Dear Step-Daughter…

Your 16th birthday was almost a week ago, and I’m still trying to recuperate from the cheesecake. I was hoping you’d go for the vanilla Wal-Mart cupcakes with the ridiculously sweet icing like last year; but alas, this time around, you didn’t hesitate to tell me exactly what you wanted or to express an opinion that was entirely different from my own. You aren’t a cake kid, and Continue reading “Dear Step-Daughter…”

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Partners

Mama used to say that if only she would’ve had someone to help her pull her wagon, things would’ve been a lot easier for all of us.  She meant another adult, of course, but what she got was a couple of kids.  We weren’t very good pullers, my oldest brother and I, but our hearts were in the right place.  We tried.

Since I starting “dating” my sweet husband in 2015, I’ve thought a lot about that “pulling the wagon” image of Mama’s.  It’s apt, actually.  Those little red wagons aren’t at all easy to pull, particularly if the terrain is rough or if you get it too heavily loaded.  When we were growing up, there were very few patches of smooth ground.  And there were four of us, so the wagon’s burden was never light.  Some of us fell out sometimes.  We got hurt or lost or both.

When Hubby and I got together, his wagon had been stuck in the mud for so long that he’d given up trying to move it.  The kids had taken it over and made a useless mess of it; it was no longer fit to move anything anywhere or to keep anyone out of harm’s way. Indeed, they all had cuts and scrapes from the wagon’s rusty edges, and we worried (and still worry) about infections that never fully go away, that could be life-threatening.

My husband is a hard worker and he brings home a decent paycheck.  He is also a wonderful man with a huge heart, and for several years before I arrived on the scene, he was dad, mom, and sole breadwinner for his three children.  Unfortunately, it was just him trying to do all those things (aside from occasional help from his visiting mom).  Like Mama, he needed serious, permanent help to pull his wagon, and the oldest boy (no matter how good his intentions) wasn’t getting the job done.

When I talk to Hubby about that time, he says there was no opportunity for anything except triage, trying desperately to prioritize on the fly and decide who most needed help.  I can’t imagine how horrific it must’ve been for him to see all his babies in trouble and to only be able to offer temporary help to the one who was bleeding out the fastest. I’m sure his persistent worrying (over a situation he had no power to fix) is to blame for most of his current wrinkles and health problems.

I knew my husband for 25 years before we ever got together, and I think every day about how much different both of our lives would’ve been if it hadn’t taken so long, if we both hadn’t taken so much damage beforehand.  I came in to our relationship with a feeling of worthlessness that was directly tied to how much money I was making.  He came in with the persistent and nagging feeling that he was solely responsible for getting these three little people he’d made into adulthood alive.

I’ve said it before, but I think I was born to be a mother.  As soon as I walked through the door, I started trying to make a safe home for these kids that I really didn’t know at all except through occasional pictures and stories my sister (in-law) told.  At the beginning, hubby gave me $400 a week to buy groceries and the stuff the kids needed.  They had to come to me with their requests instead of to their dad.  I cleaned, went grocery shopping, cooked actual food, and enforced a go-home time for the oldest’s friends.  (Hubby was working midnights, and five days a week, I had to make sure nobody ended up injured, traumatized or dead.)  I bought clothes and school supplies, toiletries and tampons.  I discouraged Hamburger Helper and fast food wherever possible because none of them needed to continue to live that way now that I was there.  Hubby seemed to drop 50 pounds overnight.

My very presence was enough to ensure that within a few months, the kids had new beds and we lived in a nicer house in a better neighborhood.  There was also a new school for the youngest two (the oldest moved away when he hit 18) and car insurance for my husband, who hadn’t been able to round up the extra money to start it while he was busy putting out fires.  This fall he’s going back to school to pursue a dream and to work toward getting the hell out of the factory.

