Stepparenting: Full with the delight of new discovery and fraught with invisible frustration. For me, anyway. Like a quiet dance with a trip wire. I love my stepdaughter, and I know she loves me. We lived together for years in a smallish house, folding into one another’s rituals and rhythms (or sometimes not), sharing powerful opinions (both verbally and not), and uncovering in the process a host of unspoken hopes which we are now (both) slowly learning to speak aloud.
She is away at college and I miss her fiercely — trip wires, vampire hours and all. I appreciate the small bursts of time we now cobble together for our family. It is rarely easy, but always rich.
I landed in the life of my own stepmom at the ripe age of 21, when I knew everything and nothing, needed no one and everyone, living half a continent away from my family of origin with my feet firmly planted on the west coast and my head in the Midwestern clouds. My stepmom folded me into her life, even from a distance, left me room to grow and demanded to be let into my life, too, over time. When she passed away last year after battling mesothelioma, I was left – am left – lonely for her. I cannot say I lost a parent, and yet I cannot say I did not. She is mine – was mine – as much as anyone else in this world of ours.
Her birthday is less than a week away. Later this month is Christmas, followed by the first anniversary of her death.
In an attempt to make visible this relationship which defies real definition, but which provided a shape for my own choices, my own growth, my own coming out and coming into myself, falling in love and trusting the fall, I scribbled some thoughts to share at her memorial last year. Because I was unable to fly back the fifth time in a year to attend, my brother-in-law read these thoughts aloud during the service — for which I will forever be truly deeply grateful. Here is what I said…
Twenty years ago, Doris married my father. Her son and I worried. They had dated so briefly – were they rushing into this? Did they know what they were doing? But they did; they were wiser than we thought. They were soulmates. I know this now. But at the time, I didn’t know soulmates were real, or possible. They lived their lives with space between them, with fierce commitment and loyalty, with a respect for one another’s independence, intersecting in all the right spots, encouraging and supporting one another to follow their dreams – even when it meant they had to live in different places for a time.
There was an afternoon I came visiting, maybe three years into Dad and Doris’s marriage, and I’d been staying with them for a few days. I hadn’t yet been to Santa Clara to see my mom. Doris came downstairs to tell me it was time to call my mother – however much I was enjoying my time with them (and I was), she was still my mother and I needed to call her, to make a plan to visit. I was furious. Of all the people in the universe who could bawl me out for not calling my mother – it’s my stepmother who comes downstairs and actually delivers the message. And she was not to be contradicted, let me tell you. It took me hours to speak to her again, I was so angry. But she was right. I called my mother. This is the only fight we ever had, Doris and I. I finally understood what she meant about family. Family is family. Nothing is more important than family. We don’t choose our family, but they’re ours – no matter what.
Later when she moved to Texas and built her office from scratch, after the carpet was down and her team was assembled, I remember she introduced me to everyone as her daughter. They were confused, because they knew she had a son and a daughter and they’d met them already, or at least seen pictures. Or maybe they were confused because they couldn’t quite see the family resemblance. But she let them live with their confusion. She had claimed me, and didn’t feel the need to explain further. Our family is full of contradictions and potential for confusion, with its layers of “step” and multiple ethnicities. Some of us chose one another, some of us came along for the ride, and some of us were born into it. But we all belong to one another now. Because Doris and Dad made it so.
I know that she has been a mentor to so many people – that her wisdom, and her commitment to justice, and the way she stands tall and takes space on this planet are the things she’ll be remembered for today – and I remember her for these, too, and hope to help impart some of this to my daughters – but for me, personally, it’s the sense of belonging I’ll remember her for – because of all the people in my life, she’s the first one who made that feel real, and possible – something we create for each other and for ourselves.
I love you, Doris, and I always will. You have helped me become who I am.
Your courage and your grace: Helping so many young women and men find their place on this planet, and hold it, and fill it with all they have and all they are.
Thank you, and Happy Birthday.
[photo borrowed from http://takecareblog.com/category/holidays/]