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"You're frowning," Theresa Manetti commented to Maizie Sommers. "What's wrong?"
Maizie was one of her two oldest best friends and she, Maizie and Cecilia Parnell, the other best friend in their trio were playing poker as they did every week—come hell or high water—for years now.
Maizie put the cards she was holding facedown on the table and shook her head. Her short, cropped, silvery platinum straight hair swung back and forth, underlining her feelings. Her clear blue eyes snapped as she said, "I don't feel like playing poker."
"All right," Theresa said gamely, "what do you feel like doing?"
Maizie's answer was simple. "Screaming."
Theresa and Cecilia exchanged looks. They suddenly knew where this was heading. Lifelong friends, they had been together since the third grade when tall, gangly Michael Fitzpatrick had stolen a kiss from a very startled Theresa. He'd gotten decked for his trouble when Cecilia and Maizie—predominantly Maizie—had chased him down and cornered him at the end of the schoolyard. Maizie did most of the swinging. Victim, perpetrator and erstwhile defenders had all gotten one week of detention for causing the disruption, at the end of which three of them became fast friends while Michael made plans to eventually join the Jesuits.
Maizie, Theresa and Cecilia attended the same schools, went away to the same college and were in each other's bridal parties. Moreover, they stood by one another through all the joyous events, like the birth of each other's children. They were no less steadfast during the sorrowful events, as one by one, they all became widows long before their time. And when Theresa, as a young mother of two, faced the specter of breast cancer, Maizie and Cecilia were the ones who took over the daily chores and lifted the spirits of her worried husband and children.
After so many years together, the three knew each other as well as they knew their own minds. Which was why they sensed that the source of Maizie's angst was her daughter, Nicole. Both women could relate to what their friend was going through. They both had single daughters.
Cecilia broached the subject first. "It's Nikki, isn't it?"
"Of course it's Nikki. Do you know what she said to me?"
"No," Cecilia replied. "But I'm sure you're going to tell us."
"She actually said that if she never got married, she was fine with that. Can you imagine that?" Maizie cried.
Theresa sighed. "Kate said almost the same thing the other day."
Cecilia added her voice to the concert. "Must be something going around. The last time we talked, Jewel told me that she was 'happy' with her life the way it was. I know I should be happy that she's happy, but—"
"You know what this means, don't you?" Maizie asked the others.
"Yes, that we're never going to have any grandchildren." There was a catch in Theresa's voice as she made the daunting prediction.
Maizie leaned over the table, placing one hand on each of her friends' hands. "All right, what are we going to do about this?"
"Do?" Theresa repeated, confused. "What can we do? I mean, it's not like the girls are twelve."
"Of course not," Maizie scoffed. "If they were twelve, we wouldn't be worrying about them never getting married, would we?"
"I think Theresa means that they're adult women," Cecilia said.
The argument held no water for Maizie. "So, you stop being a mother because there're more than twenty-one candles on the cake?"
"Of course not," Theresa protested. "I'll always be Kate's mother, but—"
Maizie seized the word. "We've been sitting a little too long on our butts. It's time we shook things up a little bit."
"What are you talking about, Maizie?" Theresa asked.
"Maizie's just frustrated, Theresa—" Cecilia got no further.
"Of course I'm frustrated. And you are, too. I know you." She looked from one woman to the other. "When we were the same age as the girls are now, we were married with a baby on the way."
"Times are different these days, Maizie," Theresa began.
"Not so different," Maizie maintained. "Love still makes the world go around. Don't you want your girls to find love?"
"Of course we do," Cecilia declared. "But it's beginning to look like, short of some kind of divine intervention, that's just not going to happen."
"Read the newspaper, Cecilia. God's a little busy right now. Besides," Maizie looked at Theresa for support. "He helps those who help themselves, right?"
"Right," Theresa agreed slowly, then asked a bit uneasily, "Just exactly what are you getting at?"
"I know that smile." Cecilia pointed at Maizie. "That's the smile Bette Davis wore in All About Eve when she told everyone at the party to buckle up because it was going to be a bumpy night."
Maizie laughed. "No bumpy anything. All I'm saying is that it wasn't that long ago when parents arranged marriages for their children." There was skepticism on Theresa's face. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"If you ask me, you need help if you think this has any chance of flying, Maizie. I don't know about Nikki, but if Kate was any more independent, she'd be her own country."
"Jewel's the same way," Cecilia agreed. "She balks at blind dates or being set up. Believe me, I have tried. I guarantee the girls are just not going to go for whatever it is that you have in mind, Maizie."
"Who says we have to tell them?" Maizie asked innocently.
"Okay, spill it," Cecilia demanded. "Just what are you up to?"
"Oh c'mon, ladies, think" Maizie urged. "We've each got our own companies. We interact with a host of people everyday. Different people," she emphasized. "I've got my own real-estate company, you have a catering business—" She waved a hand at Theresa. "And you have a cleaning service—"
"We all know what we have," Cecilia cut in. "What does all that have to do with getting Nikki, Kate and Jewel married?"
"We're all in a position to keep our eyes opened for prospects," Maizie insisted with enthusiasm.
Theresa looked at Cecilia. "You know what she's talking about?"