The point of all this is, the experience of marrying my sweet husband and becoming step-mom to these awesome (if occasionally irksome) kids has shown me once and for all what it truly means to be and to have a partner, how it feels to help someone pull their wagon and to know that they are there to help you pull yours, and how sometimes you can help without bringing a single dime of your own to the table.  I would never have guessed.  Seriously.  That was not at all the lesson I’d spent the preceding years of my adulthood learning.

Even more than a year later, it still blows me away when my husband (or my mom or my sister) points out all the ways that the lives of these three people have changed and improved in the time I’ve known them.  I say “I didn’t do anything.  I just showed up.”

My husband says “Baby.  I love you.  You’re so silly.”

*Inspired by The Daily Post prompt Partner.

Booze, broccoli, and babies

It’s Saturday afternoon, and my house is peaceful enough that I’m actually enjoying the cats weaving between my feet in the kitchen while I’m trying to cook.  Usually, even the people in the house can’t get by with that kind of proximity.  But cooking just now is striking me as a leisurely activity — I’m steaming my broccoli, zucchini, and carrots for the week, and it’s become such a rote thing that I can now actually blog while I do it.  And ignore cats, apparently.  I’m freakin’ zen, y’all.

It’s five o’clock nowhere, but I’m standing here seriously pondering the virtues of getting liquored up while I cook.  I’m supposed to go to a meet-up at 6:00 with about twenty people I barely know and my sister (in-law), who (as you may or may not know) I love.  Truth be told, I’m going for her, though I also (kind of) know a few of these people from high school.  I’m figuring that my sweet sister will get busy visiting with folks (many of whom she considers family) and I’ll be left wondering what the hell to do with myself.  Thus the early contemplation of booze.  My dear husband was initially planning to go with me to this shindig so I’d have a fallback person (I’m pretty sure this is why people get married), but he’s asleep after working all night, and I’m not inclined to get him up early.  He had eye surgery this week, and it literally looks like he was punched in the face.  I’m sure he’s in pain, plus, I don’t really want to spend the evening occupied with assuring people I barely know that I did not punch my husband in the eyeball for smarting off.  I mean, if he was normal, I wouldn’t have to ever say these kinds of things, but he isn’t (not at all), and I’m forced to grin stupidly and shake my head in the direction of my towering giant of a spouse in some kind of mocking gesture that I hope says as if! or see this dumbass?  I married him because I loved him beyond reason.  

My youngest brother became a first-time father last night.  The baby will be my fourth nephew; I also have two nieces.  All of us kids are step-parents, but until last night, J and I were the only ones who didn’t also have biological children.  Now I’m alone in that, and at 43, my biological clock has long been sounding a lot like pounding, overwhelming, disgusting death metal.  I’m unbelievably happy for my brother, but beneath the surface, I’m also pretty sad.  Since I was 12 years old, I only ever wanted to be a mom; I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.  I’m a killer aunt though.  Seriously.  And my sister (in-law) has always been great about sharing her kid with me.  (She calls her “our girl.”  As in, “you’re not going to believe what our girl did yesterday.”  She’s now 13, and though she almost entirely grew up with me six-hundred-and-some miles away, my sister swears the kid acts more like me than her.)

Anyway.  When shit gets a little real, I fantasize about getting sloshed while I’m steaming my broccoli.  It makes me feel better even though I’m too old to drink much anymore. Plus, I’m the child of an alcoholic so I really shouldn’t, and I’m trying to watch my calories, which means that all the really tasty drinks are now way out of my league anyway.  The best I could do and still stay within the budget is eat nothing but vegetables for supper; then at least I’d have room for two or three shots.  Not that I’d want to take them…that shit’s nasty without a mixer.

In my kingdom, there shall be a ban.

