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It’s in a windowless hospital room, the acrid smell of disinfectant filling her nostrils, sweat plastered to her forehead, the mascara she’s forgotten she was wearing smudged and running down her cheeks, every curse word she knows on her tongue and Marie-France’s hand held so tightly in hers that she is probably crushing it, that at exactly one month into her seventeenth year Tessa is bringing her daughter into the world. Tessa is becoming a mom before she even becomes an adult. She’s delivering a baby, feeling so very close to alone, feeling so much like a lost kid, and no one told her how hard it would be.

“I am never having sex again,” she says, biting into her lip hard enough to draw blood. “This hurts so much. Boys aren’t worth it.”

Her breathing is harsh, sharp inhales through her nose followed by forced exhales through gritted teeth. The light is too yellow and too bright, the fluorescent bulb flickering every few minutes, yet the room somehow still seems too dark without natural light—she doesn’t even know what time of day it is. Marie is next to her, squeezing her hand, and there is a nurse checking her progress. Tessa flops her head down on the blue pillow and bites at her bottom lip again, grunting through the next contraction.

Marie brushes a piece of hair that’s been stuck to her face behind her ear. Her face is wet and she isn’t sure if it’s sweat or tears or both. Definitely tears, she thinks as she blinks and feels them prickling her eyes. “What about babies? Is your baby going to be worth it?”

She nods as she thinks about her baby, she doesn’t know if they are a boy or a girl yet, she decided not to find out. Though she is so sure that her little baby is a girl, she can feel it deep in her soul. She closes her eyes and when she sees her baby she sees a little girl with her green eyes, light brown hair with flecks of red in the sun and a smile that melts her heart. That’s her baby. Her baby, who she hasn’t even met yet, but already loves so much, so deeply and irrevocably that she’s turned her whole life upside down for them. Yes, her baby is worth everything and anything. But it still hurts. Another contraction hits, the muscles in her stomach tightening with so much force she feels like they might pull apart.

“I still hate boys though,” she says, barely pushing the words out with a laboured breath. “Boys are the worst.”

Marie nods with a fond chuckle, and squeezes her hand a little tighter. “You’re doing so great, Tess. So great, ma belle.”

Tessa shakes her head, tears filling her eyes, blurring her vision. “I can’t do this. I don’t wanna do this. I don’t know what I was thinking,” a sob escapes her on the last word and her breaths are coming in short and shallow. “I can’t. I just want my mom.”

Marie breathes in deep, steadying herself, before fitting herself on the narrow bed next to Tessa, one hip on the bed next to Tessa’s shoulder while the other foot is still planted on the floor. With the hand not still clutched within Tessa’s she strokes her cheek. “You can do it. You have come so far, you’ve been so strong. You can do this, I know you can. And I’m here. I’m here okay. I know I’m not a mom, I haven’t done this yet, but I’m here for you.”

When the doctor comes back in an indeterminate amount of time later—Tessa honestly has no concept of time at this point it feels like she’s been here for days, that she’s been pregnant forever, but also no time at all—she’s trying to pull herself up out of the bed. Her doctor, Dr. MacMaster, gently urges her to lay back down.

“Tessa,” she says, with a hand on her shoulder. “You need to stay in bed, I’m going to check how everything is progressing, but it’s probably going to be time very soon.”

Tessa is shaking her head. “No. I have to go to the bathroom...I feel...I just have to go...like right now.”

The doctor looks at her for a moment, then her eyes widen as some kind of realization hits her. “Tessa, does it feel like you need poop?”

“Yes!” she’s almost embarrassed, but she can’t really think about that right now, not when she really needs to go and no one seems to understand.

“I think it’s actually time to push,” Dr. MacMaster says, reaching for a pair of purple medical gloves.

Tessa shakes her head again. “No. It’s not. I just...no. It isn’t time. I’m not ready. My baby isn’t ready. I just need to go to the washroom and everything will be fine.”

“I’m afraid your baby, and your body are saying otherwise,” the doctor says, nodding to the nurse who starts getting things ready. “You can do this Tessa. I know it’s scary, but you can do it.”

