Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Several years ago I fell in love with a strong and handsome man named Doug. He was divorced, and his two children, twelve and fifteen, lived in another state with their mother. Doug loved his children and could not wait for the four of us to spend time together. He assured me that I would grow to love them and admire their talents and intelligence.
I wasn’t so sure. I had never wanted children of my own; why would I want someone else’s? Besides, I was only in my late twenties, and the thought of having adolescent stepchildren made me uncomfortable.
I tried to express my feelings to Doug. He was as understanding as he could be, although he had difficulty with my reaction. His children had always been an integral part of his previous relationships. My fear was new to him. He truly loved me, however, and he was dedicated to our relationship.
Secretly I knew I was being selfish. I didn’t want to share his love with anyone, including his kids. I also knew that to be stepmother to his children would have required of me a level of moral responsibility and maturity that I felt unprepared to attain.
I struggled to keep my distance from Doug’s children. Every time they came to visit for a holiday, I left town. I never vacationed at the beach with them, claiming I didn’t like the ocean.
Despite my behavior, Doug continued to show me the utmost patience. He was convinced that I would eventually be ready to include his children in our relationship.
Doug and I seriously considered getting married. He longed for the traditional family life that had been lost to him years before. As time went by, though, conflicts arose over my inability to grow and sacrifice. Our discussions about marriage tapered off. The conversation grew heated each time he mentioned his children. I could not deal with them being at our house. No way could I be a stepmother!
Today Doug and his children live in a cottage on a lake. They do everything together: eat meals, go kayaking, play computer games. They are always there for each other.
I live alone, in my big, quiet house. I sit here and long for Doug and the sound of children’s voices.
My father left when I was ten. He was overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing for too many children, and he embraced alcohol because he could not embrace his manic, paranoid wife.
When my father remarried the next year, my mother, with her usual mercurial logic, insisted that we children attend the ceremony while she stayed home and cursed the bride. I did not argue with her. She was on the crest of a manic frenzy, which always marked the start of a descent into a depression of equal magnitude. By then I knew enough to stay out of her way. I got the younger kids cleaned up as best I could, and we went.
My stepmother was everything my mother was not: pretty, quiet, well educated. She barely concealed her distress, however, at having her husband’s children from his first marriage present on her wedding day. After my siblings and I had posed for a pained and awkward picture with the new bride, we were quickly relegated to a corner table.
We rarely saw my father after that. He always had a last-minute excuse for why he couldn’t come see us: flat tire, illness, work. I desperately wanted to believe him. Years went by without any contact whatsoever.
I graduated from high school at sixteen with a full scholarship to college. It was heaven. I could read philosophy without interruption: no meals to cook, no house to clean, no younger siblings to get ready for school. For all practical purposes, I had no family.
My scholarship paid for tuition, board, and half my meals. I was an old hand at scrimping and could live on air and library books if I had to. Still, in my junior year, I managed to run out of meal coupons a full two weeks before the end of the first semester. I swallowed my pride and called my father to ask for a loan.
By this time, my father and his second wife had two children. The older, a precocious three-year-old, answered the phone. She politely asked who was calling, and I told her my name. “Oh, I know you,” she said. “You’re one of those kids from Port Washington. My mommy hates you.”
After a brief silence, my father got on the phone, clearly chagrined but acting as though nothing had happened. I was reeling, having never before been hated by someone who barely knew me. I got off the phone as quickly as I could, without asking for the loan. I used my last few dollars to buy some vitamins and starved until the next semester’s meal coupons arrived.
Eventually I got a letter from my father’s wife. She did not apologize. Instead, she agonized over the financial and emotional hardships she had endured. My alcoholic father was unable to hold down a job, and she’d depleted her personal savings and sold her piano to pay his child support.
It wasn’t until years later, after my own divorce and the financial burdens it brought, that I had any sympathy for her circumstances. I have since found compassion for my stepmother and have tried to respect her need to keep her stepchildren from upsetting her concept of a family. I will never, however, understand why she felt it necessary to hate me.
