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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 6:45 pm | Fair 60º


Jamie Stiehm: Raising a Glass of Love to Second Mothers

Here’s how the story goes: Wearing the gold and white Cinderella dress my grandmother made for me, I knock on a screen door near home. It’s summer in Wisconsin. A woman answers and asks my name.

“My name is Cinderella, and I am a princess.”

That simple. Have tiara, will travel. Like that, we became lifelong friends. For Mother’s Day, let me salute the second mothers in my life.

Leah walked me two doors down to meet Cinderella’s family. She was charmed by my 5-year-old free spirit. Her family had two daughters, like us. The grown-ups were university people. In years to come, our families moved to California, many miles apart, but the closeness kept us together every Thanksgiving.

Leah — Dr. Leah, as we call her — has a quick wit and sage insight that’s aged like fine wine. Visiting me, she’s adored my Roaring ’​20s apartments in Washington and Baltimore. She said about a boyfriend high on Capitol Hill: “He cut you to the quick!”

She knew I was running away from my own marriage before my parents. Leah and Lawrence, her droll husband, still see my English ex in London. They’re fond of him, too. And how they love London: opera, architecture, museums.

Dr. Leah understands the utmost importance of a kaffeeklatsch, wherever we may be. And always, it feels like she can see into me.

Under an apple tree, Lawrence officiated — Rev. Friedman for the day — my sister’s wedding in my grandparents’ green garden in Madison, during an epic summer storm.

Five Thanksgivings ago, Dr. Leah could not fly for medical reasons. I flew up to drive the distance down from Stanford to Santa Monica, through the Central Valley. We listened to a lot of Haydn concertos, a Lawrence favorite. I took them 500 miles home, too. We joked it took that long to catch up.

I’ve also known Nancy, a leading Madisonian, since I was small. She and my mother were friends at West High, and ever since. I’d know her buoyant voice anywhere; she’s taken me to more than one Wisconsin State Fair.

After moving to California against my will, my younger sisters and I spent summers in Madison with our grandparents. The corn really was knee-high by the Fourth of July.

Jack and Nancy Heiden’s son and daughter, future speed skating Olympians Eric and Beth, had time for other things in summer. Nancy arranged guitar lessons and taught Beth and me the basket weave needlepoint stitch. As girls of 12 and 14, Beth and I rode our bikes to the tennis courts by the Olympic outdoor pool.

I loved this idyll more for leaving it. The shores of Lake Mendota, deep blue, held a memory: my mother teaching me to swim. She once swam across it — a long crossing. Novelist Wallace Stegner wrote a Lake Mendota sailing scene in Crossing to Safety.

The screen door to the Heiden house high on Blackhawk Drive was always open. The phone number is still the same. Cookies and brownies were often fresh out of the oven.

Nancy kind of chirped at me about her prairie garden, “the glacier” that covered this land, Wimbledon and that Wisconsin bad boy, loved and hated, Frank Lloyd Wright. We took a field trip to see Taliesin, Wright’s home academy. She seemed to have all the time in the world for me.

Around a family of four champion athletes, a compliment is a nice surprise. Nancy told me she believed my columns were really worth something. Given that writing is an individual sport, like a marathon, my own long crossing, that gave me lift.

When I was younger still, we lived in New York, on Broadway. My father was a medical resident; my mother a Ph.D. grad student. Me, I was a babe in arms and apparently in a lot of arms. Two family friends who babysat me, Irish rose beauty, Pat, and sweet Barbara from Brooklyn, to this day give me their gifts of love and kisses.

My mother is an exuberant woman who crosses lines as a thinker and explorer. Unsentimental as the summer day is long. She doesn’t cook with honey — she doesn’t cook at all. Crazy about her.

And there’s always a screen door open.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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