"
"Did you know Mom kept everything we made for her? Everything." She handed him a card he made for her when he was about Owen's age. "To think this hasn't had any additions in the last three years. Owen will never be able to see the look on her face because of one of his gifts."
Charlie explained the incident at school to her. "He's going to be asking questions I haven't quite figured out how to answer," he said. "Part of me wishes she was here so I could ask. Sounds stupid, doesn't it?"
"Almost as sensible as the search for Griffin's mother."
"Any luck yet?" he asked.
She shook her head. "The thing is, Griffin feels as if he knows a mother-in- law he never meant. And I can't even talk to my mother-in-law who still lives. I think."
"Don't lose hope yet. It's not as if she simply vanished from the face of the earth, you know."
"But, what if we don't find her, Charlie. That means whatever children we have will never be able to meet their grandmothers. Or a grandfather."
He put his arm around her shoulder. "I know I told you that the two of you had to consider your future, but, you're practically quantum leaping into the next generation! Slow down your pace and consider the family you do have. Like Grandpa Jake."
"Right, like he'd live long enough to hold his great-grandchild. Don't get me wrong, but I have a feeling he might not-." She stopped herself.
"That he might not beat this cancer? Maybe not. Then again, he just might."
She looked up at him. "You knew? I mean, I thought you knew, but I hadn't realized you really knew. I mean, it was clear to me that you were making up a story to tell Claude Christmas morning, but I didn't know."
He raised his eyebrow at her. "I think I know what you're saying, assuming you know what you think I know. You know?"
She elbowed him in the ribs and laughed. "Don't confuse me!"
"Fine, I won't." His face broke into a grin. "Let's get one thing straight. While both of us know-."
"Three of us. I told Bailey."
He shook his head. "Why am I not surprised? Fine. While the three of us know, let's make certain that none of us tells Claudia. Deal?"
"Good." The buzzer sounded. "Your laundry's done."
Bailey and Sarah came in arguing just as Julia finished fixing dinner.
"I'm telling you, Bailey, that you don't have to get my mother anything."
"Yeah, well, I'm not saying that I am. I'm just saying what if we took her out or treated her to something as the two of us? I mean, I'm not trying to kiss up to her or anything...unless you think that's what she wants?"
She laughed. "Don't worry about my mother. She's trying to get over this, really." Charlie gave them a questioning look. "Oh," she said, "maybe you can help out in this, Charlie. Is it a boyfriend's job to get something for his girlfriend's mother?"
"I'll back out of this one, thanks. But, Sarah, if you haven't decided what to get her, you can always bring her by the restaurant. Tell me her favorite dish and Louis will fix it up."
Bailey waved his arms. "Sure. I can't get her anything, but Mr. Manager can. Go figure."
Griffin joined them at the table. "I like the idea, myself. Granted, it might set you back financially, the gesture alone builds up a reputation. I can see it now: Begin a new tradition- Family Suppers at Salingers'. Very good move on your part."
Charlie gestured his plate in Griffin's direction. "See, Julia? I told you we could agree on things from time to time." He felt a tug on his pant leg.
Owen whispered. "Charlie, can I give you my card now?"
"Sure, Owen." The youngster disappeared around the corner.
"I bet if someone wanted to write a musical theme for him, it would be as quickly paced as an overture," Sarah said.
Julia saw a smirk on Charlie's face. "What? Don't you think that would be true? I can't imagine his piece having the pace of a waltz."
Before Charlie could explain, Owen ran in with a card in his hand. "This is for you, Charlie!"
"You made this for me?" He lifted Owen to sit him on his lap. "Will you read it to me, please?"
Owen's face beamed as he moved his fingers along the scribbles on the page. "This says: To my favorite brother Charlie. You and Julia and Bailey and Claudia are my best friends ever in the whole wide world! Love me. Owen."
"That is wonderful, buddy!" Charlie gave him a hug. "We're going to leave this here on the table so everyone can see it, all right?" Owen nodded approvingly.
Claudia came home about the same time Bailey left to take Sarah home. Julia and Griffin had left after cleaning up the dinner mess.
"Charlie? What are you doing in the basement? I already did the laundry."
He motioned for her to join him. "I want to show you something." He pulled out a portfolio filled with sheet music.
Her eyes opened wide. "What is it?"
"Our own personal compositions," he told her. "Mom and Dad wrote one for each of us." He shuffled through them. "This is yours."