Before Cecilia could respond, Maizie underscored, "Unmarried, eligible men, Theresa. There're more single men out there than ever," she cried. "We're in the perfect vocations to meet them."
"And what, we lasso one if we like what we see and bring him home to the girls?" Cecilia asked sarcastically.
"There are laws against that, Maizie," Theresa said quietly.
"There are no laws against using your brain and setting things up," Maizie insisted. "Don't just look at them as clients, look at them as men. As potential sons-in-law," she stressed.
"All right, pretend that we're going along with this," Cecilia conceded. "What if one of us actually sees a 'potential' son-in-law, then what?"
Maizie's eyes danced. "Then we improvise. We're all clever women. We can do this. Desperate times call for desperate measures," she reminded them. Satisfied that she had gotten them to consider her idea, she relaxed and smiled. "Now," she looked from one friend to another as she rubbed her hands together, definitely more buoyant than she had been a few minutes ago, "What do you say we play a little poker? Suddenly, I'm feeling very lucky."
Theresa and Cecilia exchanged looks. The idea was crazy enough to work. At least, it was worth a try.
Maizie decided to give her daughter one more chance to redeem herself before she went ahead with her plan.
Because she knew how busy her pediatrician daughter was, what with her own practice and volunteering at the free clinic twice a month, Maizie made Nikki her favorite meal, the same meal her late husband had loved, and brought it over to her daughter's house.
She forgot to take Nikki's unpredictable schedule into account and wound up waiting almost an hour before Nikki pulled up in her driveway.
Surprised to see her mother leaning against the door, a dark blue casserole dish at her feet, Nikki rolled down her window. The breeze playfully blew her light blonde hair into her mouth. Pushing the now damp strand aside, she called out, "Were we on for tonight?" Parking quickly, she got out of the vehicle.
Maizie bent down to pick up the casserole dish and said cheerfully, "No, this is just an impromptu visit."
Eyes the same shade of blue as her mother's now scrutinized Maizie. Her mother had stopped popping up in her life unannounced right after she graduated medical school. Nikki wondered what was up. "Sorry if I kept you waiting," she apologized. "Have you been here long?"
"No, not long," Maizie lied.
Nikki glanced at the casserole dish her mother was holding. Beware of mothers bearing gifts.
Unlocking her front door, Nikki held it open for her mother as the latter walked in and began to make her way to the kitchen. There was something a little too cheerful, a little too innocent about her mother tonight, she thought. And then it came to her.
"You played poker with Aunt Cecilia and Aunt Theresa, didn't you?" Nikki asked, closing the door again. She flipped the lock.
"I play with them every week, dear," Maizie answered innocently.
The game was just an excuse for gossiping, exchanging information and comparing notes. "I know what goes on at those games, Mom."
Setting the casserole down on the table, Maizie placed her hand to her chest and dramatically cried, "Oh my Lord, I certainly hope not. I wouldn't want to be the one who got those poor men arrested."
"Men?" Nikki reached into the cupboard and took out two dinner plates. "What men?" Taking out the silverware, she glanced over her shoulder at her mother. "What are you talking about?"
Maizie took the glass lid off the casserole dish. "Why, the ones who play strip poker with us, of course," she deadpanned. "What other men would I be talking about?"
Putting the plates on the table, Nikki took out two glasses, then got a soda can out of the refrigerator. "Mother, you are crazy, you know that, don't you?"
Maizie took the glasses from her daughter and placed them next to the plates. "I'm not crazy, but if I was, no one could blame me for going that route. Loneliness does that to a person."
"Loneliness? Ha! Mom, I've seen perfect strangers come up to you and just start talking, pouring out their hearts." As far back as she could remember, her mother had always had that kind of face. A face that encouraged people to talk to her even though they didn't know her. Her mother did nothing to discourage them.
Maizie shrugged. "They don't count. And they weren't that perfect."
"And what does count?" Nikki knew in her heart where this was going. Where all her conversations with her mother eventually went. To the nursery. "Babies?"
"Yes!" Maizie cried with feeling.
"Fine," Nikki said with a straight face, "you can come to work with me tomorrow, mingle with all the babies you want."
Maizie's smile vanished. "Those are other people's babies."
"Same thing. They're still babies," Nikki told her, taking a handful of napkins and depositing them on the table between the two plates.
"No, it's not the same thing," Maizie insisted. "Are you satisfied just holding other people's babies? Don't you want a baby of your own to hold, Nikki? Don't you want a baby of your own to love and care for?"
Nikki rolled her eyes. They'd danced this dance before. Many times. "Yes, Mother, I want one of my own and if it's meant to be, it'll happen," Nikki assured her. "In the meantime," she continued, sitting down and pulling her chair closer to the table, "I'm doing something good. Mom, I love you more than anything in this world, but please, give it a rest."
Maizie shook her head sadly. "It's been resting too long."
"Not by my count," Nikki said pointedly. She was determined to change the subject. "C'mon, Mom," she urged. "Let's just eat and enjoy each other's company." She indicated the uncovered casserole. "The stew smells really good."
"It smells really cold," Maizie contradicted. "I was waiting for an hour."
"I thought you said you weren't waiting all that long."
"I lied. One of the few times," Maizie was quick to add.