I am, admittedly, awfully new to the parenting game, but man I gotta tell you, this shit is hard.  It’s a huge learning curve; every new situation, every meal, every everything is first and foremost me trying to figure out where the booby traps are, what the words are that might set off the next chain of exploding land mines.  The kids were in this family before me, and there are so many days when I would tell you myself that they run this joint–no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

They, of course, do not feel the same way.  Though I am usually decent and amusing company for them, there are more than a few moments when they look around for their father, likely hoping that he’ll notice how his wife is once again trying to rule with an iron fist when they’d be much happier to have her sucking up and asking for their approval.  These looks do not go over well with me, and I’m beginning to notice that my ire is compounding over time.  The more I don’t respond, the more I want to and the more likely it becomes that I’m eventually going to.  Every day, for example, I struggle to resist the urge to plan and legislate every second of their time at home.  I am oh-so-tired of cleaning up after them, of saying “please don’t eat pineapple fruit cups on the couch” and then having to clean a sticky mess off the cushions when they get up.  I am so done saying “don’t carry soda cans into your bedroom” and then having to buy ant poison for the subsequent and inevitable infestation.  If they had chore lists and set punishments for their dumbassery, maybe I’d get a break from the relentless movement and the neverending urge to scream at the top of my lungs in frustration.

But as the parent who is the most present in their lives (my sweet husband works a lot), I am most often consumed with worry rather than anger.  I’m 43 years old, and I’ve seen enough of the world to know that there’s some scary, dangerous stuff out there.  I’ve also been around the block enough times to know that most of the time, it’s our own bad choices that bring the shitstorm down on our heads.  I would very much like to save them from either of those truths whenever possible.  I am therefore seriously considering a mandate from my high position as step-mother:

HENCEFORTH AND FORTHWITH, ALL HUMANS UNDER THE AGE OF 39 WHO LIVE IN THIS HOUSE WILL IMMEDIATELY (AND WITHOUT HOPE OF SUCCESSFUL APPEAL) RELINQUISH THE EQUIPMENT REFERRED TO AS CELL PHONES AND THEN TRAVEL BACK IN TIME, POST HASTE, TO THE RENAISSANCE ERA, WHERE THEY WILL START READING ACTUAL LITERATURE AND DRINKING TEA AND NEVER AGAIN UTTER THE WORDS “YOU TUBE” OR PERFORM THE MANEUVER “DAB” EVER, EVER, EVER AGAIN.  ALSO, THEY WILL WEAR VICTORIAN CLOTHES AND SPEAK AS THOUGH THEY HAVE SOME SENSE AND A DECENT EDUCATION.

I don’t know…maybe it sounds a little extreme, but it’s beginning to feel like desperate times call for desperate measures.  I mean, I was about 18 when I started learning about computers and building my first, scary-looking websites, but the integration with technology nowadays is freakin’ scary.  It’s more than just wanting to play on your phone when you’re bored; people (including children) today are so addicted to their phones that cell phone addiction has actually become a thing.  It adversely effects concentration, test taking, and even sleep.  Consequently, what formerly was an occasional flight of fancy about taking the phones away from the kids and returning to board games, books, and actual eye contact has now become an almost zealous belief in the inherent evil of cell phones and a determination that next time some shit goes down and punishment is imminent, removing the phones (and all other access to social media) might well be the first (joyous) step.

Aside from the scary addiction factor, I’m also worried by the extent to which cell phones are causing our kids to grow up much earlier than they should.  And I know that wouldn’t be possible if we were monitoring our kids’ phone usage as closely as our parents once monitored our internet usage, but for the most part, for whatever reason, we aren’t looking.  Ironically, I think we were in far less danger than are the kids and teens of this generation.  I mean, suicides are happening because of Facebook and Snapchat, y’all.  I wouldn’t want to have to tell people that’s what happened to my kid, especially since the mere idea of a death caused by something so intangible is still pretty much unfathomable even to people my age, who were in the first high school level computer classes as teenagers.

How does something so small get so big and important in the lives of children?

