NOTE: “Woman, Writer, Designer, Wife, Stepmother” is about a remembered conversation with Hartley Waltman, who has read and approved its publication. Hartley has also kindly provided the illustrations that accompany it, for which I am truly grateful.
“You’ve said that twice in the last 15 minutes,” my friend Hartley noted, watching me wolf down a spicy fish taco at Bill’s Burger Bar just off Rockefeller Plaza.
“Said what twice?” I asked.
“That you have two lives. You said, ‘In my New York life,’ as though your New York life is some life other than the one you have with your husband wherever his works takes him,” he explained, like a therapist might to a patient in denial about something baldly obvious. A hint of a grin pulled up the corners of his mouth.
In the Summer of 2006, the day before I returned to New York after using my entire year’s vacation to study Italian at the Università per Stranieri in Siena, Italy, I took an early bus to Arezzo and spent the morning roaming the city taking pictures. After the cool early hours had morphed into lunchtime, I found a little trattoria on a small piazza where I could have a salad and a cold glass of Prosecco to ward off the heat that had begun to rise from the cobbled vicolos.
I ought to have been born between the World Wars, when it was romantic to be sentimental, when having an attachment to the past was normal, when lovers would hand-write nostalgia-filled letters whenever apart, when taking a journey down a memory lane strewn with tales of adventures and friends and events long gone by could rouse a spontaneous and unembarrassed launch into Doris Day’s and Les Brown’s rendition of A Sentimental Journey.
I don’t watch much television, but these past few months I have looked forward to late Sunday nights with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, an update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which aired in 1980 to mesmerized viewing.
Standing on the barren landscape of what was once Uruk in ancient Sumer, now known as Iraq, in The Immortals (Episode 11 of the modernized series), Tyson tells us about Enheduanna, an Akkadian Princess (2285-2250 BCE) about whom I had never heard until The Immortals aired on May 18, 2014.
Women at work: Lyrical Confessions of an Erstwhile Renegade, my first essay as Editor-at-Large for SynaptIQ+: The Journal for Social Era Knowledge, was published online in the Winter 2013 issue.
The news did not exactly come as a shock. I had filed away the possibility that his life would end one day in the part of my brain reserved for things I simply did not want to think about happening. A less willful, less stubborn, less enthusiastically alive man would have long ago succumbed to the many illnesses he had endured over the last 2 decades. His ability to push back had convinced me that nothing could kill him. An email in mid-March relaying that he was in hospice care switched on the emotional regulator that controlled my reservoir of memories about him, sending through a few at a time, as though dropping them into my consciousness in a metered manner would avoid a flood tide the day he finally decided to part this Earth.
When I was 15 Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust had such an impact on me I imagined that were I to venture a trip to Los Angeles, Tod Hackett, Faye Greener and their entire entourage of misfit friends would greet me at the train station. My childhood in Northern New Mexico was one from which I was desperate to escape, where Cowboys and Indians were real, not the stuff of Hollywood movies we would watch at a drive-in theatre with the help of a speaker attached to a rolled down car window. While I knew that the American Southwest fostered a kind of mythic appeal for the endless stream of Easterners arriving to set down roots under its majestic skies, I had grown up under that star-strewn ether and longed for something else, something far less real than the rodeos I attended on weekends, and West’s words had convinced me I would find that reality in the City of Angels.
While certain life experiences are more or less universal – falling in or out of love, winning or losing a job, saying goodbye to one’s parents at the end of their lives – there are times when our individual realities are so idiosyncratic it’s hard for anyone else to relate, times when things can look calm and ordered on the outside, but underneath roils a breeding ground of anxiety. The sort of uncertainty that washes over one in a business meeting for instance, when a casual downward glance might reveal that one’s jacket is missbuttoned, which inspires a swift hand clutch to the bosom, which in turn reveals a cuff button visibly hanging by a thread. And although everyone knows that buttons on even well-made suits are virtually spit stuck in place, this knowledge provides no consolation whatsoever to the afflicted in this case, nor does it offer the slightest barrier against the oblique stares of judgmental colleagues, each of whom begins to free associate various reasons for their missbuttoned colleague’s public dishelvelment.
