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.

Oh I fantasized, but it was about love and friendship, creativity, freedom and travel.  I imagined a rather quixotic existence – a Doña Quixote riding her very own Rocinante – in which I would discover my true nature and what I was meant to be doing while traveling around the world collecting lovers and friends and living the life of a bohemian artist.   Along the way I hoped I would meet the perfect man for me, but marrying him while dressed in a diaphanous white gown, let alone marrying him at all, was definitely not my style.  My mother’s stories about falling in love with my father when he was teaching her to fly had so thoroughly colonized the part of my psyche where fantasies are born that nothing seemed more romantic to me than flying off into the sunset like my parents had done, dashingly dressed in a brown leather flight jacket like the one my beaming mother had sported in a sepia-toned photo taken of her by my Dad.

My co-pilot and I would be partners in adventure, travelling the world exploring exotic countries and having candlelit dinners late at night with magical people in mysterious places, where the women were all brilliant and eccentric…painters and potters and poets with marcelled hair…and their men would build them beautiful houses, cook for them every night, and pour them glasses of wine at the end of the day before whisking them off to bed for an evening of, well, I had no idea what a man and woman did in bed.

The fantasy life that I was obsessed with creating for myself had no basis in cultural reality, but that didn’t matter because my particular fantasy was based fairly accurately on my parents’ relationship.  My father cooked much more for my mother than she did for him, and he built the house they lived in (although she laid her fair share of bricks) and even made wine.  My parents had been happy, so it was surprising and mystifying to my mother that I had no desire to duplicate the family-based infrastructure of their life together.  The simple truth is that the harsh reality leveled on her by my father’s death when I was five created a vast chasm between the dream of finding a man with whom to fly off into the sunset and what happens after the plane touches down on terra firma.

Life without my father was hard.  By the time I was eight years old whatever childhood fantasies I nurtured had been swept away by Cinderella’s broom, I having been cast as Cinderella because I was the oldest girl and the one most capable of taking over the cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing when my mother had to go to work.  And although I am sure that other little girls who grew up without fathers still managed to retain their personal dreams of marriage and children, my own childhood made me fairly want to flee a life tied to the homestead, where chores and housekeeping would surely dash my hopes for artistic, financial and professional independence.

I suppose that an unforgiving reality can either burnish and refine an existing fantasy or close the book on a fairytale that perhaps should never come true.  Yet even though I might have been jealous of them to a certain degree, I don’t recall ever really wanting to be a normal little girl with predictable fantasies.  For my parents, my mother particularly, had enough women friends who really were brilliantly talented and eccentric painters and artists that when I compared the perishability of a husband with the seeming longevity of a painting, a sculpture or words filling up a blank page, living the life of a bohemian artist, while quite possibility leading down the road to poverty, seemed to spare one the pain of eventually losing one’s spouse.

But this was all once upon a time, long, long ago in another land, when I was a small child.  Children grow up.  Life changes us.  Our fantasies don’t necessarily come true, and our hardcore realities, no matter how painful, do not always destroy us.  The truth is that eventually I did get married, although fairly recently in life.  And I do think of my husband as my prince, and his grown children and a hodge podge of assorted family of relations now compose my own version of a husband-stepchildren-multiple-car-and-dwellings-centric life.

And although a rather large part of me continues to fear deep down inside that I am not wife or stepmother or homemaker material, still I am here, heart and soul, immersed in this life I thought I would never have.  And late at night, when the housekeeping and chores have all been done, the house is quiet and my husband sleeps, it is clear that we are indeed partners in adventure, that we enjoy plenty of late night dinners, sometimes by ourselves and sometimes with friends, and sometimes we even get to travel to an exotic country.  And I have become a pilot like my father, and one day I hope to take a very long cross country flight by myself, knowing that my prince will be waiting to hear all about it when my plane touches terra firma.

And my stepchildren?  Well, I am still getting to know each of these magical people in this mysterious life that is constantly changing.  On Birthdays and Black Nail Polish is a story about my middle stepdaughter and the reality of our relationship.  Sometimes reality is oh so very much better than fantasy.  Thank you for reading.

(Originally published in StepMom Magazine, May 2011)

On Birthdays and Black Nail Polish

We came into one another’s lives like actors brought together by a director – her father, my soon-to-be husband – for a run of improvisational theatre.  In truth both of us were actors, although I hadn’t been on stage in years and she would soon start rehearsals for a play.  But she also boasted the exotic skill of being a stage combat expert.  I was impressed…and intrigued.  Clearly this young woman was fierce.

