Unexpected Gifts: The Stepmother Diaries

 

With very few exceptions over the years, I’ve never minded being defined in terms of my familial relationships. Dad’s daughter. Mr. She’s wife. Peachy’s granny. Sam, Mike and Jenny’s stepmother. I’ve never thought of myself as an appendage or a cipher, nor do I function as anybody’s foil. Although by no means perfect, I’m generally appropriately assertive, fairly well put together, and reasonably rational. Those who are determined to find fault certainly will, and I’m happy to keep them occupied; but I always try to keep in mind that they’re not perfect either. In general, I believe it’s better to get along than not, so I try to go through life as prescribed in Romans 12:18 (insofar as it “lieth in me,” anyway).

Some of the roles I’ve mentioned have, in fact, been among the most rewarding “jobs” of my life, and I’d much rather talk about them than my multi-decade career as an IT manager. Some of those roles have brought immeasurable joy; some of them have ended in heartbreak and tragedy. Some of the stories’ endings aren’t written yet, and the coda won’t be played until I pass on to my eternal reward (or not). All of them live in the chaos that is my feminine brain on a daily basis, and all of them are among the elements of what makes up, I think, a pretty well-lived and generally happy life.

Today, I’d like to tell you about one of those elements. If reminds you of the plot of a Hollywood movie, well, it does, doesn’t it? But every word of it is my story, and every word of it is true. I promise. And my father’s daughter does not lie.

Although I’d known Mr. She and his kids for a couple of years prior, I officially became a “stepmother” at the age of 26 on July 24, 1981, when Mr. She and I got married, and my family grew to also include Sam (age 16), Michael (age 13) and Jenny (age 12). The children lived with their mom and stayed with us alternate weekends, and for one evening a week. Fortunately, we lived fairly close to each other, and travel back and forth wasn’t usually a problem.

I think our early years together were pretty typical for families in our situation. Some bumps along the way. Some jealousy. Some incivility. Some juggling of schedules. Some missteps on all sides. Some of those “you’re not my mother; you can’t make me do that” conversations. Quite a few arguments. The occasional “I’m going to hold my breath until I turn blue,” sort of threat. It took a bit of getting used to, for sure. But, by and large, we all did our best, and we all made an effort not to put the children in the middle. And over time we grew into our new roles.

Shortly after we got married, Sam came to live with us. That made for a new set of communication and scheduling challenges, and we gradually figured those out. Then, in December of 1981, Michael was hit by a car while riding his bicycle, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

That changed our lives, and, in one unexpected way, considerably for the better. Suddenly we found ourselves spending hours, days, weeks, months, in hospital waiting rooms. None of us could do it 24×7, so we had to rely on each other. We took turns, We gathered up information to share. We delivered messages. We got coffee, pop, and snacks for each other. We had meetings with doctors, nurses, and therapists, together. We had to set aside hurt feelings, anger, jealousy or pride, and work for our common goal–supporting Michael and helping him to get well. It was healing and affirming, and it made all the “sides” if not exactly friendly, at least no longer quite so adversarial.

At the same time, Sam was beginning to suffer the ups and downs of the serious mental illness that would, over the next three-and-a-half decades, come to take over his life. That was another focal point on which the family could agree–that we must do what we could for Sam. And so we embarked on cooperative efforts to further that goal as best we knew how. Another challenge. More life lessons.

Jenny soldiered on through all this with nary a peep, and she and I came to discover activities we could enjoy together: cooking, sewing, knitting, travel. And we forged a relationship; not quite sisterly, not quite motherly. But unique and special, nonetheless.

And life went on. Monica, the children’s mother, developed cancer, and dealt with it head-on and bravely. Michael and Jenny lived with her, and Sam bounced back and forth between the two houses and college in Minnesota. Michael and Jenny set off for college too, when their time came, and among us all, we managed it and sorted it. Jenny married in October of 1999.

By early March of 2000, Sam was in the midst of a serious schizophrenic break. He was living with his mother, very sure that the parish priest (a good man) was the devil incarnate, not sleeping, and phoning his dad up several times a night to demand a family conference at which we could discuss Sam’s role as the “nexus” for all the dysfunction in the family.

Finally, Monica, who, thanks to Sam, and like all the rest of us, hadn’t enjoyed a good night’s sleep for about a week, had had enough. She organized a meeting at her house, and invited Jenny, Mr. She, and me to meet with Sam and Michael and herself, so that Sam could unburden himself of his troubles. It would be the first time in the twenty-plus years I’d known her that I’d stepped inside the home that Mr. She and she had shared during their own marriage.

