Marian Pilkington had a daughter -- for five days, in 1966.
Then she turned the infant over to a Chicago social worker for adoption. And baby Alison became Cindy, daughter of Fern and Don Cohen.
For 40 years, the two mothers haunted each other's thoughts.
Marian wondered what her daughter's life had been like. Fern wondered how the young mother had coped with her loss.
Cindy grew up knowing she was adopted; curious but content, blessed "with a great family, a wonderful mom and dad."
Now Cindy Marten is 41, a school principal, wife and mother of a 13-year-old son. At Cindy's invitation, I met her, Marian and Fern at The Times' Festival of Books at UCLA last month, and she shared the heartwarming story of their reunion.
But I found myself more fascinated by the obvious bond between the two mothers -- women who shared nothing more than a mutual love for their charming, effervescent daughter.
Fern cried when she talked about the joy her daughter brought her. Marian never stopped smiling as they rolled out childhood stories. And Cindy kept piping up to finish their sentences, clearly basking in the attention of her two mothers.
And as a woman who has been motherless since age 19, I felt a twinge of envy watching the scene. Mother's Day is a hard holiday for me, as much a reminder of loss as of the blessings of mothering my three daughters.
Marian was 18 when her daughter was born. The baby's father was her high school sweetheart. They married when she was four months pregnant. But he was in the Navy and Marian wanted to go to college. They thought adoption was best for all.
A few years later, they had a son. Two years after that, Marian's husband died, a tragedy that resolved her doubts about their adoption decision. "Having a father die is not something that should happen to a 5-year-old," she told me. "I wanted her off doing little 5-year-old things. So I made peace with what we'd done."
When her daughter's 21st birthday passed, Marian sent the adoption agency a letter, saying she was willing to be contacted. Almost 20 years went by with no response.
"I thought 'She's going to be 40 years old soon,' " Marian said. "I can't believe she's not curious. She should be looking for me by now."
In August 2006, Marian joined an online registry that connects adoptees with birth parents. She found a listing that seemed to match her daughter.
"I'm praying that I'm your birth mother," Marian wrote in her e-mail.
Cindy read it . . . then called the only mother she knew.
Fern had anticipated this moment. And she couldn't stop crying as she read Marian's message. "I'm not a crier, really," she told me later. "I just felt so bad for this woman, who missed all these wonderful years, with this wonderful human being.
"And I wanted her to know that adopting Cindy was the best thing that happened to me in my entire life. And I'll always be grateful to her for that."
Over the next few months, Cindy and her birth mother spent hours getting to know each other, filling in the blanks of their separate pasts. They arranged to meet for the first time in Chicago in November 2006.
Marian flew in from her home near Philadelphia. Cindy came from San Diego . . . with Fern.
How awkward must that have been, I wondered, imagining unasked questions and wounded feelings; an unspoken competition between the two mothers.
But the three of them had such a wonderful time, they agreed to meet again last month in California. This time, Marian spent as much time with Fern as she did with her daughter.
"We'll go out to lunch alone together, and there's never a lull in the conversation. It's so easy and so natural, it's amazing," Marian told me.
"We feel like we're sisters of the soul. I see how amazing Cindy is and feel so fortunate that she grew up with Fern as her mother."
I understand Fern and Marian's joy in the shared legacy of their daughter. Theirs is the happy ending we want from adoption stories, a satisfying coda to Mother's Day lore. And a reminder not to bemoan life's unexpected twists, that a loss can lead to surprising gifts.