She scanned the notes, trying to determine the tempo, the feel. "Have I heard this?"
He nodded. "When you were little. Younger than Owen. Dad played the piano while Mom played the violin. Do you want to hear it?"
He found a collection of cassettes and took her upstairs. "Follow me."
Claudia sat on the piano bench, confused. "I don't remember Dad playing piano."
"There are many things you might not remember. And, regrettably, there are some things you didn't get a chance to know about them." He played one side of the cassette that featured the duet.
Claudia found herself swept by the beauty of the piece. It was soft, gentle, yet wandering like an inquisitive spirit, light and flowing. She told Charlie this.
"That's just how it's suppose to sound. 'Claudia's Cloud,' I think they called this one."
"What's on the other side of the tape?" she asked.
"Just the individual instruments."
"Can I take that with me, to listen to while I do my homework?"
He nodded. "It's yours. So's the music. Did you want Mom's piece?" He handed it to her.
Later that evening, Charlie selected a bedtime story for Owen.
"No. Read that one," he said, pointing to a Dr. Seuss book.
" 'Are You My Mother?' Are you sure, Owen?" Charlie knew he wouldn't get anywhere arguing with him. Sighing, he said, "Fine, this one it is."
The following morning, Charlie stayed with Owen at daycare. The first thing he noticed was Chrissy's absence. Catching Kelly's eye, he saw instantly that he'd get the chance to meet this Ms. Boyle.
"Hello," a woman said behind him. "Am I to assume you're the volunteer for today?"
Charlie put out his hand. "Yes. I'm, Charlie. And you are...?"
She looked down on the toddler holding tightly to Charlie's hand." Sorry." Her face turned red. "I mean, I'm Ms. Boyle. "I suppose you already heard about Owen's actions yesterday. No matter the age, one's never too young to learn right from wrong."
He nodded. "True. And one is never too old to learn that it is dangerous to assume."
Her eyes narrowed. "Pardon me?"
"I will," he said with a smile, turning his attention to the children filing into the room.
Griffin and Julia hunched over one of the work tables, homemade sandwiches and a couple of cans of pop between them. "I've been thinking. What if we can't find her? How would you feel about that?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Fine, either way, I guess. How would you feel?"
"Like someone who didn't look hard enough."
"Well, just keep in mind you still have a family you can lean on." She relaxed when he smiled.
"Yeah, I guess so. I thought Charlie would hate me, or something. But, he's been really supportive. More so than The Major."
Claudia and Marc had the stereo turned up in the house, the strings vibrated every picture.
"Are you sure Avery won't kill us?" Claudia asked.
"If you hear sudden silence of the music, it's the signal of our deaths," he said smiling. "You mean to say your folks wrote this for you?"
"Uh huh. I'd have brought the others, but Charlie put the tapes somewhere. I can't find them."
"We can always go there and search. Kind of like detectives on a case. Mom used to do that sort of thing- digging for the truth, that is."
"What did you get her for Mother's Day?"
"Nothing much. Just a couple of tickets for this play she's been wanting to see for a while now. How about you?"
"What? Don't you know?"
"Yeah, I know. But, did you get anything for your sister or brother? I mean, they have been kind of your parents, right? And who says Mother's Day is strictly for mothers? What about other family set-ups? That's why I like your brother's idea for the restaurant."
"How did you hear about that?" she asked.
"Stuart told me in science class. He told me that he's treating his mother, grandmother and great- aunt. His father's out of town, so Stuart's escorting three women."
"I never thought about it. I mean, these last three years, we've just skipped over Mother's Day and Father's Day. We visit the grave site and put flowers there. Other than that, what else is there?"
"Why not recording?" he asked as the tape came to an end.
"Perfect," Claudia said. "Perfect!"
"Perfect," Justin said, not seeing the person behind him in the store. "Sorry. I just..." He pointed to the open box. "I asked for a simple broach and this is what I get."
The woman behind him studied it. "Can't they replace it?"
"They should. But, I'm not going to bother. Besides, it won't get here in time."
"I'm sure you can salvage it somehow," she said. "I know I'd appreciate the thoughtfulness on your part. Emerald, isn't it?"
He nodded. "Her birthstone is garnet, though. Her mother's was emerald if I remember right."
"Well, there you go! A reminder to one mother of another to cherish, if you will."
"That might work. Thanks."