She does it, and Marie is there the entire time holding her up, encouraging her. Tessa doesn’t know how she’ll ever be able to repay her. She’ll owe her a debt of gratitude for the rest of her life.

When she’s finally pushing and her body feels like it is being ripped apart things start to blur. She truly has no concept of time anymore. It could be an hour it could only be twenty minutes until she hears the most beautiful sound in the world.

Her baby cries at the same time the doctor says, “It’s a girl, you have a daughter.” It’s a wail as her baby brings in her first lung full of air, complaining about being taken from the warm comfort of her mother. The next thing she knows her daughter is being placed on her bare chest, where a nurse has helped her pull down her hospital gown, though she hasn’t actually noticed.

“Hi baby,” she says, one hand coming up to wrap protectively over her daughter’s tiny back, the other to stroke the back of her head. “Hi my girl.”

“I told you she’d be worth it,” Marie says next to her, putting a hand over hers.

“Thank you,” she smiles at her friend. Her smile, she knows, can feel, is tired, her lips stretching upwards just a fraction, but she hopes Marie can see the gratitude in her eyes. “Thank you so, so much for being here with me.”

“Of course, ma belle,” Marie places a quick kiss on top of her head, and then her daughter’s. “What’s her name? Have you thought of anything?”

Tessa pauses for a moment to think, to run the sounds over through her head to see how they blend together before nodding. “Jane,” she takes a deep breath and turns to look right at Marie-France. “Jane Marie Virtue.”

“Thank you,” Marie whispers. “What a beautiful name, for a beautiful girl.”

Any further conversation is ended when the doctor tells Tessa the umbilical cord has been cut and it is time to deliver the placenta. With one last kiss to both her cheeks and the top of her head a nurse takes Jane from Tessa. Once her baby is taken from her arms, the slight weight of her no longer settled on Tessa’s chest, holding her in the moment, she starts to feel. First she feels empty, hollow. She is distinctly aware of the fact that she had been sharing herself with another being, that her baby had been inside of her, part of her and was now no longer. All she wants is to have her back, to hold her and be close to her little girl as long as she can. Then she’s flooded with so many emotions that she doesn’t know what to do with them all. So she cries. She’s a mom now, she’s a mom and she doesn’t know how to be a mom, so she cries.

She knew labour would hurt, of course she knew that. But she didn’t know that it would feel like she was being torn in half, split right down the middle. She didn’t know that after her beautiful, red, crying baby was placed on her chest, still coated in white gunk, that she’d still have to birth the placenta. She didn’t know that everything would still hurt days, even weeks later. She didn’t know to fear going to the bathroom after, that her insides would feel like they were trying to find their way outside. She didn’t know that her nipples would get raw and cracked and feel like they were on fire, or how difficult it could be to get a newborn to latch properly—she thought babies would just know what to do. She didn’t know about mesh underwear and diaper sized pads and all the blood—so much of it.

She definitely didn’t know that amidst everything that the person she’d want with her most would be her mom. Despite what had happened, despite her anger and hurt at how they’d left things, that she would just want her mom to be with her while she did this. She needed her mom to help her become a mom. But she couldn’t have that.

The last time she’d spoken to her mom was four months ago and it ended with them both in tears and Tessa with a packed bag and a foot out the door. She’d put her hand protectively over her stomach and said, “I’m keeping my baby,” and then she’d left. And she can’t think of this as a waste, as “throwing away her future”, not when she is bringing a life into this world. Not when she already desperately loves this little bean that’s been living inside her for the past eight and a bit months.

Instead of her mom, she had Marie-France, who was a blessing. Like a doting big sister and best friend all wrapped up in one fierce little package. Marie-France was with her the whole time, holding her hand while she yelled and grit her teeth with every contraction. Marie-France, she thinks, is a little bit like a fairy godmother.

After the placenta is delivered and Tessa receives two stitches Janie is handed back to her, now wearing the tiniest diaper Tessa has ever seen. Marie is still right next to her.