My conscious awareness of the meaning of the word “stepparent” didn’t begin until I married a man with three adult children. For someone is not a stepparent unless they are legally married to a person who has offspring from a prior relationship. I really should have known this, or at least given it some serious thought, because my mother was the stepmother to my father’s daughter from his previous marriage, a girl who therefore legally also became my half-sister because we had the same father.
Will my hands look like hers when I am old? The nails dry and ridged, the joints heavy with arthritis, the veins sitting slightly atop the bones, the fingers slender and delicate, the skin thin and pearly and freckled with age spots, but the grip of a woman who worked with her hands all her life still strong and engaging and defiant.
Arriving, I remember everything exactly as it was – the sights, sounds and smells of a place I have often visited in my memory these past 37 years. White Calla Lilies tucked among the wild grasses alongside Stinson Beach in winter, hawks kiting into the wind, wings outstretched, suspended above the surf. Fog, guardian of seaside mysteries, shroud for molting Eucalyptus, billowing a warning to stay off the winding mountain road, yet beckoning one onward. Sunglasses lightly misting over with sea spray, ears cooled by the coastal wind, dry lips salted and licked. Sea foam and kelp bulbs, children giggling and dogs digging, and cold wet sand rising up through painted red toes.
My fault entirely for making the task so difficult. How foolish to have created so many enticing views from which I was forced to disengage. How indulgent to have installed a window over my husband’s Jacuzzi, in which he bathed and read in the early morning hours while I slept, and from which it was possible to see all the way to the south gap in the Massanutten Ridge.
How absurd to have six windows rounding the north and east corners of our bedroom, all the better from which to watch a raccoon, for instance, make its way along the entire length of Farmer Marsden’s apple orchard before disappearing into the pasture on the other side of the vegetable garden.
I had no one to blame but myself for making it so painful to say goodbye to the small house my husband and I had built in the Virginia countryside, and the vivid mental picture I’d painted of the long life I thought we would spend in that beautiful light-filled space.
People from my early professional life seem to be popping up everywhere. I’ll receive an out of the blue email from one person, while the smiling face of another emerges from a sea of faintly recognizable features somewhere on social media. Funny how these old friends seem to know that all these years later I still have a land line, their instantly recognizable voices sometimes leaving long and detailed hellos from various places around the world.
“In species in which males care for young, testosterone is often high during mating periods but then declines to allow for caregiving of resulting offspring.” – Department of Anthropology, Cells to Society, Center on Social Disparities and Health, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, July 2011
When I was a kid I would scour the landscape for mothers with children and watch them as though through a microscope. Mothers with packs of children followed us everywhere – to our dentist’s and doctor’s offices, to the gas station, the grocery store, the laundromat and the bank. They drove up behind us at the window at McIlhaney’s Dairy to exchange their glass milk bottles just like we did, the back seats of their Pontiacs and Chevys and Plymouths stuffed with bored and grim-faced kids who had been dragged along on these usually Saturday morning excursions just like my brother and sister and I had been. They would pull up next to us at an intersection, check us out, then speed off down the road leaving our car covered in silky New Mexico desert dust.
For reasons I have never quite understood, children tend to flinch, blanch and wince at any suggestion that their parents might have had sex for the pure pleasure of it, rather than solely for the purpose of having children. It has never made sense to me that a child might prefer to think they were conceived by an emotionally disconnected physical act, rather than one drenched in pleasure and absorbed in carnal indulgence and abandon. It seems to be almost universally against the nature of children to think of their parents as having had a sexual appetite, let alone a possibly ravenous one. Taking pleasure is often perceived as selfish, and parents are supposed to be decidedly self-less.
I never set out to write about being a stepparent, but then I never set out to be a stepmother. To be honest, I never set out to get married or to have children, so long before not intending to be a stepmother, I hadn’t intended to be a biological, adoptive or surrogate mother either. No, I never set out to embrace the neatly ordered schedule traditionally required by a husband, children, assorted pets, multiple cars and a house-and-yard-with-white-picket-fence.