I had already started getting to know her younger brother, who lived with his father, but I knew about her and her older sister only from their Dad’s spirited stories about their various talents, charms and quirks.  I wanted to meet them both, so we seized on her scheduled mid-October opening as an excuse for everyone to get together in Chicago, where she lived with her long-time boyfriend.  While I may have had the confidence of a performer accustomed to being in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar faces, underneath I knew all too well how it felt to join an ensemble that had been together for a long time and my excitement about our trip could not alter the fact that I was a latecomer to the party and had some serious catching up to do.  I loathed the thought that I would be like one of those hapless ticket holders who shows up 20 minutes past curtain time, obscuring the view, stepping on everyone’s toes and apologizing profusely as they make their way to a seat in the middle of the row.

As the anticipated weekend with my future stepdaughters neared, I almost wished I hadn’t been privy to such a thorough preview of their personalities.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to put aside all that information and have my own experience of them.  And as for the daughter who was an actress, I almost wished I could sneak into the back of the theatre by myself and watch her perform without her knowing I was there.  I had always had a low tolerance for disingenuous compliments and somehow sensed she was the same way.  The commonplace “You were awesome!” praise that most actors would happily settle for back stage wouldn’t float with her.  I wanted to genuinely like her.  I wanted it to be mutual.

A string of things in her life were similar enough to my own that I was certain we could find common ground on which to build a relationship.  She is a middle child, as I am, who had been torn between living with her mother or living with her father after her parents’ divorce.  Ultimately she had grown up mostly with her mother, a scenario to which I related, although I hadn’t been separated from my father by divorce but rather by his death when I was five.  No matter by divorce or death, a girl’s separation from her father is a jarring dislocation from a paternal polestar.  I dealt with it by imagining an elaborately detailed relationship with my Dad, and it occurred to me that her relationship with her Dad might be equally rich with conjecture and fantasy about what could have been, what might have been, or what should have been had her parents remained together.

So I felt I knew a little something about a girl growing up with her mother as a primary influence.  And I felt I knew a little something about the daily longing for a strong masculine presence and the effect that emptiness has on a young woman’s life.

Although I would become her stepmother soon enough by marriage, I knew a ceremony could never create an instant relationship with her.  No matter our similar life experiences, we would either get to know one another or not, and it would have to be a voluntary rather than an obligatory effort.  But even though she was way too smart and independent, and far too suspicious to be talked into liking or not liking anyone, she was also that tremulous age – her mid-twenties – when the continual dance of self-confidence and doubt and ambition and self-protection can either too quickly embrace or too quickly build walls against the unknown.

Many of the distinct personality traits described by her father resonated loudly with me.  She was immediate and emotionally open, opinionated, vivacious, funny, physically expressive, unpredictable and politically conscious.  She wanted to connect with people in a meaningful way.  She wanted to do something with her life that mattered.  It seemed we both suffered from having too many interests, and while that might make one’s life rich, it doesn’t necessarily make it easy to figure out how to make a living, particularly in a culture in which kids are encouraged to choose a career fresh out of the womb.

In the getting-to-know-you arena I hoped that the history of my relationship with her father, if not exactly guaranteeing me automatic acceptance in the family, would at least grant me a pass that would be valid through our initial meeting and, with a little luck, well beyond it.
I had known her Dad since I was fifteen, when I was a student at the same small private girl’s school his younger sister attended.  When the pressures on my working and depressed mother mounted to such an extreme that my teachers thought I’d be better off in a more stable home, her father’s parents, both doctors, offered me shelter from my mother’s storm.  I lived with them until I left for college when I was seventeen.

I only saw the man who would become my husband more than three decades into the future when he was home from Washington University for vacations, but I got to know his younger brother and sister as well as could be expected given the emotional fragility of the circumstances.  His family had an indelible impact on me; I was thrown a lifeline and without them I might very well have fallen through the proverbial cracks.  Yet the dynamic of having been virtually air lifted out of my own family and dropped into another proved to be a psychological conundrum I was ill equipped to understand, let alone handle well.  I already had a mother, a younger sister and an older brother, yet I was living in a strange house on an unfamiliar street with someone else’s family, surrounded by their furniture, their pictures, their memories, their habits…surrounded by them.  There was no template for the life I was living, no textbook to turn to for instruction.  It was a life of humble appreciations, fragmented loyalties, confused affections and guilty attractions.  College was as much an escape from the chains of familial and extra-familial relationships as it was an effort to find out who and what I was meant to be when I grew up.