They stay there in silence for a few moments, just the sounds of the doctors and nurses moving around, though as soon as her daughter was placed back on her Tessa stopped paying attention to what it was they were still doing there. “Marie,” she says, finally. “Would you be her godmother?”

“Of course.”

After, once Tessa has a moment to breath and once again feel everything her body just went through, when she’s sinking into the less than comfortable mattress in ward room, a little bassinet for Janie beside her, Marie sits next to her with a tea and a muffin.

“You should call your mom,” Marie tells her. “Just call her, she’ll want to know.”

Tessa shakes her head. “She won’t.”

“I think she will, but even if she doesn’t, do it for you, you need to talk to her.”

Tessa calls her mom while Janie sleeps, swaddled by a nurse, a little pink hat atop her head. She pulls out her cellphone, a pink flip phone her parents had gotten her for Christmas, just before everyone had found out. It still works, she wonders if that’s on purpose, if her mom hasn’t cancelled it as a way of knowing she’s safe or if they just forgot—she knows that can’t be it, her mom still calls it sometimes, though she never picks up.

Her mom picks up on the second ring. “Hello,” she answers, tired, weary, maybe a bit confused. Tessa realizes she has no idea what time it is, but it must be late. “Hello?” Kate asks again, through the tinny cellphone speaker.

“Hi,” Tessa says, drawing in a deep breath.

“Tess?” her mom sounds immediately less tired now and she hears shuffling on the other end, like she is getting out of bed. “Oh Tess, is that you?”

“Yeah mom, it’s me,” she hesitates for a moment, not entirely sure what else the say, or how to begin. She needed the comfort of her mom’s voice in her ear all day, she’s needed it for months, really, and now that she has it she isn’t sure what to do with it. “You’re a grandma. You have a granddaughter.”

“Oh,” she hears her mom’s sharp intake of breath. “Oh Tess, sweetie...I...you’re okay right? Both of you are okay? Healthy? Safe? Please—”

“Yeah mom. Yeah. We’re okay, we’re both good. She’s perfect. She’s tiny, 5lbs 6oz. She was a little early, just a few weeks but she’s good. She’s perfect. And I...” she pauses to think about how she feels and how much she wants to tell her mom. “I’m tired, so tired. But I’m good, mom. I’m so happy she’s here.”

She hears a sniffle, like maybe her mom is crying, but she clears her throat to quickly cover it up before she says,“I’m glad. I’m so glad you’re okay.” There is a long pause over the line and Tessa almost pulls the phone from her ear to check that they are still connected. “Both of you,” her voice is quieter and she sucks in a shaky breath. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, Mom. But we’ll be okay.” She knows they will be. The two of them, her and her daughter against the world. They will be okay. And she thinks that maybe, one day her and her mom might be okay too. Not yet, but one day.

“Thank you,” her mom whispers into the phone. “Thank you for letting me know, sweetheart.”

“Bye Mom.” And Tessa hangs up.

 

Tessa’s grandma comes to meet Janie when she’s only a few weeks old, still wrinkly and new. She fusses and cries to be fed every two hours like clockwork, but otherwise she’s such a good baby, so everyone says (though Tessa dislikes that term, all babies are good, she thinks). Her grandma comes with a quilt, the same kind she has made for every one of her grandchildren and the gesture means so much more than Tessa can say. Her grandmother hugs her and she feels wrapped up in warmth. She’s so glad that she didn’t completely lose everyone in her family when she had Janie.

Her grandmother holds Janie against her chest while the baby sleeps, cooing to her softly when she stirs. Tessa watches as the woman who helped her mom raise her holds her own daughter. One hand sturdy on her little back while the other rubs soothing circles between her shoulders. She takes a picture of her grandmother’s weathered hands, veiny and wrinkled, skin speckled with age against her daughter’s brand new pink skin, Janie’s tiny face tucked in to her grandmother’s shoulder.

