May 29, 2005

Stepfamilies - It's Not The Brady Bunch

I remember the day my mother told me that she and my stepfather had talked about it. And that they had agreed.

I remember her saying that if they had to do it all over again, they wouldn't. In the end, it was too much pain for too many years for too many people.

I don't blame them for, at some point along the way, declaring our patched together household a failure as a stepfamily. "It's not like the Brady Bunch," my mom would say to outsiders who wondered what it was like. I'll say.

I used to think, if we only had Alice everything would be better. None of us would behave the way we did if Alice had been in our house. You put on a nice face and nice clothes and behave nicely, and you know that if all else fails, Alice will be there. She'll get you to the game; she'll whip up dinner; and she won't drink your Vodka. Unconditional Alice.

As an adult, I understand that there was no workable way to merge the complex varieties of grief, mostly unresolved, across our two families. Just no way. In retrospect, I don't see it as a failure of us as individual columns, all of us standing rigid in our place, but as the failure of a faulty structure that hardly resembled a house, let alone a home, not even on its best day.

By the time my mother married my stepfather, I was 12. She had been a widow for six respectable years.

By the time my mother re-married, I still didn't know what my father had died of. Or my grandfather weeks after him. It was the loudest silence in our house. I dared not speak of them--they were too precious to name or to form words around. Sacred territory. I imagined them on the communion plate with the wafers of Christ's body.


And so, when my mother told me that she and Brian were going to marry, and asked what I thought about it, I said, "I don't think you should." She explained that it was very good, my honesty, but that she was the adult and she would do what she thought was the right thing. I wondered why she had asked.

More than that, I wondered what I was supposed to call him.

A couple of years prior, my best friends, Cynthia and John, had undergone their mother's remarriage. They lived down the street; they were the only thing in my life that made me feel like I fit in at school. Their father had died in Cayuga Lake, a drowning accident while he was on a weekend fishing trip with his buddies.

The worst part for them was that they never found the body. That's how it was sometimes when you drowned in the Finger Lakes. They couldn't find you. Two words stay ever present in the minds of folks who live or boat on those lakes: "Underground Caves."

Anyway, Cynthia and John's house was my second home. Our mothers were both in their early thirties; our fathers had died in their mid-thirties; and we went to the same school. Not only did that mean we were almost related, but it meant that I wasn't the only kid in second grade with a dead father, and you can't imagine how happy that made me feel.

Their mother was beautiful, a Lebanese derivation. My mother was beautiful, full Czech. They became friends, their own exotic beauty was the only date they needed. But dates, they had many. As a result, we children became bestest bestest friends. Cynthia and I were in the same grade. John was two years younger. Cynthia and I had a fight and didn't talk for a year because she said her mom was prettier than mine and I said mine was prettier than hers. During that year, John and I were best friends. He liked me because I didn't have freckles. "No frecks," he used to say. That was a prerequisite to being his friend.

And the thing I was trying to relate: the story behind the anxiety over what to call my stepfather.

When Cynthia and John's mother found a husband, he was a man with the first name of Dick. I remember Cynthia, John and I sitting by the bushes in front of their green cedar house, talking about the dilemma with the seriousness of a legal negotiation.

"He says once they're married, we can't call him Mr. Morris anymore. That's what he says."

"So, what are you going to call him," I ask. "Not DAD are you?"

"I don't know. He says we can either call him by his first name or call him dad, but no more Mr. Morris."

"Whoa. You can't call him Dick. I mean, DICK?! OH NO!"

"Yeah, DICK!!"

Rolling on the grass hugging our grammar school guts, "Dick, dick, dick, dick!!"

Laughter subsiding, turning again to the serious decision at hand, only I, among everyone we knew, could understand their dilemma. What would I do if MY mother ever remarried. Let alone remarry a DICK.

"I think you should just tell him you want to still call him Mr. Morris."

"He said no, and our mom said no."

"Well then, I guess Dick. You can't call him Dad. I mean, can you?"

"No. I guess we can't. But we can't say, DUH HI DICK! CAN YOU TAKE US TO THE PLAZA DICK!?"

Punching rolling falling over again.

It seemed an answerless puzzle, one we abandoned for the day as we headed down the street to play spud.

After the wedding, they would indeed call Mr. Morris, "Dad." It was a betrayal of sorts to me--a precedent setting event for step-kids around the world.

Their father could be alive on an island somewhere, and they were going to call their mother's new husband, "Dad"?

I never got over it.

So when it came my time for the Big Talk -- the What Are You Going to Call Him" talk -- I said, "Well he better not expect me to call him Dad."

My mother assured me that this was not a requirement for my new role as stepdaughter. But that he hoped in time I might grow to see him as a father.

That day never came. He has always been Brian to me.

I lost touch with Cynthia and John after their new Lawyer Father, Mr. Morris, AKA Dad, moved them to a big new house in the Very Nice Suburb about 15 miles away. In neighborhood speak, for me, that was half-way around the world.

I went to see them two or three times, once for a sleepover, and in the morning Mrs. Morris, AKA their mom, made me Buckwheat Pancakes, to which no one told her I had a deadly allergic reaction, and after a few bites my mom had to come rescue me with special medicine from the doctor.

The other time I went, my mother had already met Brian. I think she had a talk with Mrs. Morris, asking her to soften me up because she really cared for the Dear Man. I think this because Mrs. Morris had a Talk with me. The Talk went like this:

"What do you think of Brian--I mean it's great that your mom has found someone who makes her happy, right?"

"I don't like him."

"Well, that really doesn't matter, you see? It's time for her to be happy. You've had her to yourself for years now--wouldn't you like to see her happy?"

I wanted to stab her with one of her fancy silver butter knives. I wanted her to poison me again with Buckwheat. I wanted anything other than to be having this conversation.

So I said, "Sure."

And went inside myself....



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