When Viki and I married, we’d both been single for many years and had each raised children with no support from our former spouses. Between the two of us, we had seven kids, ages seven to eleven. Viki’s hundred-year-old grandmother Bunny came to live with us, too. We joked that, with her longevity, Bunny would still be with us when the last kid went out the door. She could help us wave goodbye.
Viki and I pooled our resources and bought a huge house. The kids had plenty of room. They loved us and loved each other, but puberty and the reality of living with new and different people took their toll, so my wife and I decided to try an experiment: we would stay married, but raise our kids in separate houses.
I’m happy to say it’s working. We sold the big house. I moved back into my old house, and my wife got a place in town. Viki and I see each other every day, vacation together, make plans together, and share everything, just like any other married couple.
Some people say we should have stuck it out. Others are envious of our living situation. But most admire our willingness to do what we feel is best for our kids, and for our relationship.
Our children are almost all out of the home. Bunny turned 108 in January.
My father died when I was ten, and my mother began seeing Mr. Z. about a year later. My younger brother and sister called him “Uncle Milt,” but I stuck steadfastly to “Mr. Z.,” even after my mother married him.
Mr. Z. had bushy eyebrows and liked to tell jokes and sing Sinatra songs. He brought laughter back into our house. His own four kids lived a mile away with their mother. He would pick them up every Sunday and take all seven of us on an outing: bowling, miniature golf, a movie. My mother, who prized her peace and quiet, stayed home.
When Mr. Z. offered to adopt the three of us, we said yes with little hesitation. I began to call him “Dad” and took his last name, though I kept my father’s last name as my middle name.
My stepfather never catered to his “real” children over us, but my mother continued to favor her own kids. (Her stepchildren, after all, still lived with their mother.) Her job was to look out for us, and she did so fiercely. Even into adulthood, she gave us more time, more support, and better gifts.
A few years ago, my stepsister Soozi had a recurrence of breast cancer. It quickly metastasized to her liver and bones. The prognosis was not good. She’d lost her mother a few years before, and my mother, a breast-cancer survivor herself, took charge of Soozi’s care. She accompanied her to the doctor, enlisted home-healthcare nurses, sat with her through chemotherapy, brought her food, made her smoothies, and helped care for her kids.
When Soozi died, my mother wept. After the funeral, a friend approached her and said, “I’m so sorry about your stepdaughter.”
“She was my daughter,” said my mother.
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
Virginia’s son Chris was seven. He had seen a succession of men pass through his mother’s life — and her bed. Virginia told me that, if I wanted to be with her, I would do two things: become a vegetarian, and understand that her son came first and that she would raise him. I had no problem avoiding meat, but I struggled with the fact that I was not allowed to contribute to parenting Chris.
When Virginia and I got married, she was pregnant with our son Terry, whom we raised in full cooperation. Meanwhile Chris did whatever he wanted, mostly with his mother’s complicity.
I tried to build a relationship with Chris. I took him fishing, joined a parent-child bowling league with him, went to his baseball games, and attended all of his school functions. Over the years I fixed numerous motorbikes, which Chris tore up again almost as soon as I got them running. I put a new clutch in Chris’s truck, which he wrecked several days later.
Chris never openly appreciated anything I did, and his mother never gave me any credit. Our family counseling sessions were so bad we wouldn’t ride in the elevator together afterward. No one could get Chris to take any responsibility. His mom blamed me for not loving him. I accused her of never giving me a chance to be his parent.
Chris ran away from home, dropped out of school, threatened suicide, was hospitalized, got caught using our car to rob convenience stores, and had a party and destroyed much of the house while we were gone. Our house and car insurance were canceled, and we had to refinance our mortgage to pay off the hospital and counseling bills.
Finally Chris got his GED and joined the army. He divorced once, but eventually met a wonderful woman, and they are still married.
A couple of years ago on Father’s Day, Chris bought me a present and told me that he appreciated all the things I had done for him. He called me “Dad.”
He has called me Dad ever since.
When Bob and I married, I had an infant son, Kelsey, from a previous relationship. Bob and I had two more children together, and he legally adopted Kelsey.