(After her grandmother passes away a year or so in the future she will get the photo framed, one copy for her and then as an afterthought one for her mother—it will act as a bit of an olive branch. When she buys her house years after, she will get it blown up on a canvas and hang it above the mantle.)

“Has your mother been by yet, sweetie?” her grandmother asks, rocking gently back and forth on the hand-me-down rocking chair one of the mom’s at the studio had gifted her.

Tessa shakes her head. She has talked to her mom once since she took Janie out of the hospital, but she hasn’t asked to come visit. As far as Tessa knows, her mom doesn’t even know where she’s living. “No.”

“She wants to,” her grandma says, softly, so as not to wake Janie.

“Then she should ask,” Tessa says.

“She’s too proud for that. Besides she wouldn’t if she thought you didn’t want her. You should invite her.”

“And if I don’t want to?” Tessa says, watching the steady rise and fall of Janie’s chest.

Her grandma only shrugs her slender shoulders, Janie moves up and down with them and she whines at the disturbance. “Shh...shhh,” she tries. But Janie opens her eyes and begins to whimper.

Tessa holds out her arms for her daughter, glad for the conversation to be over for now. “I think she’s hungry,” she says, glancing at the clock. Her grandma leans forward and easily places Janie into Tessa’s arms and Tessa let’s out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Even just a few feet away from her, in the arms of someone she loves and trusts, Tessa had felt like she was missing a part of her. “Do you mind?” she asks, reaching to pull her top to the side to feed Janie. It’s only ever been Marie-France here with her and after Marie being there for Janie’s birth, there when the nurses were showing her how to latch Janie, she knows Marie is comfortable with it, but she isn’t sure how anyone else will react.

“Of course, sweetie,” she grandmother answers with a wave of her wrist. “That’s what they’re for.”

Tessa winces when Janie latches on. She’d hoped she’d be used to it by now, but it still hurts. Her nipples are sore and red and starting to crack. She’s thought, a few times, about just starting Janie on formula, but then she feels guilty, like maybe if she were a better mom, a better person, if she hadn’t gotten pregnant at sixteen she’d be able to do this. She has to be able to do this and in the long run, she can’t really afford it. Formula costs money. Breast milk is free. She’d taken all her savings, all the hundred dollar bills she’s saved from birthdays and Christmases, the money she made babysitting the neighbours kids and teaching dance classes but that won’t last long. Marie has been so generous and she feels guilty for that, too. She’s insisted on paying rent, but what she can give is so little. She’s planning on going back to help at the studio as soon as she can, probably once she stops being so sore all the time.

“You should try to see if you can get her to have a deeper latch, dear,” her grandmother says, getting up from her chair to come closer. “It shouldn’t hurt if it’s proper.”

Tessa can feel the tears begin to sting her eyes, of course she’s been doing it wrong this whole time. Of course it’s her fault that it isn’t working. She has no idea what she’s doing, and despite the fact that all Janie does is eat, sleep and poop, being a mom is hard. So hard. She wipes at her eyes with the back of her right hand, her left cradling Janie against her breast. She hopes that it isn’t because of her that Janie is hungry so often. Maybe she’s not getting enough milk. Tessa has taken her to weekly check ups and she’s growing well, but she has no way of knowing how much milk she’s actually getting.

She feels her grandma’s hand on her arm, pulling her hand away from her face. “No, no,” she says softly. “Don’t cry. It’s nothing you’re doing wrong.”

“It’s not?” she asks.

Her grandmother shakes her head. “No, not at all. Some babies just need a bit of help getting the hang of things. Can you hold her with your other arm instead? So she’s not cradled in your elbow? If your hand is supporting her head you can guide her better, while she’s still little.”

Tessa repositions her arms so that her right hand is holding Janie’s little head, her tiny body supported by her forearm, holding her across her body. Her grandma grabs a cushion from the couch, one of the old floral ones Marie loves but Tessa thinks belong in a museum, and tucks it under Tessa’s arm. Already she feels more comfortable, and she can easily guide Janie’s head where it needs to go.

