Family

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

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