Years later, when the kids were all in school, Bob said to me, “You know, Kelsey is the only one of our kids who didn’t get my brown eyes.”
I reminded him that there was a simple explanation: Kelsey’s biological father had blue eyes.
“Oh,” Bob said, startled. “I guess you’re right.”
College Station, Texas
My parents divorced when I was two. When I was four, my father remarried. My mother wouldn’t allow me to go to the wedding.
My new stepmom was the eldest child of a big, loving family, the kind I’d always wanted. I felt guilty for the times when I wanted to be around her family instead of my mother.
When I hit puberty, my stepmother got pregnant, and everything seemed to change. I felt like an outsider. I would hear her whispering with the rest of her family about my mother. I took this personally, withdrew, and began getting into trouble. I felt they hated me, and I returned the feeling.
I escaped my problems through alcohol, drugs, and sex. At sixteen I was strung out and living in an abandoned building in downtown LA. I called my mother and asked for money to buy food, but she said no.
A few days later my stepmom showed up. I don’t know how she found me. I was embarrassed for her to see how I was living. She was so clean and beautiful, and I felt dirty and broken. She didn’t ask any questions, just helped me pack up and brought me home. But first she took me out to lunch. She said I looked like I needed something to eat.
I’m grown up now and have a daughter of my own. I recently learned what all the whispering was about. My mother had stolen my stepmom’s Social Security number and damaged her credit. My stepmom wouldn’t turn her in because of what it might do to me if I found out.
My husband and I are divorced, and one day my daughter said to me, “I don’t want another daddy.” Having a stepfamily is a difficult subject to understand when you are six. I tried to explain to her that her daddy will forever be her daddy, but that if I get married, she will have one more person in her life who loves her.
When I was growing up, my mom lived three blocks away with her new husband and their two kids. My stepfather didn’t want to raise me, so I lived with my mom’s parents. Our two households got together for birthdays and holidays, and during the summers I’d play with my half sister and half brother. But really I just wanted to be with my mom.
Sometimes my mom would call to say that she was on her way to see me, and I should wait for her out front. I’d hurry to the porch or the curb. Those spur-of-the-moment visits were always triggered by a fight she’d had with my stepfather. She’d swoop in, collect me, and drive around our small town, making angry plans: She was going to divorce him. We’d move to Arizona and buy a little house, just the two of us.
Eventually she’d calm down, and the drive would end. She’d drop me off at the curb and honk so that my grandparents would know I was home. I’d stand and watch her drive away.
I was about ten when I realized that, for my mom, being with me was really about not being with my stepfather.
Forty years have passed since then, and I live a thousand miles from my mom and her family. She and I take turns calling each other on Sunday mornings, and every three years or so I visit her. She still talks about leaving him, except now it’s mostly about why she never did.
At fifty, I’m not waiting around anymore for my mom to show up. I understand that she’s not coming.
Rocky Hill, Connecticut
Though I grew up calling my stepfather by his first name, as was the fashion in our California hippie subculture, to me he was always my dad.
Bill and I worked together on our rough patch of land in the backwoods of Mendocino County: gardening, building fences, chopping wood. He taught me there was nothing I couldn’t do. Though I was a girl, I felt a special bond with him, like the one fathers and sons are supposed to have.
When I came out as a lesbian at sixteen, my whole family was supportive, but Bill made me feel it was something special. He told me that he’d had sex with men when he was younger. It was another bond between us.
This bond lasted until my midtwenties, when I learned that Bill had raped his oldest daughter when she was in her early teens, years before he had married my mother. That same year I found out that Bill had a degenerative neurological disease. The disease made him a different person: fearful, forgetful, shaky. His illness, together with the knowledge that he had raped his own child, made him a stranger to me.
Around the time that Bill got sick, I was coming to terms with my own kinkier desires. I finally felt able to act on fantasies I’d had for years, of being the tough but loving “daddy” and making my “girl” submit to the punishment and stimulation I knew she secretly desired. Though this was safe sexual play between consenting adults, and though I had the support of my friends in the lesbian S/M community, I was still tormented by the fear that I was playing out my desire to become Bill, to seize his power. I hated myself even more than I hated him.