“Okay, now line up her nose,” her grandmother starts, as Tessa moves Janie back in closer to her breast. “Yeah that’s it, perfect. Make sure her mouth is open really wide before she latches. Perfect.”

It’s already more comfortable and her grandmother explains a bit more about what she should be looking for in a good latch and how to relieve her sore nipples. Tessa has no idea how she knows all this, but is so happy for the advice.

“Thank you,” Tessa says, stroking the underside of Janie’s jaw with the tip of her finger to encourage her to keep eating. “Thank you so much.”

“I’m always here to help, sweetheart,” her grandmother says, settling herself back down into the rocker, needing a moment to catch her breath from being up on her feet to help Tessa. “With anything. My door is always open for you and for little Jane.”

Tessa knows this. Her grandmother told her before, not long after she left and found herself at Marie-France’s that she was welcome there. But her grandmother is living in a one bedroom apartment, it’s a nice one that her mom found after her grandmother just couldn’t maintain the house anymore, but it’s still small. She couldn’t impose like that, not with her grandmother’s health already being such a fragile thing. Besides, Tessa needs to do this on her own, she needs to prove that she can do this, that she didn’t throw her life away. Even if some days she isn’t actually sure if that’s true.

 

Tessa goes back to the studio when Janie is three months old. Marie ran the summer dance camps by herself, but now it’s September and classes are starting back up again and Tessa feels like she needs to be here. While Tessa is very aware that Marie can run things on her own—has been for years—she feels guilty not going and helping in every way she can. Marie-France has been taking such good care of her and Janie and she can’t in good conscience not earn that.

Marie insists Tessa should take more time, but Tessa has seen how tired Marie is after a day running all the classes by herself on top of all the administrative duties that go with owning a dance school, especially now that the school is getting more popular, attracting more students from London. Besides they’ve worked it out so that Janie can stay with Tessa. The mom’s from the studio who knew her before Janie, when she assisted Marie with classes, have all been so kind. One brought by a baby carrier and a few different sling style wraps so that Tessa can teach with Janie snuggled, sleeping against her chest. Another brought by a little playpen that fits perfectly in the office.

Tessa starts off by taking the classes for the seven to ten year olds. The younger kids can get a bit more unruly, are a bit too difficult with a baby strapped to chest, and the older classes are too difficult on her postpartum body, she can’t demonstrate properly. This is probably the most difficult part of it all for Tessa, feeling like her body isn’t her own anymore, that it isn’t the same. She can’t do all the things she used to do.

She stands in the mirror of the studio, in her bodysuit, before her students arrive, poking and prodding the parts of herself that are different. She’s softer than before Janie. There are parts of her tummy—that is almost flat but not quite yet—that she can grab. Where she once had abs there is now a layer of skin and fat, just enough that she can pinch it between her fingers.

Her hips are wider and softer than before, too. The fabric of her bodysuit pulls tightly across the width of them. She runs her hands across the material where it stretches, before tying a chiffon skirt around her waist. She pulls a wrap sweater out of her bag and ties it on as well, she will need to get new, larger bodysuits. She looks at her body and then her face and she feels stuck somewhere between being a woman, a mom, but still a girl.

 

Her mom meets her in the town square one sunny October day in between classes, when Janie is almost four months old. It’ll be the first time she’s meeting her. Tessa feels a ball of guilt weighing heavy in her chest that her mom is just meeting her first grandchild after four months. But, she thinks, her mom chose this. When she didn’t support her when her dad kicked her out.

Even if Kate hadn’t agreed, even though Tessa heard her crying the night she packed her things and left, she chose supporting her husband, being a good wife, one who doesn’t argue, over being the parent Tessa needed. She felt betrayed, and isn’t ready to forgive her mom yet—if ever.

She’d told her mom to meet her here, in the little park in the town square, because it felt wrong to invite her into a space that belongs to Marie-France—the woman who has been there for Tessa this whole time. She’s sitting on a park bench with Janie cradled in her arms, bouncing her gently as she fusses, when her mom approaches.