So when it came to my future stepdaughter, I felt I knew a little something about belonging neither here nor there, yet wanting to be part of both places.  I felt I knew more than a little something about joining a cast late in the production, about being on stage and being judged, about wanting an affirming curtain call.

It was pure serendipity that reunited her father and me.  I had been writing a book, part of which was about my father, and I was convinced the only way to get a feel for him, quite apart from the endless stories my mother had told me, was to learn his language and travel to his country, to walk on his grandparents’ land, to see the farm he had given up in the late 30s before the war.  I needed to understand his own divided loyalties – having to choose between remaining in America and moving to Italy to reclaim the ancestral land of his parents.  So I rented an apartment in Bologna and nearly every day for five weeks took the train an hour north to Parma, where I spent hours in the State Archive pouring over ancient hand-written birth, marriage and death records, uncovering everything I could about his family.

One morning, my daily excursion having been foiled by a train strike, as I sat in the sun having a cappuccino and watching the Italians come and go in their oh so very Italian way, my BlackBerry announced the arrival of an email from the long lost eldest son of the family that had taken me in when I was fifteen.  For the next three weeks we filled in the spaces between the months and years since we had last seen one another.  Walking along cobbled streets, on train rides to Florence and Rome, sitting on the steps of duomos and monuments and lying on the grass in public parks, I read his dozens of emails and texts about his marriage, divorce and three kids, the middle of whom I discovered shared my love for theatre and the craft of acting.

Months later, sitting in a darkened theatre in Chicago, I barely took my eyes off her, partially because of who she would soon enough become to me, but mostly because she had more energy, more physical presence and more pizzazz than anyone else in the cast.  Besides, she was wearing fabulous false eyelashes and I was jealous I had never seized an opportunity to sport a pair on stage myself.  At dinner after the show, watching the jocular camaraderie between her and her siblings, my nervousness about meeting the family troupe slowly started to melt away, and by dessert it had morphed into a genuine enthusiasm for getting to know them over time.

A year passed, her father switched jobs and moved from one state to another and we got married.  I kept my job and apartment in New York and became one of those cranky women who lives in two places at the same time.  There were long weekends and family gatherings at which my stepdaughter and I saw one another and countless conversations on the phone about work and politics, men and boyfriends, mothers and marriage, friendship and love, careers and family and life in general.  We were getting to know one another, and the relationship we were creating ourselves was slowly replacing all the stories I had been told about her, and that I felt sure she had been told about me.

One weekend a couple of years later, in the immediate aftermath of her father losing his job as a hospital surgeon, we both completely forgot her birthday.  We were in a panic, having only just emerged from the trauma of the markets crashing after we had already broken ground on a house we were building.  We hadn’t told his children or our friends and hadn’t intended to until we came up with a workable game plan.  I emailed her, apologizing for my belated birthday wishes and got back to the roll-up-your-sleeves business of dealing with the considerable emotional, financial and logistical realities of waking up next to and going to bed with a man who had just been laid off for the first time in his life.  It had only been four short weeks since his children and sister had flown in for three days of lazy breakfasts, long dinners, movies and a visit to the Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C., all centered around the celebration of his 60th birthday.

The weekend had gone so perfectly that I was completely thrown by her return email, which bluntly laid out how hurt she was that I had forgotten her birthday, and how meager, unsatisfying and almost dismissive she thought my short email was.  She told me how much her birthday meant to her, and my failure to remember it proved not only that she wasn’t important to me but that I wasn’t really a bona fide member of her family.  She told me that I’d have to work a lot harder if I wanted legitimate clan status.  In my view, I’d never worked so hard at anything in my life.  I was stunned and flabbergasted.

But I was also enraged, because she had not sent her father, who had also forgotten her birthday, such a vehement J’accuse! Women expect so much more of one another than they do of men.  Serendipitously, it was precisely because he had forgotten to call his sister on her birthday – when she was out to dinner – that he reached her at home the next evening and she told him during their long overdue catch-up that I was living in New York and gave him my email address.  If he had called on the day of her birthday he would have gotten her voicemail, never discovering my proximity, and never writing the email that changed both of our lives one sunny morning as I sat on the piazza in Bologna, Italy.  The circumstances under which we had reconnected suddenly bloomed into full and glorious irony.

