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.
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.
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.
“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
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.