Before Bill died, I confronted him about the rape, and he seemed genuinely full of regret, but it didn’t satisfy me. It was the weak, dying Bill who expressed regret, not the strong, living Bill who had done this terrible thing.
It’s been years now since Bill’s death. Lately I’ve taken up yoga. Bill also practiced yoga, so I’ve had a hard time accepting the practice for myself. As I struggle to stay in a headstand, I picture him in our living room by the wood stove, up on his head and elbows, legs in a lotus position, laughing with joy at his ability.
I don’t play “daddy” anymore with my lovers — not because I think there’s anything wrong with it, but because I don’t like clinging to the fleeting sense of power it gave me. Instead I’ve come to crave the power I feel emanating from my muscles, my heart, my bones when I practice yoga. This power comes from within, and I can access it without anyone else’s help. It has enabled me to love Bill again, and to accept him for who he was.
Sam and I had known each other for just two weeks when we secretly moved in together. Sam was still married to Cathy, but he told me the marriage was over.
One night, Cathy came over to confront Sam. She had their five-year-old son Edward with her. When she knocked on the door, Sam told me to hide in the bedroom closet. She had threatened to kill herself if she found out he had a lover.
From my hiding place, I heard them shouting at each other in the living room. While they yelled, little Edward explored the small apartment. He opened the door of the closet where I was hiding. I whispered hello and asked him to please be quiet. After crouching with me for a few minutes in silence, he left.
The argument went on for a long time. I was forced to pee in a shoe box lined with dry-cleaning bags. I was angry and embarrassed, and afraid that Edward might reveal my presence.
I should have left Sam, but he assured me that he loved me. He divorced Cathy, and we got married and had a daughter. Two years after her birth, Sam left me, too.
I’ve stayed in touch with my stepson Edward through the years. I was always the one to send him birthday and Christmas presents when his father was too busy to remember. But Edward and I have never discussed how we first met, in the closet.
My mother aspired to be a country-and-western singer, but that wasn’t an option for a divorced single mom with four kids. “If it weren’t for you kids,” she would say, “I could have been somebody.”
She married Gene, who drove an old yellow Ford convertible with dual exhaust. He seemed cool, for a stepfather.
Once, on his birthday, Mom coached us all to say, “Happy birthday, Dad!” It felt weird, but I said it. I was nine. My older brother never said it. Later he would steal Mom’s wedding band and give it to a girl at school.
After several miscarriages, my mother gave my stepfather a son. They took over Gene’s parents’ farm and made good money playing music on the weekends. Gene focused his attention on his real son and became unavailable to me.
This year, on Gene’s birthday, the doctor told him he had one month to live. The cancer was in his lungs, liver, and pancreas. He has held on, though. As he struggles to survive, I struggle to find meaning in our relationship.
Recently, at a silent meditation retreat, I was eating breakfast and trying to be mindful of the efforts that had brought my food to the table. I was about to take a bite of cream of wheat when I heard a voice say, Perhaps your stepfather planted and watched over this wheat that is now nurturing and sustaining you.
No! I thought. I closed my mouth and cleared my mind. I would not forgive him so easily. After I’d regained my composure, I reached for a slice of oat bread slathered with peanut butter. Perhaps, the voice said, Gene had a hand in harvesting these oats. Perhaps, with his own two hands, he is feeding you, his son.
I broke down and cried as a salty mouthful of bread and peanut butter filled my stomach. I felt the love of a good man that day: a man who took responsibility for four kids and a vain, neurotic woman.
I’ve made peace with you, Dad. You are free — and so am I.
Rohnert Park, California
From the start, my future stepmother told me, “I hate kids. I’m never having kids.”
I was a sensitive child. To me it was the same as saying, “I hate you, Lisa. I hate you.”
Though, at the time, she and my father seemed old, I realize now how young they were.
I was just six when they met, and I was a junior in high school when my father finally gave in to her pressure and made her his wife.