She hears her mom gasp before she looks up. She’s stopped about three feet in front of Tessa, a hand to her heart. She’s smiling, though Tessa can see in the slight crease above her brow, the hesitancy in her gaze, that it’s a cautious one. “Oh, Tessa sweetie, she’s just gorgeous.”

Seeing her mom for the first time in eight months, feels like she’s drowning. She’s flooded with emotions. Too many to keep track of as they wash over her; sadness, anger, relief...She feels the wet sting of the tears that have started rolling down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she whispers, leaning down to kiss Janie on her forehead, breathing in that soft, calming scent that is distinctly baby.

She nods towards the empty half of the bench next to her, inviting her mom to sit.

“Mom, this is Janie,” she starts, sucking in a deep breath. Then she picks up one of Janie’s tiny hands and waves it towards her mom. “Janie, this is your Grandma, Kate.”

 

Tessa meets Alma, and then Joe, on her eighteenth birthday. It’s a beautiful spring day and Tessa has set up a blanket under the cover of one of the older trees near the gazebo in the town square. Janie is sitting on the blanket happily alternating between chewing her fist and babbling animatedly at Tessa.

Tessa loves watching her daughter talk. She doesn’t have many real words yet, just a handful of almost words like hi, ma, and mimi (for Marie). Though she doesn’t have many words, she has so many stories. It amazes Tessa to watch how her daughter picks up so many different sounds, babbling them all together, her voice rising and falling like in real conversation. Tessa always answers back like she completely understands everything Janie is saying.

Janie has just finished a rather in depth story, including wild hand gestures and a whole lot of spitting. “Yeah, that sounds pretty exciting, sweetie,” she says. “Mama loves your stories, they’re such a good birthday present.”

Janie is nodding back at her, her fist back in her mouth as drool pours out around it when woman, probably in her late 40’s or early 50’s, approaches the two of them, a bright smile on her face. Tessa doesn’t recognize her, but she isn’t surprised. Since Janie was born she hasn’t been out much except for the studio and this woman’s children, if she has any, would probably be Tessa’s age and too old to be in Tessa’s ballet classes.

“Well, aren't you just the sweetest little thing,” the woman says to Janie as she gets closer, then she looks to Tessa and smiles this big warm smile. “I’m Alma,” she says, sticking out a hand for Tessa to shake. “I don’t think I’ve seen you or this little one around before.”

Tessa tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and takes the woman’s hand, it’s warm and her grip is firm, comforting. “I’m Tessa,” she says, taking a breath. “And this is Janie, uh, Jane.”

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Alma says, there is something in the way that she says it that makes Tessa think she knew exactly who she is already. It isn’t a surprise to Tessa, Ilderton is such a small town, a very tight knit community, where everyone knows everyone. Surely, the news of the teenage mom who teaches ballet for Marie-France and lives in her spare room has spread through the whole town, beyond just the families whose kids dance at the studio.

“Nice to meet you too, Alma,” Tessa says, unsure if the woman is truly being kind or just being nosy.

Alma squats down so she is closer to Janie’s level on the blanket, Janie squeals and reaches out a slobbery fist for Alma’s cheek. Before Tessa can stop her Janie has grabbed the older woman’s cheek with her spit covered hand. “Well it’s nice to meet you too, Janie, is it?”

“I’m so, so sorry,” Tessa says grabbing for her backpack to pull out a tissue or something to give to Alma.

Alma just laughs. “Not to worry, dear,” she says, with a kind smile. “Teething?”

“Yeah,” Tessa sighs, rubbing at her eyes with her fists. She’s sure the dark circles are still there, ringing her eyes. Janie is a great baby, so, so good, but (and Tessa assumes it’s her teeth) she has been sleeping so badly lately. She’s been up fussing every few hours, just wanting to nurse or be held in Tessa’s arms. Too many nights she’s found herself slipping into sleep with Janie in her arms in the rocking chair. Last night she gave up and just brought Janie to bed with her. She pushed the comforter onto the floor and moved the pillows to create a wall in case Janie rolled over and laid next to her until they both had fallen asleep, Janie’s hand wrapped tightly around her shirt. “Yeah, I think she is. She has six already, but I think she might be working on two more on the top, maybe on the bottom too.”