I think my sister (in-law) has it right, as usual, and we should be seriously limiting screen time and snatching the phones at random–right out of the hands of the children we love–to see what the hell is actually going on in their lives, what information and everyday horror they’re being presented with in a place that is so very obvious and easily accessible, and yet WE NEVER FREAKIN’ LOOK.  I mean, I had to do some serious plotting to read my first smut book at 15, and dammit, I don’t think my step-kids should have it any easier.  Also, if they want to know how to build a bomb or start a cult, I really think they should have to perform a little exercise and walk their crazy little asses down to the library, but hey, maybe that’s just me getting a bit drunk on all that new step-mother power.

But I’m serious, y’all…I’m worried.  I’m going to try to pay more attention, but I have a feeling that it’s only going to take a feather to push me over the edge of reason on this subject, and I’m taking all the cell phones with me on the trip down.

Hot, empathetic hatred

I like to think that I’ve gotten more empathetic as I’ve gotten older.  I used to be horrible about it; in any given bad/sad/horrific situation, I had no idea what to say to those involved or whether to say anything at all–consequently, silence was my default position.  Nine times out of ten–I have no doubt–this was wrong.  “Socially inept” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  But as I said, I do feel like I’m better now.  I now know, for example, that when someone dies unexpectedly or too young, just being there and listening is best.  Dispensing platitudes is ridiculous and redundant, not to mention ultimately being painful for everyone involved.  Even in everyday situations, I try to be more aware of other people and ask first before offering suggestions or prospective solutions to the problems they present, just to make sure that’s what’s wanted.  Surprisingly often, folks just need someone to listen.

For the past couple of years, I have hated my husband’s job right along with him.  I’d tell him how sorry I was that he was miserable when he sent me pictures of the thermometer inside his department at work and when he said that he never stopped sweating from the time he walked in to the time he left.  I’ve cringed and shaken my head when he described how sometimes, just being in the immediate vicinity of the machines is hot enough to cause the skin on his arms to bubble.  (Honestly, I thought I pretty much understood even though I’d never experienced anything at all like that.  I have a decent imagination, and I survived childhood without air conditioning, even though I was one of those unfortunate kids who started sweating as soon as the thermometer topped 80.)

Y’all…I had no clue, and to be absolutely honest, I most likely still don’t.  This afternoon, we drove over to my mom’s for a short visit, and I managed to lock my keys (spare key included) in the car.  It was 97 degrees, I parked in the full sun, and my car is black.  For about half an hour, Hubby and I pulled on my passenger door constantly in order to be able to move the metal hanger back and forth and (seventeen years and two heat strokes later), we finally got it unlocked.  In the last five minutes of the struggle (before it was ultimately won), I had to give up and go back in the house.  I felt like I was about to vomit, my fingertips were both burned and bruised, and I have never sweat so much in my life.  Aside from sweating even more than I was and bearing the brunt of the frustration with how long it was taking to break into my car, my husband was totally fine.  When we were finally in the car on the way back home and I was pressing the lukewarm water bottle to my wrists in an attempt to cool off even just a little bit, I asked him if that was as bad as his work.

He was hesitant to answer, I think, because he doesn’t want me to feel too awful about the job he has to do to support us all.  “It’s pretty bad, babe.  But what’s worse is when they turn on the fans and all they do is circulate the scorching air and dehydrate you more.  They’ll run the fans today.”

We have a plan in place to get him out of there in a few years.  The eventual solution begins with him going back to school in the fall, a course of action that will be hard on all of us and seriously eat into the time we get to spend together.  But I hate that place almost as much as he does, and he needs to get the hell out of there, and that’s what I’ll say from here on out instead of shaking my head and thinking I understand.  It turns out that sometimes, the socially appropriate response is to share equally in the other person’s hatred.

And really, I should have learned that lesson from my sister years ago when she told me (at a particularly crappy moment) that she understood completely and that–in the event I ever found myself needing to be rid of a body- she’d be happy to help me with the disposal and get damned creative doing it.  I could not have been more grateful to her for saying it; I badly needed a laugh, but it was also really great to know that no matter what happened, there was someone there with me.

An impossible-to-describe, once-in-a-lifetime (if you’re lucky) kind of love.