Charlie put down his apron and walked about the dining area before going on break.
"Rose! What brings you up here? Is Grace all right?"
She put her hands on her hips and mockingly chided him. "Where are your manners, Charlie Salinger? Don't I get a hug first?" Smiling, they embraced. "That's better! Grace is fine, dear. I'm just up here to see if she's off to a good start with her council position."
"Never had a better member," he said.
The two of them looked up and saw Ms. Boyle standing there. "Hello. Rose, this is Ms. Boyle. Ms. Boyle, this is Rose."
"Nice to meet you, dear," Rose said warmly. "What's your first name? Boyle seems so...formal."
"Oh, sorry about that. Friends call me Kathy."
"I didn't know that," Charlie said.
"Well, you weren't considered a friend just then," she replied.
Rose looked from one to the other. "Dare I ask?"
"I've been Owen's substitute teacher these last few days," Kathy said. "Needless to say, we got off on the wrong foot."
"It's true what they say about assumptions," Charlie said.
"Tell me about it," Rose agreed. "Did you know my daughter Grace thought Charlie here was a spoiled, cold-shouldered jerk when they first met?"
"I don't think that's how she put it, Rose," he said laughing.
The others laughed. "Well, it was bad enough, wasn't it? And that article she wrote..."
"Article?" Kathy asked.
"Long story," Charlie said. "We cleared up each other's misconceptions quickly."
"Oh? And the truth is...?" Kathy asked.
Rose beamed. "The best gentleman you can find raising a family all alone. Now, you remember not to feel like a stranger, Charlie. And I want to see that adorable little brother Owen of yours soon!"
"We can arrange that," he told her. "Try to talk Grace into joining you for dinner here Sunday night," he said.
"Only if you take the time to slow down," she said. "You and the crew aren't working all day long, are you?"
He shook his head. "We're treating our families to a specialty brunch."
"Good. You take care, Charlie. Give the others a hug for me. It was nice to meet you, Kathy."
He turned his attention to Kathy. "What brings you here?"
"Dinner with the woman who raised me. The one I shamed with the action I pulled against your brother the other day. Did I tell you I was sorry?"
"Yes, you did. So, you're with your mother?"
She smiled. "Look who's assuming now."
After school, Claudia and Marc could hear music from the porch.
"Looks like you're not the only one who likes that tape," Marc said. "Except, they don't appreciate the volume of it, do they?"
When they stepped inside, Claudia saw Charlie put something away. "Hi, we're home!"
"We?" he asked.
"Hi, Charlie," Marc said. "Mind if I help out with dinner tonight? Dad's rehearsing tonight."
"Sure. You're welcome anytime." He handed Claudia a sheet of music. "What do you think of that piece?"
"I can handle this just fine. But, what are you going to do?"
"Just for that, I don't think I'll tell you," he joked.
Marc smiled as Claudia pleaded. "Honestly, Charlie, will you tell me? Please?"
He pretended to ponder the issue. "I'll do better than that." Slowly, and with a few errors at the beginning, he played the piece on the piano.
"I never knew you knew how to play."
"I haven't for a long time. Dad lost patience with me. But, this was the first one Mom taught me. Very simplistic, really. But, with your violin, this will be the background piece it was meant to be."
"My piece?" she said, taking two sheets from him. "We can do this?" She studied it carefully then said, "We can do this!"
Before Marc left, he said to Charlie, "That was quite a variation of 'Chopsticks' ."
Charlie winked his eye. "Don't tell her."
Saturday morning, Julia and Griffin stopped by the house.
"Looks like you guys are getting ready to go somewhere," she said.
"We're going to make our visit," Claudia said, putting some seedlings in a gardener's basket. "This year, I thought we could add some color."
"You were going to go without me?" Julia said, obviously hurt.
"Hey, Julia! Perfect timing. We were going to stop by your place, but you've saved us the trip." Charlie zipped up Owen's jacket. "Morning, Griffin."
"Morning," he said. "Maybe I should wait for you guys here. I mean-."
"Don't be stupid," Charlie and Claudia said in unison. Claudia laughed as Charlie continued. "You're a part of this family. Never forget that. "
Owen dug into the dirt, not quite understanding why they were there in the first place.
"We should have something for him," Bailey said.
"I've an idea," Claudia said. "We can do what we always do, tell stories about them, but, this time, we should record them. Maybe with the tape recorder. What do you think?"
