The many labels of me

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. He watched me with the resolute bearing of someone convinced I couldn’t possibly come back with a logical response, waiting, I imagined, for me to wipe Sriracha Mayo from my lips and acknowledge that he was right. “But I do have two lives. My husband has one, I have two. He has his work, his children and me, sort of like a TV show in which I’m a special guest. When I’m in New York, if you’re lucky, you might catch me on my own show, in which my friends accuse me of appearing so infrequently they’re surprised it hasn’t been cancelled. I live and work here and carry my costumes and props back and forth between my reality and his reality, where it’s sort of like hanging out in a green room waiting to film my cameo,” I said confidently, but more than a little miffed that the unconvinced look on his face meant I would have to further explain my meaning. Fortifying myself, I dove into another fish taco. Taking advantage of my silence Hartley insisted, “But you don’t. It’s… Continue reading The many labels of me

Climbing the Steps: Conversations with My Stepson About Life, Love and Loss

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. But that was all a very long time ago, when I was quite young and didn’t put any thought into the meaning of words and the preconceived notions about certain relationships that are burdened by the attachment of  ‘step’ in front of ‘daughter,’ ‘son,’ ‘mother’ ‘father,’ or ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ for that matter.  And it does matter.  Quite a lot, in fact. If you are a member of a stepfamily, most likely no one ever sat you down at the onset and explained the emotional and psychological complexity of the relationships you were about to encounter.  Most likely no one ever told you that there would be considerable competition for attention, which is normal and to be expected.  Mostly likely no one ever told you that you would often feel like you were on the outside of the biological family looking in, and that the members of the biological family would more than likely feel the same way about the newly formed blended family, as it is often called.  And most likely no one ever told you that it is no easier to be a stepparent than it is to be a parent, that it is no easier to be a stepdaughter than to be a daughter.  And that it is almost more difficult to… Continue reading Climbing the Steps: Conversations with My Stepson About Life, Love and Loss

Green Leaves and Eyebrows…

I was an unusually verbal child.  As my mother told it, after my father died I’d sit between the legs of our round oak dining room table and talk to myself for hours on end.  My way of coping with loss, she thought.  As the years went by I adopted increasingly more sophisticated stress reducing activities – cooking, sewing, dancing, jumping rope, crossword puzzles – adding them to my repertoire as needed.  Decades later, in 1998, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I regularly took refuge in a distinctly different kind of stress-reducing ritual – that of tweezing my eyebrows.  Mind you, it was not some wild frenetic action, but a very deliberate and exact one like a draftsman working on an architectural plan, the calm stillness of which centers me and focuses the tentacles of my emotions in one place like very few things can.  As it did the Friday evening I came home to an email from my brother telling me my sister’s boyfriend was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to make it through the night. And as it did on a snowy day before one particular Christmas when my favorite Man-and-his-Beagle-Named-Maisie duo suddenly announced they were moving two hours away from me and the Island of Manhattan. On one of my trips to see my mother, I sat with her in the activities room of her senior day care center with a tin can of Crayolas and a child’s tablet of black and white line drawings spread open on the crafts table.  My mother had been an avid gardener and loved flowers, so I opened the booklet to a bouquet of tulips.  Her arthritic fingers made it difficult for her to select a crayon herself…they were packed far too tightly…so I chose one for her… Continue reading Green Leaves and Eyebrows…

My year of goodbyes…

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. But I hardened myself to the siren song of the panorama and closed the blinds to the ridge, then to the apple orchard, then to the western view from my stepson’s room — blinds that were never fully open because he preferred the womblike comfort and warmth of darkness to the expansive beckoning energy of sunlight — before steeling myself against the allure of the writing room, which is arranged around a 12-foot long Hepplewhite Tiger Maple table that sits beneath four windows and two frosted glass and brass pulley lights. A master carpenter had managed to strike the perfect spatial union of proximity and distance; there was ample space for two writers to work side by side, or, possibly, to be pulled away from the often lonely task of… Continue reading My year of goodbyes…

Into the Mystic…

[spotifyplaybutton play=”spotify:track:7EeiHkQqRXaCCpULM0oUro”] “We were born before the wind. Also younger than the sun…” – Van Morrison, Into the Mystic Slowly I surrender to the mystical, the coincidental, the unexplainable.  Nature’s will, its moods, its indomitable spirit, push me, pull me, shape me like clay, bake me in the sun. My close encounters with vastly different landscapes these past five years – working in the sharp-edged concrete and glass-hewn island of Manhattan, wandering Italy’s fertile, musty and sweet smelling Po River Valley, flying gliders over Pennsylvania’s Bald Eagle Ridge, planting the first (glorious) vegetable garden I’ve had since I was a child in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; standing beside my husband over his mother’s newly laid gravestone in smoky-aired and forest fire besieged Northern New Mexico, taking to the skies as a pilot over the grass-pastured fields of Kentucky – have reintroduced me to the beauty of flora, the mysteries of fauna, and the wild emotions of the elements. In late Spring the deafening sound of a lightning bolt crashing into the parking lot temporarily halts a tango lesson, its rhythm syncopated by the violent sounds of a thunderstorm – my teacher and I frozen in time, our hands entwined, heads turned to watch the sparks fly past the studio’s plate glass windows – until it was safe enough to once again move across the floor, the music and our movements enhanced by the sounds of 65 mile per hour winds.

On Birthdays and Black Nail Polish

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. Unlike little girls I well remember from my childhood, I never dressed up like a fairy princess, I never dreamed about marrying a handsome prince, never fantasized about an exotic wedding, or imagined what we might call our children, fervently writing down possible names on little slips of paper until hitting upon the ones that would perfectly reflect the magical essence of our carefully envisioned family.  But I was always ever so slightly jealous of girls who had these innocent fantasies, because it seemed so normal, so natural to want to grow up, get married and start a family. And it seemed decidedly, dismayingly, even distressingly abnormal not to want to.  At least that is what everyone told me, particularly other little girls.  And we all know how convincing little girls can be. I confess that even in my teenaged years I was never compelled to plaster my bedroom walls with the airbrushed images of fantasy princes – most popularly embodied at the time by John, Paul, George and Ringo – one of whom would surely, if only I could be at the right place at the right moment, put a ring on my finger one day.