A few months into their marriage, my stepmother suddenly wanted to have a baby. They tried but couldn’t conceive. They spent thousands of dollars. Nothing. She told my father that it was his fault she couldn’t get pregnant, that I wasn’t really his child — which was ridiculous: I look just like him.
My father’s family was quick to find the wisdom of God in my stepmother’s inability to get pregnant: God had put a stepdaughter in her life knowing that she could never have children of her own. When she’d rejected God’s gift, she’d ensured that no amount of money would ever solve her problem.
At some point, I grew tired of trying to convince my stepmother that I was worthy of her love.
This Christmas my stepmother’s mother died. Though the woman was eighty-four years old and in poor health, my stepmother wasn’t ready for her death. I called to offer my condolences. She told me softly, “As you get older, you start to wonder: who is going to take care of me when I get like this? It’s so hard.”
“Of course it’s hard,” I said. “We only have one mother in life.”
“Not you,” she replied. “You have two mothers.”
It’s funny how, now that she realizes I’m all she’ll have someday, she wants to be a mother to me. I’m thirty years old. I don’t need her love anymore. She needs mine.
East Greenwich, New York
The moment Dad was done with chemotherapy and radiation, pneumonia set in. Then, three days ago, he went to the emergency room because he was having trouble breathing. My stepmother has waited until today to call and tell us.
“We’re his damn kids!” I complain to my brother.
My brother remains calm and gently asks my stepmother to please try to call us sooner.
Two days later, she calls to say he is in the emergency room again, unable to get enough oxygen. The doctors are baffled.
I visit Dad on my way to work one morning and am startled by his now-bald head and the unfamiliar way he smells when I kiss him goodbye. After I leave, I realize I’ve forgotten my sunglasses. I go back to retrieve them and find my stepmother crying by his bed. I have not seen her cry before, and it takes me by surprise. I hug her awkwardly.
My stepmother does not handle emotions well. She buries her fear in a list of urgent but unimportant tasks, refusing help until she collapses, martyr-like, from exhaustion. She’s the opposite of my mother, who used her skills as a therapist to pry into and dissect our emotions as we grew up. My adult life has been an effort to find a middle ground between the two.
Dad is transferred to a better hospital, closer to where my brother and I live. His immune system is weakened, and suddenly everyone but me has a cold or fever and can’t visit him. I struggle to find time to visit while working full time and doing Christmas shopping. Knowing that I am my father’s only diversion, I try to be witty and tell funny stories. Secretly, I think he would rather be visited by my brother, who is much more adept at cracking jokes in serious situations. The most painful moment is leaving him alone in the almost empty hospital on Christmas Eve. I go back to his house and stuff my stepmother’s stocking on his behalf.
It occurs to me that my stepmother keeps my brother and me in the dark not because she wants to stand between Dad and us, but because she can’t bear the pain of sharing the bad news. She busies herself with caretaking to avoid the fact that her husband is dying. And I suddenly feel grateful to her. Because she is here, I can go back to my daily life unencumbered, until the next emergency.
© Linda Smogor
The first time my mother went out with Larry James, she left my sister and me with his folks. I was ten, and Katie was four. We’d been left in many homes with many strangers, but this was the dingiest place yet. I couldn’t stop crying. After a few hours, Larry’s parents called my mom at Scotty’s Bar and told her to come and get us.
Larry was nine years younger than my mother. He didn’t have a job. He mostly sat in his parked car with friends, drinking beer, chain-smoking, and listening to the radio. When my mother wasn’t working, she was at a bar with Larry.
It didn’t take me long to develop a distaste for the James clan and their shabby ways. Having raised eleven kids, they prided themselves on the fact that no one ever went hungry in their house. So what, I thought. I’d rather starve than eat pinto beans and fried potatoes every day. I hated their grimy kitchen table and gritty floors, the old man’s bottle of Thunderbird hidden in the toilet tank, and the way they inserted an r into words like “warsh” and “idear.” Everything in their house was covered with a film of cigarette smoke and bacon grease.
My mother went on and on about what good people the Jameses were. “The salt of the earth,” she called them. But they teased and ridiculed each other relentlessly. Cruelty was some kind of sport with them, and my feelings wore thin. It was all I could do to sit silently at their table, pushing my beans from one side of the chipped plate to the other.