We arrived nineteen years ago, on March 9, 2000. Monica had tea and coffee ready, and she’d made plates of hors d’oeuvres and other munchies. I’d brought along some snacks as well. At the last minute, Sam decided he wasn’t going to attend and locked himself in the bedroom. (It didn’t help his frame of mind, at all, that the “infernal” priest stopped by for a brief visit in the middle of all this.) And so, absent the main attraction, the rest of us sat around the kitchen table and had a delightful and rather cathartic time telling stories on each other. Thus did I learn about the time Michael bit the kindergarten teacher. And heard again one of my favorite stories, how he convinced his sister to pour creme de menthe into the Christmas tree water because he thought it would make the tree a pretty color and smell nice as well. I told of how Mr. She, in a spasm of helpfulness, decided that he was going to do the dishes and put them away, and so I told him that the dishwasher soap was a powder in a cylindrical tub on the counter. I couldn’t understand why, after he’d done the dishes and put them away a few times, all the dishes and silverware were so sticky, until I deduced one day that he was filling the dishwasher cup with Country Time Lemonade mix.

Somehow, we got onto the subject of nice restaurants, and good meals we’d eaten at them. Monica mentioned that she’d always wanted to eat at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. None of us had ever been to one, so on the spur of the moment, Jenny said she’d set it up.

On Sunday, March 19, 2000, all of us except Sam (who was MIA by this time) met at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House which had recently opened in Pittsburgh, for one of the nicest meals, and most memorable evenings, of my life. Monica, although frail, was in fine form. Jenny and Michael sparkled. My mother-in-law told stories from the Depression and World War II, and got a bit tipsy (Brandy Alexanders). Mr. She reminisced. And I, the one-time interloper, just sat back and soaked it all up. It was lovely. It was kind. It was gentle. We had fun. We were happy. We hugged each other when we said goodbye.

On Wednesday, March 22, the day we got a thoughtful “thank you” note from her mother, Jenny called me from the hospital. Monica had fallen on the stairs in the middle of the night and had struck her head on the marble top of the half-wall on the way down. She was in a pretty bad way, we discovered, when we got to the hospital.

She died of her injury on Saturday, March 25, 2000. Her work was done.

I will never think of that evening, and of that lovely Ruth’s Chris dinner, as anything other than a manifestation of divine grace. Such an unexpected gift. The gift of closure. The gift of saying “goodbye.” For all of us, the gift of peace. No loose ends. No regrets for things said or not said. Perfectly ended. With love. Just as such things should be.

God bless, special and brave lady. Rest in peace.

When Monica died, she was four years younger than I am today. I learned a lesson that week that I’ve never forgotten: I hug those I love as often as I can, and I never stop telling them I love them. Please do the same. If the circumstances of your life have arranged themselves so you can’t do that in person, phone them up. Or at least send them an email. If the circumstances of your life don’t permit even that, change the circumstances. Some things are more important than whatever it is you’re doing right now. Life is short and unpredictable. And we do not know when, or how, it will end. When it does, the people you love deserve the comfort of knowing that they were the lights of your life, that you thought of them often, and that you loved them.

Tell them that, please. As often as you can.

This post is for Monica (1939-2000), Michael (1967-2002), and Sam (1965-2018).
And for Frank, Jenny and Peachy.
Lights of my life

Published in Group Writing
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There are 13 comments.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Wonderful, She.

    • #1
  2. Mr Nick Inactive
    Mr Nick
    @MrNick

    Lovely piece She.

    Guess I’d better go and ring my mother….

     

    • #2
  3. She Member
    She
    @She

    Mr Nick (View Comment):

    Lovely piece She.

    Guess I’d better go and ring my mother….

    My work is done!  Please . . . 

    • #3
  4. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    Such a sweet and gracious reminder that we live in the Don’t Wait zone. Don’t ever save the good stuff for later. Thank you. 

    • #4
  5. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I love hearing stories about families that have gone through difficult divorce periods and have ended up forming a new family that works well in the important ways and at the important moments. There’s not a lot of help for families going through divorce situations, and there aren’t many rituals or conventions or rules or traditions to lean on. For the families who have gone through this successfully, it’s been a make-it-up-as-you-go-along story. That families are doing this so well seems to me to be a testament to the innate goodness in people.

    My neighbor Carol went through a difficult divorce. Her first husband had an affair outside their marriage. Twenty years later, both divorced and remarried to new spouses, they’ve become sort of a big family because of the kids. A couple of years ago, Carol made the wildly generous gesture of paying for a family cruise that included her ex-husband and his wife. I have given her the Most Magnanimous Person award. :-)

    I enjoyed your post very much.

    • #5
  6. She Member
    She
    @She

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I love hearing stories about families that have gone through difficult divorce periods and have ended up forming a new family that works well in the important ways and at the important moments. There’s not a lot of help for families going through divorce situations, and there aren’t the rituals or conventions or rules or traditions to lean on. For the families who have gone through this successfully, it’s been a make-it-up-as-you-go-along story. That families are doing this so well seems to me to be a testament to the innate goodness in people.

    My neighbor Carol went through a difficult divorce. Her first husband had an affair outside their marriage. Twenty years later, both divorced and remarried to new spouses, they’ve become sort of a big family because of the kids. A couple of years ago, Carol made the wildly generous gesture of paying for a family cruise that included her ex-husband and his wife. I have given her the Most Magnanimous Person award. :-)

    I enjoyed your post very much.

    Thank you, @marcin

    • #6
  7. Shauna Hunt Coolidge
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    What a beautiful gift you have given us! Thank you!