Mama is pretty sure she’s won the son-in-law lottery.  She outright says so all the time, but last night, she called needing help with one of her poems-in-progress and asked me to list the qualities that make me describe my husband as the best person I know.  I’m not very good at the lists (and let me assure you, this is not the first such request that I’ve received from her over the years), and so I did a lot of hem-ing and haw-ing and stammering around the edges of the subject with no idea in what direction I should go first.

Why is my new husband the best person I know?  Basically, she was asking what I loved about him, and anyone who’s ever been asked that question knows that it’s not so easy to answer, particularly without sounding like you’re running for reelection as the mayor of Shmaltztown.  Obviously, that’s never been me.  I’m also not the girl who oohs and aahs over romantic dinners or flowers on special occasions: In other words, it takes a different kind of man–and a different kind of relationship–to get my attention in the first place, let alone keep it.

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I have to admit that it helps that I’ve known the man since he wasn’t a man at all.  When I met him, he was a too-tall 12-year-old with Tim Curry lips, an unfailing respect for his mother, and a kindness that is truly unheard of in a kid.  Despite a first marriage that began before his teenage years ended, three kids in six years, a given up dream for a job in the medical field, a medical discharge from his second dream job in the Air Force, and disappointment of every sort at every turn, by the time I saw him again in 2013, he was still the person I remembered–how does anyone manage to stay so decent after all that shit?  We smiled at one another constantly, and I felt totally at ease with him in a way that I never had with any other person to whom I was attracted.  Almost from the start, I wondered how we’d managed to get and stay so far away from one another for almost all of our adult lives.

Our absence from one another’s lives seems particularly farfetched when you consider the following:  His sister is my best friend to such a degree that I stopped calling her my friend and started calling her my sister years ago.  When I moved back to Illinois from North Carolina at the end of 2014, I moved into his mom and sister’s house.  All of this ready-made closeness to his family (even independent of my relationship to him) made us getting together a total no-brainer, especially for me; I had just come from a 14 year relationship wherein I was kept as far outside the family circle of the person I was with as it’s possible to be.  In his/our family, I couldn’t possibly feel any more included and loved than I do.  Admittedly, he got a little something from the deal as well:  he had a ready-made family in need of a mother figure, and I was a mother who had only ever wanted a family to care for.  He got someone to take care of him and to help him hold his life together in a real, consistent, and sustainable way, and I got someone who looks at me as though he can’t wait to keep looking at me until (and after) the wrinkles on my face will comfortably hold a ten day rain.

We are quiet together.  We read many of the same books and enjoy most of the same music and television shows.  We are accomplished car singers with widely varied repertoires.  We both detest the president (and liars in general) and want more than anything to run off to a secluded cabin in the woods where we will have so few visitors that whoever finally discovers our bodies will likely only find the bones.  We take pointless day trips in the car just so we can share space only with one another.  (Sometimes, he takes me cruising through the really bad parts of St. Louis so he can show me how good our life together really is…ha!)  He dyes my hair every month without fail, and there’s never so much a hint of griping about it.  He amuses me.  I mean really.  Most of the days we spend together end with me lying in bed massaging the area around my cheekbones, knowing that I’ve once again over-exercised my facial muscles, and I’m going to have to think real hard before I smile the next day, assess whether or not it’s worth the pain.

Mostly, I just can’t believe my luck.  How does a person who has made the mistakes I have end up with a man like this?  He works hard.  He loves consistently and well, without any games or pretense.  He is generous and kind, smart and funny, and he’s secure enough to let me be all of the great (and not-so-great) things I am, too.  He might be younger than me, but there is sometimes an emotional maturity about him that humbles me right down to the soles of my spoiled rotten feet.

In short, I have no idea how I got him (or really what the heck he sees in me), but I’m keeping him as long as I possibly can.

But I didn’t say nearly all of that to Mom because a) it would’ve made me cry, and b) her poem is for little kids and definitely not that long.