Lost Mothers


When Leni was nine and her sister Amelia was twelve, their mother was lost in a tornado. Raised by their frequently absent father in a quiet house on a windswept Nebraska prairie, the two sisters adjust differently to their motherless lives. Leni wraps herself in silence and solitude; Amelia craves the conviviality and chaos of a large, close-knit family.

After a tragic accident ends her promising career as a ballerina, Leni finds a job as a research librarian in a small town in western Massachusettes. Meanwhile, Amelia has married into that large family she always wanted, and she insists that Leni join the family at their house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire for a massive Fourth of July reunion. Leni goes—but only because she senses something is wrong in Amelia’s supposedly perfect life.

As the sisters struggle through Amelia’s present-day troubles and try to come to grips with the long ago loss of their mother, other simmering resentments, between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, former lovers, boil over in the lake house. Two final unexpected guests arrive as fierce lightning storms break out over the lake, forcing confrontations and revealing secrets that leave no one unscathed.


Even though nearly thirty people had arrived at Diane and Owen Ballard’s to enjoy the long Fourth of July holiday, the Victorian-era lake house was almost silent at seven-fifteen in the morning. As one woman tiptoed into the downstairs bathroom, she wondered if it was because of the heat. Sleep was hard to find on these unusually hot nights, and perhaps everyone was trying for an extra hour of rest in the morning, before giving up and facing the unrelenting heat of the new day.

She pulled from her bathroom bag the home pregnancy test she’d brought with her. She could have done this yesterday in her own home, before this long weekend spent at someone else’s house. But her period was two weeks late as of today, and she’d wanted to wait just that one more day so the test would be accurate. And it would have been torture to wait until the weekend was over.

She squatted over the toilet, holding the stick for the test beneath her. She knew how to do this, she had done it before, but still, she paused to read the instructions again before peeing.

When she was done she put the cap back on the stick and laid it on the floor behind the toilet. She had to wait one to three minutes and she wouldn’t allow herself to peek. So she washed her hands, examined her face in the mirror, checking for any wayward eyebrow hairs that needed plucking, any incipient white heads or sprouted blackheads. Her hair suffered from serious bed-head syndrome, and she wet her hands and ran them through her hair, trying to smooth it down. It worked well enough.

Had it been three minutes yet? She’d forgotten to look at her watch. Still staring at her reflection, she silently counted to thirty and then turned and looked toward the toilet. She’d pushed the stick too far back to see it, so she had to walk over there. If there was a red line in the first window and the second window remained white, she wasn’t pregnant. If there was another red line …

There was.

Trembling, sitting quickly on the toilet lid before her legs gave out, she picked up the stick. Yes, two red lines. Clearly red. Brilliantly red, redder than she’d expected, as if the baby that was suddenly inside her was such a potent force, it could change the color of anything to this alarming fire-engine red.

She was pregnant.

She laughed a little and then pressed a hand to her mouth, shushing the sound. Not so much because someone might hear her, but because it was such a shaky laugh, a sound that was more anxiety than happiness.

She was pregnant.

Did she feel different?

She stood, touching her breasts, her belly. Her body didn’t seem bigger anywhere, but her breasts were tender. Was that normal? What was normal, anyway? When would she start showing? She hadn’t had any morning sickness, but could that be because it was too soon? Or maybe she just wouldn’t suffer that particular side effect. She wondered if her mother had.

Her mother. What would she say? What would everyone say?

When should she tell people? Not for a while yet, she knew that. She could wait, could pretend that nothing was different about her. She was good at pretending.

She checked her reflection again. She looked good, as good as she got. No one would notice anything different about her. Pleased that she had everything under control, she unlocked the door and left the room, her bathroom bag under her arm but completely forgetting the little stick and its bright red proof of pregnancy.

Reviews and Praise

“Barrett delivers a deftly crafted tale of family dynamics sure to hold the readers’ interest.”

–Doris Parmett, best-selling author

“Elizabeth Barrett has successfully created what many writers find too daunting: an extended-family lakeside holiday. Her intelligent and compassionate insights into the complex feelings and actions regarding pregnancy of several late-twenties women ripple among spouses, relatives, and in-laws, finally becoming a full-blown storm. Lost Mothersis a page turner well worth reading.”

-Martha Barron Barrett, author of Invisible Lives

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