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.
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.