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.
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.
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.
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.
My mother was a collector of letters and photographs. She filled old shoeboxes with meticulously hand-written communications from my father’s Italian relatives, their fragile parchment leaves folded within envelopes bearing intriguing foreign stamps and exotic return addresses. Bunches of letters bound together with thin rubber bands, their cohesive elasticity pushed to the limit, filled the corners of her closet, were tucked under her bed, and occupied the shelves in the green-painted hutch originally intended for crockery, while oversized and heartier legal documents were crammed into manila envelopes marked Soragna Farm, Liguria Affair, or, simply, Italy. The years passed, she ran out of room, and even more letters eventually took the place of the spirits bottles in her elegant old liquor cabinet.