When Larry moved in with us, he made a brief and obvious attempt to be nice to Katie and me. His idea of playing with us was pulling our hair or squeezing our shoulders. He was offended when it made us cry. After a while, I refused to cry — about anything. Larry was always pissed off, mostly at me. He spat accusations at me and shook his finger in my face.
During the seven years Larry was married to my mother, he worked on and off — mostly off. He disappeared for several days after my half brother was born, and again for a week after Katie was hit by a car and killed on her way home from school. My mother always took him back, after a lot of drinking, fighting, and destruction of what little property we had.
Larry called me “Hollywood” with as much disdain as he could muster. He told me many times that I thought I was too good for everyone else, that I was “twelve going on twenty-one.” My mother sided with Larry on most counts. I no longer thought of her as my mother. She was one of them.
San Luis Obispo, California
I first met my stepdaughter Ellen when she was fifteen. She had already had her first abortion, was known to every cop in town, and was just entering her Goth phase. Her first comment after meeting my two children was “They smile too much.”
I naively thought I could avoid all the stepmothering traps. After all, I had been a stepdaughter myself; I knew how not to act.
Dan and his ex-wife had joint custody of Ellen: six weeks with Mom, six weeks with Dad. When it was time for Ellen to switch houses, she would throw her clothes, books, and stuffed animals into a large plastic bag and drag it out to the curb to wait for her mother to pick her up. I felt sorry for her, sitting sadly on the curb with her belongings bagged up like an offering to Goodwill.
From the beginning, things were rough. Ellen skipped school and brought friends home while Dan and I were at work. They drank beer and smoked cigarettes, leaving the cans and butts in the backyard. She begged for, and received, money from Dan whenever she wanted it. Then she’d blow it all in a couple of days and come back for more. I tried to convince Dan to impose some rules on Ellen.
“We have to be careful what we say,” he told me. “She’ll get mad and run away.”
One Friday night, Dan and I had been invited to take a sunset cruise on a friend’s sailboat. Ellen, who had been absent from school most of the week with a sore throat, agreed to baby-sit my son. He didn’t really need a sitter, but we figured it would be a chance for the two of them to bond. And, as usual, Ellen had burned through her allowance and needed the money.
There was no wind on the bay that night, and we were forced to resort to engine power. The ride back to the dock was painfully slow. We didn’t get home until after 10 P.M.
Ellen met us at the door. She had dyed her hair bluish black, plastered her already pale face with white makeup, and put on inky lipstick. She was wearing a black see-through dress that looked more like a slip, fishnet stockings held together by large safety pins, and her Doc Marten boots.
“You’re late,” she said, “and I have to get to the Knocks.” (The Knocks was a teen hangout.) “My friends are waiting for me, but I had to baby-sit your son!” she spat in my direction.
“How are you getting there?” her father asked.
“You’re going to take me, and then I’ll get a ride home with one of my friends.”
Dan hung his head and reached into his pockets for his keys.
I’d had enough. I shouted at Ellen: “You were sick all day with a sore throat and stayed home from school. Now it’s almost 11 p.m., and you think you’re going out? No way!”
“Dad!” Ellen whined.
Poor Dan looked pathetically from Ellen to me. “She’s right, Ellen,” he said. “You shouldn’t go to the Knocks. You’ve been sick.”
Ellen turned bright pink with rage and stomped angrily down the front walk, mumbling that she would take the bus. I grabbed her arm and told her to go back inside.
Round and round we went. Ellen wailed and banged her head with her hands. Our elderly neighbors, awakened from sleep, peered out at us from behind their curtains. Dan stood helplessly by. Finally Ellen started to cough in the cold night air. The cough got so bad that she stopped wailing and ran into the house.
The next day was sunny and bright. Dan and I were in the kitchen having coffee when Ellen finally woke up. She came right over to me.
“I’m sorry for making such a scene,” she said, and she gave me a big hug.
I was stunned.
“How about me?” her father asked.
“Oh, Dad,” she said, pushing past him.