"I like that," Julia said. "And maybe if we put those gifts in order, Charlie?"
Bailey added, "Don't forget the other scraps of paper we've tucked away here and there."
Griffin stared at the tombstone and said, "It's amazing that you've all kept them so alive in your lives. I feel as if I've known her and that I know more about her than I do my own mother. I don't like the idea of leaving things unsaid."
"When we get home, I want to call Grandpa Jake," Charlie said.
"Why?" Julia asked.
"To thank him. And insist he step back into the family where he belongs."
"I don't get it," Bailey said. "Thank him for what?"
"Duh," Claudia said. "For giving us Mom."
Owen motioned Bailey to lean closer. "I want to make a Mommy's Day card," he whispered.
The Sunday Family Supper at Salingers' went well with a full house. Bailey greeted Mr. and Mrs. Reese when they had arrived. Mrs. Reese reluctantly invited Bailey to join them, but he graceously declined, returning to the kitchen to help Charlie. Julia and Griffin were also in the back, saddened by the fact that Mr. Holander declined their invitation to both brunch and dinner. Claudia and Owen enjoyed Ross and Tess' company.
Before Grace and Rose left, Rose insisted on taking a picture of the five Salingers together. She romised to send them the prints as soon as she could, giving each of them hugs before she left.
Monday morning, Charlie had the bar to himself as he read the comment cards and notes from customers and employees alike. The Sunday brunch for the staff and their families was a success and there was talk of planning another one in June. He already made his mind up to do just that.
"Excuse me," a woman said.
Charlie didn't look up immediately, recognizing the voice. "We don't serve lunch for a few more hours. I could give you a cup of coffee if you like."
Ellie sat down at the bar. "Thank you. I'll take you up on the coffee offer." She pulled out a carnation from her bag and slid it towards Charlie. "Just because," she said.
He looked up, attempting to cover up his surprise. "Because of what?"
"You know. It was rather nice of you, Charlie."
He shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about. Usually, Mother's Day is spent with close family."
She nodded. "No argument there. I had an enjoyable day with Kirsten, Megan and Gene. I just felt like travelling out this direction. Don't worry, it's part business, too. Two day convention."
"Is it all right if I ask how Kirsten is?"
"She's getting better." Ellie put a hand over Charlie's and added, "If things were different, you would have been a wonderful son-in-law and husband. I'm sure your parents would agree with me."
Charlie looked at her for a moment. "I wish things were different now. In more ways than one."
She smiled sadly. "I know what you mean. But, know this. Your parents are alive in you. In your actions, your morals and decisions...most everything you do."
"Thank you, Ellie." He refilled his cup after giving her hers. "What made you suspect me?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Process of elimination. That and I know you're a caring kind of guy. I wish we could keep in better contact."
"When and if it's possible and safe for Kirsten, that might happen. Until then..."
She pressed her business card into his hand, taking one of his at the same time. "Until then... If only your parents could see you children now."
"Charlie! Where have you been?"
"Calm down, Claudia. We have plenty of time, yet."
"I'm sorry, I'm nervous. There are so many mothers out there. Not to mention fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents-."
"I get the picture, Claudia," he said resting a hand on her shoulder. "And you're telling me you're nervous? I haven't played since before you were born!"
Her eyes opened wide to that revelation? "You're kidding, right?"
"What's the phrase? Break a leg?" he said. "Don't take me literally with that."
After their performance, they enjoyed the other acts and visiting with other families before going home.
Shortly after dinner, the five of them stood around the grave site. The newly planted flowers were still in place. Owen took a piece of paper out of his pocket. Careful not to disturb the flowers, he leaned his card against the stone.
"Will Mommy like it?" he asked.
"She'll love it," Bailey said, his voice tightening slightly. "Do you remember where she's at?"
Owen nodded as he pointed to the sky. "She's up there," he said softly. "She's with Daddy." He watched as his older siblings wiped their eyes. "What's wrong? Why are you guys crying?"
Claudia spoke up first. "Because we miss Mom."
"Among other things," Julia whispered. "Moments that will never happen now, for starters."
Charlie encircled them with his arms. "Maybe we're a day early and a day late," he said. "But then again, we're allowed to keep Mother in mind every day of the year. No matter what."
Owen held Julia and Charlie's hand and said, "Happy Mother's Day, Mommy."