Once a week, over her lunchtime baby bottle, Elizabeth enjoys a good case of double vision. Through her 14-month-old blue eyes, she sees two mothers to love.
She pats Mary Lynne Schuster on the arm, smiles and softly calls her, "Mom-mom."
Elizabeth reaches out to Tia Griffin wiggling her fingers and giggling.
Tia gave Elizabeth life. She's the little girl's birth mother. Mary Lynne -- along with her husband, Roger -- is giving Elizabeth a life. She's her adoptive mom.
The women use their weekly lunch to play with Elizabeth, squeeze her chubby arms, nuzzle her soft cheeks and watch her practically grow before their eyes. They also get together to talk about raising a child with no secrets, and watching with amazement as their openness surprises the rest of the world.
The women invited me to join them this week for a "Lunch with Cliff," where it's my treat in exchange for hearing what's on people's minds.
Mary Lynne promised I'd hear things about open adoption that were "unusual, revealing and emotional." She was right.
"I was the first person to hold Elizabeth. She was 15 minutes old. I've never felt such joy in all my life."
Mary Lynne, a 32-year-old former teacher, said this in a soft voice that was bursting with pride.
Tia, a 20-year-old college sophomore, smiled and nodded approvingly. "I asked Roger and Mary Lynne to be there when Elizabeth was born," Tia said. "I wanted them to hold her. I wanted Elizabeth to bond with her parents."
Mary Lynne and Tia use their lunches to reaffirm the decision they made, months before Elizabeth was born, to have an open adoption.
"People think open adoption is where you see photos of your baby every three months," Tia said.
"It's not like that with us," Mary Lynne said. The Schusters and Tia celebrate birthdays and holidays together. They took a vacation to visit Tia's grandmother. Mary Lynne helps Tia with her college term papers.
"Tia," Mary Lynne said, "is family."
Then she reached across the table, and the women sampled from each other's plates at the Fairfield Olive Garden.
"I call Elizabeth "my miracle,' " Tia said.
"God enabled me to have this beautiful child so Roger and Mary Lynne could be her parents and give her everything I couldn't. In the process, I got to straighten out my life.
"And," she added with conviction, "I have never once regretted my decision."
Before Elizabeth, Tia said, she was "a mess, drinking and hanging out, doing the young-person thing. I had a chemical dependency. I smoked. I was a waitress. I had no plans."
Now, she's a straight-arrow, non-smoking honors student at Miami University's Hamilton campus. She wants to be a clinical psychologist.
"I've dealt with various issues in my life," she said. "I'm taking psychology to to understand why we make the decisions we do."
As Tia spoke, Elizabeth silently helped herself to some salad. Tearing off her bib with the bunny on the front, she stuffed an entire slice of plum tomato into her mouth. Seeds and red juice dribbled down her chin and plopped onto her dress.
Mary Lynne noticed Elizabeth's bib-less condition. Breaking away from the grown-up conversation, she turned to her daughter and asked, "Do you want more tomato?" Elizabeth nodded. "You'll have to put on your bib."
Elizabeth clapped her hands.
"Isn't she wonderful?" Tia confided to me in a whisper. I thought she was talking about her daughter. I was mistaken.
"I admire how Mary Lynne handles Elizabeth," Tia continued. "She's so good with her. I couldn't be that way."
Despite their closeness, Tia admits to feeling a little left out sometimes. Once at lunch, when she was whispering baby talk into Elizabeth's ear, she found herself feeling very self-conscious. "I realized Roger and Mary Lynne never use baby talk with her," Tia said. "I felt weird. So I stopped."
But only for a moment. She reminded herself this was an open adoption. Holding back and keeping secrets are not allowed.
Elizabeth is going to grow up knowing Tia is her birth mother. No one will try to pass her off as a special friend or a favorite aunt. In the space of a lunch, I could sense the unique openness shared by these two women, two women from different circumstances, who came to know each other through the arrival of a baby. Somehow they've made it work.
"I just never cared that much for kids," Tia explained. "I never had that desire to be a mommy."
Mary Lynne turned back to the table. Elizabeth had her bib back on and was happily gnawing on tomato slices again. "Having a child," Mary Lynne said, "was something I've wanted to do my whole life."
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.