“I don’t get it,” Dan complained. “I’m the good guy. You’re the wicked stepmom.”
Ellen continued getting into trouble, however. She barely graduated from high school, was on and off the streets, and once even broke into our house and pawned Dan’s guitar for drug money. She married a handsome but psychotic man. They had a child, he cheated on her, they got divorced, and she moved in with her mother.
Ellen has talked about going back to school, getting a regular job, and buying a house, but her brief flirtations with normalcy don’t last. Now she’s considering being a guitarist in a band.
We gave Ellen so much money last year that Dan didn’t think she deserved a Christmas present, but I couldn’t stand the thought of there being nothing under the tree for her on Christmas morning, so I bought her an orthopedic pillow; her neck had been hurting. She thanked me with a big hug. Then she went over to her ex-husband’s house, where her little girl was sitting on the curb, waiting to be picked up.
Whenever I spoke to my children about the woman who’d married their father, I was careful to avoid the word stepmother. I didn’t want C. to have any ownership of my children.
C. had been a friend of mine. We’d attended the same college and reconnected when our paths crossed at a reunion. Our families took trips to the beach together, had picnics, and attended each other’s parties. She was tall and beautiful, with a fair complexion that hinted of both fragility and strength. And she lured away my husband.
Over the next decade, whenever my three sons would spend a Sunday with their dad, he would come alone up the walkway. C. would remain in their Volkswagen, looking forward, head held high. For that day, she had the family I’d always wanted: the mother, the father, the children.
When my eldest son, John, had problems in high school and became caught up in a crowd that used drugs, I asked his dad for help. We decided it might be best for John to live with him and attend a different school in a new community.
The day John left, I made sure I was out. I couldn’t bear to watch him carry his belongings off to a house run by a woman whose very existence I had tried to block from my mind. I never visited that house. I never saw John’s new room.
I missed John, but the new arrangement seemed to be good for him. When he occasionally returned home, I noticed his attitude and behavior had improved. I credited his father’s parenting. I also gave credit to a high-school teacher who had noticed John’s talents and helped point him in the right direction. But I chose not to think of my former friend as having any influence over my son.
Recently, John and his wife were visiting me, and I asked, “How is C.?” I had heard that she had cancer.
John had to pause to regain his composure. “She died a few weeks ago,” he said.
My tears surprised me. “I’m sorry,” I said. “She was your stepmother.”
I used to take a strange pride in the fact that I didn’t come from a broken home. I now see that, though my parents stayed together, my family was surely broken. My father killed himself when I was fifteen. He had sexually abused my two sisters and me pretty much our whole lives. Now I wonder what my mother’s life would have been like if she’d left my father. I wonder what my life would have been like.
My mother was fifty-two when my father died, and she hasn’t been with a man since: not one date in thirty-two years. According to my sister, my mother once went for a walk on the beach with a man, a friend of my brother-in-law, but she came back crying. No one knows why. It’s not that she didn’t want another relationship. She told me she did. But no one could get past all her pain, fear, and anger.
I’ve been divorced twice and have four children from my previous marriages. My current partner has three children with his ex-wife. We both have shared custody. After many years of therapy, I am finally learning that this arrangement creates a better life for my children than if I had stayed with either of their fathers. I am learning that my ex-husband’s partner is no threat to my relationship with my children; that I can genuinely like and respect my partner’s ex without feeling he loves me any less; that love is big and unending, if I let it be.
Times were tough after my father left. Once, it rained so hard the water almost seeped under the back door. My mother, my sister, and I desperately swept the water back in hopes of saving the wood floors. At one point my mom called my father and yelled, “Where are you now, when we need you, you bastard?”
Forget Papa, I thought. Find someone new, Mom. Find a nice man, one who would die for a beautiful woman like you.
I wanted a stepfather so desperately I could almost see his face. He would teach me how to skip stones across the water. He would happily go to Fathers’ Night at school. He would come home early from work and take us out for pizza. He would have two children of his own, and the four of us kids would stay up past bedtime in our pajamas, leaning over a puzzle in the dining room while Mom and my new dad tended the fire.