“Well she seems to be in good spirits about it,” Alma says, making faces at Janie, causing her to giggle. Janie’s laughter is Tessa’s absolute favourite sound in the whole wide world. Her tiny body shakes with delight and the sound she emits is high and bright and rings out with pure joy.

“Is it your birthday?” Alma asks Janie in that sing song voice adults always use to talk to babies. Alma puts a finger on the cake design on Janie’s onesie. Tessa had intended it to be for her first birthday. When she’d found the fabric and pattern at Fabricland in London with Marie that was her plan. But Janie has been growing so quickly that she thinks it probably won’t fit in a month, so she decided Janie could wear it today, for Tessa’s birthday. It’s silly maybe, but she still wanted to celebrate turning eighteen somehow.

Tessa can feel herself blush a bit, as she looks at Alma to explain. “Um, no...it’s actually...it’s not for another month. But um, it’s my birthday,” she pauses for a moment. “I’m eighteen today.”

“Oh that’s wonderful!” Alma’s smile is so bright and so genuine, it warms Tessa until she is smiling too. “Happy birthday sweetheart!”

“Thank you,” Tessa says, looking down and tucking her hair behind her ear. Alma is the second person, after Marie-France this morning, to wish her a happy birthday.

“My youngest is nineteen,” she says. “I can’t believe he’ll be twenty in a few months. But I remember when he turned eighteen, we all had burgers and milkshakes and cake at the diner. It’s our birthday tradition for the boys. Then all four of my men packed up and went fishing for the weekend.”

Tessa tries to smile back, she’d bought herself a little cupcake to share with Janie, but Janie had grabbed for it and it had dropped on the ground. Marie-France has to be at the studio all night, so it will just be her and Janie celebrating, so she hadn’t thought to get more. She’d brought Janie to the park for a change of scenery, somewhere that isn’t the house or the studio. She tries hard not to think about what she might be doing for her eighteenth birthday if she hadn’t had Janie. “That sounds really lovely.”

Alma seems to easily read Tessa, can probably see how her shoulders have slumped, how she is picking at a fray in her jeans and asks, “Do you have any plans for dinner?”

Tessa shakes her head.

“Join me at the diner?” she nods her head across the square to the corner shop directly across from them, where Joe’s Diner sits with its hand painted sign in the shape of a coffee mug and big windows. Tessa hasn’t gone in yet, but she knows Marie stops there every morning for coffee. “For milkshakes and burgers?”

Tessa looks up at this woman, this kind eyed, gentle women, with the friendliest smile. This woman who could be her mother. Who is offering her dinner and she doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know how she’d repay her, she doesn’t even know her, has never met her before. Tessa tries to run over her budget for this month in her head, maybe she can just leave money for her own food? But she can’t. She imagines a burger and fries is probably around ten dollars and a milkshake is probably another four. She looks at Janie, happily munching the fist in her mouth, the front of her onesie now soaked in spit. She thinks of how fast she is growing. She’s lucky that people here have been so generous and she’s received so many hand-me-downs, but even the cloth diapers she’s made for Janie are starting to get snug and she isn’t sure if it’s worth investing in making a whole new set now, or if she’ll just have to start buying them (an extra expense she will have to factor in).

“That’s very kind of you to offer,” she starts, trying to be as polite as possible. “I just...I don’t know how I would pay you back.” She’s not sure what else to say.

“Nonsense,” Alma says, already moving to help Tessa pack up her backpack. “It’s your birthday, it’ll be on the house. Don’t you worry about a thing, sweetheart.”

Tessa is shaking her head. “That’s too generous, I can’t let you do that...you don’t even know me.”

Alma takes a deep breath and moves closer to where Tessa is still sitting half on her little picnic blanket. “It’s not too generous at all. I don’t need to know you to see that you and this beautiful little cupcake here,” she’s smiling at Janie again. “Could use a little company. Besides I love an excuse to celebrate and an eighteenth birthday is definitely a reason to celebrate!”