I shot back an equally vehement how-dare-you-email, defending myself and attacking back.  She didn’t know her father had lost his job, and it didn’t matter to me.  I was under fire.  I circled the wagons and took aim at my accuser.  How could she forget our personal conversations, the Christmas presents I’d sent?  How could she not know I was a huge fan?  Didn’t she know how much I admired her ambition and respected her sense of responsibility and her take-charge-of-her-life attitude?  Didn’t she know I really did think she was awesome?  Could my forgetting her birthday crater our fledgling relationship virtually overnight?  Had she been building a case against me since the beginning, waiting for me to show her that I was indeed one of them…a predictably evil stepmother?  Had she been waiting for an opportunity to fling me off a cliff, like Tiberius was wont to do with those who displeased him on the Isle of Capri?  Didn’t she know anything about me?

As the days went by my anger turned to sorrow, an emotion I perhaps would have felt sooner had I not been so immersed in what had happened to her father.  Sorrow not about her reaction to my having forgotten her birthday, nor about my response to it, but sorrow about the realization that in fact we didn’t know one another at all.  In spite of all our conversations and the stories we had shared since we met, in spite of what I was certain had been my visible and genuine affection for her, the truth was that we were in one another’s lives because we had to be, not because we had chosen to be.  We were anything but voluntarily entwined; we were obliged to relate to one another.  My stepdaughter had no more of a clue about me as a person than I had about her.  The truth was that if we had met as students, as colleagues at work, or as actors in a real stage production, we would have circled around one another for a while, sizing one another up, deciding whether there was sufficient friendship material with which to work.  We would have learned one another’s language over time, the way one really does learn a foreign language.

I would have had time to discover that an acknowledgement of her birthday puts a smile on her face and a discernible energy in her step because it is the only day of the year that is about her.   She would have discovered that my own birthday was never celebrated because it fell so close to Christmas, and that I don’t remember most birthdays, not because I don’t love the people who are in my life but because, well, I just don’t remember birthdays.  Her father’s was the very first I had ever organized.  I would have had time to reflect on the fact that her mother and father had known her since she was a baby, and they’d all gotten used to one another over a very long period of time.   And she would have had time to reflect on the fact that I had been single until I married her father, and that her hardcore expectations with regard to family rituals were a new part of my life with an entirely different meaning for me than for her.  We both would have benefitted from a relationship developed in a continuum, where the scorecard that records successes and failures and triumphs and mistakes and slam dunks and missteps and passes and fumbles is thrown out in the end because it doesn’t ultimately account for much.

A couple of months passed, neither of us managing to find a way back to the other, before fate finally intervened.  The night her father’s mother passed away she called and asked if I would make her a reservation in the room next to us at the bed and breakfast where the family would be gathering to mourn the passing of its matriarch.  In that moment the memories of the time I had spent living with her grandparents washed over me.  The strength that by necessity I wore so well on the outside covered up an ever-present inner vulnerability.  So too with my stepdaughter, whose highly trained stage combat presence masked a tremendous fragility.  The young woman who had so quickly pushed me away a few months before, now just as quickly pulled me close once again.

The weekend of her grandmother’s funeral the family gathered each day for breakfast and dinner, and gradually between the sorrow and the laughter we tore down the wall between us.  She recently told me that many years ago we had almost met under different circumstances.  When she graduated from college my husband’s sister had encouraged her to call me because she wanted to move to New York to pursue a career in the theatre.  But her plans fell through and she moved to Chicago instead, without ever making contact with me.  A short year later her Dad told her that he and I were seeing one another.

We will never know how our relationship would have evolved if she had called me before her father and I got together, but I’m certain that our communication now is not meant to be defined or constrained by our roles as stepmother and stepdaughter.  For better or for worse, we are all cast in a specific role in our families, a part we tend to play for the rest of our lives until we decide to put away the script.  Had she and I met prior to my union with her father, we would have met as fellow actors, as women…as people engaged in the great conversation about life.  Perhaps in order to have our own authentic relationship we had to duke it out, so to speak.  Perhaps it was a rite of passage, a throwing down of the gauntlet, an invitation to experience one another full strength.  After all, we applaud actors who fully commit on stage, but it can be a challenge to embrace that full expression in real life.  As difficult as it was for me, I applaud her for telling me how she felt about her birthday.  And I’m equally glad that I wasn’t afraid to respond with equal honesty.  If we really want someone to know who we are, we must choose the role we play in their life, just as we choose the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, our hairstyles, our jewelry, our embellishments.

Funny how I noticed that my stepdaughter always wears black nail polish and I always wear red.  Funny how months later at the Chanel counter at Saks, I noticed the black nail polish displayed next to the red and I bought her a bottle of Black Pearl and myself a bottle of Dragon Red.

I don’t think I’ll forget her birthday this year, but if I do I don’t think she’ll be flinging me off a nearby cliff.

StepMom Magazine May 2011 Article (PDF)

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