    • #7
  8. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Beautiful, and touching. As ever.

     

    • #8
  9. She Member
    She
    @She

    Thanks, everyone.  As I sometimes say, “everyone has a story, and some of us have more than one.”  And I’m so grateful you humor me and put up with mine.

    As @marcin implied, what I and the other members of the family went through was certainly a growing experience.  It wasn’t easy.  We could have been stuck in a rut, circling the drain (to mix a metaphor) for much longer than we were.  I’ll always be so grateful to Monica for allowing her daughter (in the Spring of 1984), when Jenny was 14, to travel to England for a couple of weeks with me and my mother-in-law. She could have said, “No.”  But she didn’t.  She trusted me to take care of her little girl.  And I did.

    Making a determined effort not to reduce each other to any of the abounding stereotypes of “manipulative first wife,” “jealous, younger, second wife,” “neglectful, divorced dad,” “ungrateful children,” etc. etc., helped a lot, I think.  Because people are not two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs who can be defined with, or reduced to, a single word or phrase.  They’re not comic book heroes or villains.  None of us is all good.  And none of us is all bad.  And all of us, if we want to live in a civil society, are bound by conventions and expectations, and sometimes, even laws. And our true friends will encourage us to live up to them, rather than make excuses for our lapses, if they want us to be our best.

    We’re all unique, complex and multi-faceted human beings, and the relationships we form often cannot be comprehended by those outside them.  That’s why it’s always a good idea, IMHO, if those on the outside with limited or no knowledge of a burgeoning situation, simply leave it alone.  That they suggest that those actually involved in the situation work it out among themselves.  And that they do not show up and explain, in judgmental terms, to the world at large, and as if they actually know, what they think is going on.  Among others, Aunt Babe, I’m looking at you.  Your chippie in hot pants” phrase, which you used against me for years, not only wasn’t helpful, it was ruinous.  (Not to worry; you and I got it all sorted out in the end.  R.I.P.  And if my first name was “Edna,” I’d probably call myself something else, too, BTW.)  But it would have been so much better, from the start, if you’d redirected those actually involved in the situation back to each other, to sort it out among themselves, rather than injecting yourself in unhelpful and destructive ways.  I daresay you thought you were helping.  You were not.  If what Marci calls the “innate goodness in people” is to triumph, those people have to wade through the muck, and sort it out, among themselves.

    In the long run, what “wins” in this life is love and truth and courage and kindness.  Not their obverse.  If my six-and-a-half decades on earth have taught me anything, they’ve taught me that.  If I have a message for the young ‘uns on this site, that’s it.

    And, here today, on the farm, are the first two flowers of Spring.  The Forces of Darkness are foiled again.  Hah!  The cycle begins anew.  Here’s to a good ending, free of outside interference, for all our stories in 2019.

    • #9
  10. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    As expected, @she has given us another wonderful post.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the March 2019 Group Writing Theme: Unexpected Gifts. There are plenty of dates still available. Tell us about anything from a hidden talent to a white elephant. Share a great surprise or memorable failure (oh, you shouldn’t have!). Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    April’s theme will be posted after the Ides of March.

    • #10
  11. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Thank you.

    • #11
  12. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    My sister and I haven’t spoken in months, since she asked me to “leave [her] alone” in an email.

    She was very angry at me, and I couldn’t understand why (and still don’t), and hoped we could talk about it, but she just kept getting angrier and angrier at me.

    Then two weeks ago she found out she has stage 2 lymphoma.

    I hope someday we’ll be able to talk about whatever she has been so angry about. But for now, I have been reaching out with messages of love and support and she has said she is willing to speak with me again. Now we’re playing phone tag (we’re in different time zones, and 10 am is a good time for me to talk, but she’s just getting her day started, etc.).

    She started chemo today. I pray we’ll have this kind of chance, She. Thank you for this valuable reminder. Blessings on all the She clan.

    • #12
  13. She Member
    She
    @She

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    My sister and I haven’t spoken in months, since she asked me to “leave [her] alone” in an email.

    She was very angry at me, and I couldn’t understand why (and still don’t), and hoped we could talk about it, but she just kept getting angrier and angrier at me.

    Then two weeks ago she found out she has stage 2 lymphoma.

    I hope someday we’ll be able to talk about whatever she has been so angry about. But for now, I have been reaching out with messages of love and support and she has said she is willing to speak with me again. Now we’re playing phone tag (we’re in different time zones, and 10 am is a good time for me to talk, but she’s just getting her day started, etc.).

    She started chemo today. I pray we’ll have this kind of chance, She. Thank you for this valuable reminder. Blessings on all the She clan.

    Thank you, @cbtoderakamamatoad.  I’ll pray that for you, too.

    My mother and I did not speak much, from 1978 until 2001.  And when we did, it was pretty acrimonious.  Sadly, my poor relationship with her affected my relationship with my dad and my siblings.  Now that Mum and Dad are both gone, I regret that so much.  

    I have so been there, in every aspect of the situation you describe.

    God  bless  you all.  Prayers. 

    • #13
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