“Thank you,” Tessa says, quietly. She thinks that if she says more, if she speaks too loudly something will break. Either something within herself, whatever she has left, the tape and glue she’s using to hold herself together will just come apart. Or maybe this illusion will shatter, too good to be true.

“May I?” Alma asks, nodding towards Janie, asking to pick her up.

Tessa nods again, still unable to say more. She watches as Alma scoops up Janie in her arms and Janie immediately goes to grab at her face again, babbling away in a language that’s all her own. Tessa quickly gathers up all their things while Alma holds Janie, responding to her babbles at the appropriate times, nodding her head along to the little girls story, entirely unfazed by the amount of drool getting on her shirt. It’s so unlike the unsure way her own mother has held Janie when she’s seen her—like she is torn between wanting to cuddle her, but not letting herself get to close. This is what a grandma should look like, Tessa thinks. She feels like this moment, this right here is a birthday wish she hadn’t even known to asked for.

They head over to the diner together and as soon as they get there Alma heads straight for the little wooden high chairs in the corner, pulling one over to a table by the window with one hand, Janie resting comfortably on her opposite hip. She settles Janie in it and fastens the buckle. Tessa watches how easily she does all this and thinks of how she sometimes still struggles with the simplest things.

“Do you have any grandkids?” she asks.

“None yet,” she answers, with a smile. She smiles a lot, Tessa wonders if it makes her face sore. “But we’re expecting our first in a couple of months!”

“Oh, congratulations,” Tessa says, trying to match the intensity of the other woman’s excitement. “That’s so wonderful.”

“Thank you,” she’s still smiling.

Just then a man comes out from the kitchen and approaches their table. He’s wearing an old apron, it’s tied around his waist with a notebook sticking out of the pocket and he has a pencil tucked behind his ear. He kisses Alma on the cheek and then looks over at Tessa and Janie with a kind smile, Tessa isn’t sure she deserves all these smiles, friendliness and acceptance in the simplest of gestures. “And who do we have here,” he says to Alma with a slight chuckle, like it’s completely normal for her to have dragged in a teen mom and her baby right from the town square, like a cute stray dog who needs a bath and some food.

“Joe,” Alma says in greeting, returning his kiss. “This is Tessa and,” she pauses for a moment and Tessa realizes she never actually told Alma that Janie was her daughter, she just assumed that she knew that already. “Her little one here is Janie.”

“Well hello ladies,” Joe says, holding out a hand for Tessa to shake, and then takes Janie’s little hand between both of his, grinning at her before making some exaggerated faces. “It’s nice to meet you both.”

“Tessa here,” Alma starts, “is turning eighteen today.” She turns to Janie, who has begun to study Joe’s hands rather intently. “Eh, Janie, is it mama’s birthday? Should we celebrate?”

Janie looks up at her and then to Tessa, clearly having recognized the world mama. “Ma! Maaaa!” she slurs, dropping Joe’s hands and clapping her own together excitedly. She then brings her open fist to her mouth and waves it at Tessa, like she’s blowing a kiss. After which she proceeds to let out a series of little shrieks, delighted by her own accomplishments. Tessa can’t help the feeling of warmth that spreads through her, seeping from her chest out all the way to her fingers and toes. A love so profound she isn’t sure how it doesn’t consume her entirely. She may never find a Prince Charming but she has her beautiful baby girl and she isn’t sure how she could ever love anyone else so completely.

A month later, on Janie’s first birthday, Tessa and Marie take her to Joe’s diner—Tessa thinks milk shakes and French fries might be a birthday tradition she wants to adopt. Alma will be there too, joining them for dinner, along with Marie’s (maybe) boyfriend Patrice. At some point during Tessa's birthday dinner last month, Tessa’s inability to bake a cake came up and Alma had insisted on making one for Janie.

“You don’t want to waste your money on a supermarket cake,” she’d said. “Let me make one for her. You’d be doing me a favour, honestly. I can always use any excuse to bake.”