But my mom never found that man I imagined. Three decades later, she has learned to live with loneliness. And I have finally learned to accept my father and establish a relationship with him. He left us, there’s no denying that. But I left him, too, by holding on to the pain and remembering only his sins. I was a victim of his abandonment; he was a victim of my resentment.
Recently, while driving home after lunch, my dad and I reminisced about when he used to coach my Little League team. We won the pennant four years in a row.
“I had to skip out of work early a couple of days a week for your practice,” he recalled. “My boss never thought it was a good excuse, but I’m glad I did it.”
When we got to his house, he told me that he’d recently hung some photographs. I went inside, curious to see what he cherished: His college diploma. A picture of his mother and father. A picture of himself as a child. And, taking up nearly half a wall, photographs of my sister and me.
I’ve found peace after all these years: not in the fantasy family I once imagined, but in the flawed one I’ve always had.
I am the second of my father’s nine children, born to five women. He left my mother when I was very small.
I longed for a father, so I was ecstatic when my mother remarried. My father and stepfather were about as different as two men can get. My father was creative and brilliant. He had a commanding presence that made women want him, and he did not hesitate to use his charisma to his advantage, and others’ detriment.
My stepfather, on the other hand, had a methodical mind that served him well in his job as a bookkeeper. He faithfully went to work, came home, watched TV with my mom, and ate beans and wieners every Saturday night.
When I was twelve, my father returned for a surprise visit. I saw him in my grandma’s kitchen, which was steamy with the smell of pinto beans and crisp corn bread.
“Hello, Shelley,” my father said to me in his rich baritone.
“Hi,” I whispered, and I shyly kissed his handsome cheek. I wondered if he would throw himself at my feet and admit that he’d made a terrible mistake leaving us for another family.
My father explained that he was an important businessman now and would be flying out to the West Coast on business trips from his home in New York. He would see us more often, he said. He would write and call. And then he was gone.
As I rode home in the back seat of my stepfather’s old Volvo, I thought about what my life would have been like had there been no divorce. My mother and stepfather must have been thinking the same thing, for the silence in the car was heavy. I pretended to look out the window, but really I was examining my reflection in the glass, thinking how I had my father’s nose.
Soon we were back in our little neighborhood. My cat was waiting on the porch of our gray-and-white tract home. It wasn’t New York, that’s for sure.
“How about some beans and wieners?” my stepfather asked as he pulled into the garage.
It took me years to realize that the father who’d held court in my grandma’s kitchen was not who he appeared to be. Many broken promises later, I came to accept my father for who he was, and who he was not.
I also learned that stepfathers are just people, like the rest of us. I thank God for mine.
When I received my trial copy of The Sun [July 2004] at my office, I took a perfunctory look, stuffed it in my briefcase, and went home.
After dinner, I pulled out the magazine with a bunch of other mail. Whatever possessed me to sign up for this when I have so many other magazines to read? I thought, and I tossed it onto the pile on my desk.
Three days later, in the middle of the night, the cover photo of the choral singer from another time (people just don’t look like that anymore) caught my eye. I picked the magazine up, looked for the photo credit, and found out the picture was from the forties, the decade of my birth. No wonder it felt so distant and so familiar at the same time.
Is this some sort of nostalgia trip? I wondered. No ads. What keeps this thing going? What’s their angle? I turned the page and saw Howard Zinn, whom I remembered from the sixties. By now I was thinking, Is this something political? What’s next?
I read on. When I got to Readers Write on “Stepfamilies,” I was put off at first. These shards of narrative seemed inconclusive or self-indulgent. They made me uncomfortable. Then I realized: I was embarrassed. They were too revealing. My God, I thought, have I been in LA so long that real feeling is hard to face? The messiness of life? The pain that peels away protective irony? I needed this more than I knew.
Many of my best friends are people I made harsh judgments about when I first met them — like a woman you don’t find attractive at first glance but you end up falling in love with; or worse, the ones who are so beautiful that you tell yourself they’re too beautiful. Yet you fall in love with them anyway. And all of them, finally, teach you what love is.