Ugh. Who invented stepmothers? I was one, once. I played the role of Wicked Stepmother in our fourth grade production of “Cinderella.” I still remember my first lines, as I strode imperiously onto the stage: “Cinderella, Cinderella, what’s this?” …and then I don’t remember anything after that, except that Prince Charming was played by Mark Brown, the boy I had a terrible crush on, and Cinderella was played by a pretty honey-haired girl named Missy, who was also Mark’s girlfriend (if girlfriend is the right term for fourth-graders). So I played my part with relish, especially considering that I had to watch them kiss in the final scene. I genuinely hated this Cinderella and by golly I would make her feel it.
The following year, I was the Grinch in the fifth grade production of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Ooooh, I loved the baddies. If I were to be in Peter Pan, I’d want to play Captain Hook.
We love to hate stepmothers, in literature, in movies, and many times in real life. (See how easily the descriptor “wicked” slips in front of “stepmother”?) I have mighty ambivalent feelings about my own stepmother, although I don’t even consider her a stepmother. I use that term to refer to Kaye when I am talking with people who don’t know me very well, because this word makes it clear that she is not my mother. I never say “parents.” I say “Dad and Kaye.” Kaye is not fulfilling the role of mother for me. She is simply the person who Dad married. At most, she’s my friend, although that’s stretching it as I do not feel particularly friendly towards her.
There are very particular reasons why I feel the way that I do, and I like to think that they are not influenced by the fact that Kaye is alive and married to my father while my mother is not. Kaye once asked me to pray for her, that she would feel less guilty about her happiness, because it came about as the result of so much sorrow. I think this shows how utterly self-absorbed she can be. Clearly, in marrying my father this was precisely the arrangement she agreed to: dead first wife, grieving husband, grieving daughter, big house in the woods full of my parents’ possessions and memories collected over 40 years together. Did she not understand that? Then she was foolish, and I absolutely don’t feel obligated to petition God for Kaye to suddenly not be bothered by all that.
There are other reasons, too. Let me tell you about them.
First of all, I hold her at least somewhat responsible for the absolute mess that is her adopted daughter’s life. Kaye’s first marriage to an emotionally abusive (possibly physically abusive) man was absolute misery, and yet Kaye would not divorce him or even separate and take her daughter someplace where she could grow up in a loving environment instead of in the middle of a battlefield. So Kaye’s daughter, as she grew into teenagehood, responded how lots of kids would in that situation: she snuck out of the house, she drank, she did drugs, she committed petty crimes. When she was fourteen she slipped out of the house to go to a party where she got drunk and was raped by an older schoolmate. None of this, absolutely none of it, is her fault. But what happened next cemented, I think, her future path: when she eventually came home, she told her mother what had happened and made her promise not to tell her father. So the rape was never spoken of again. Kaye did not take her daughter to the doctor, did not get counseling for her, did not bring charges against the rapist, who was guilty not only of rape but of raping a minor. This is not only wrong, it is wildly negligent. It is, if you’ll pardon my Swahili, seriously fucked up.
A couple years later, Kaye’s daughter was pregnant. She now has three children by three different men (all ex-convicts, somehow—where does she meet them?). Her first child, a son, she gave up for adoption—an open adoption where they remain in regular contact. Her second and third children, both daughters, she is raising herself. But I can hardly stand to be in the same room with Kaye’s daughter when she is speaking to her oldest daughter. She criticizes and berates and belittles and yells—and that is all in front of our family. What does she do when no one else is around? She also compares her oldest daughter unfavorably with her youngest daughter. And when you get the first husband, Earl, in the same room, it’s like watching lions tear apart a frightened gazelle. I hosted Thanksgiving at my house this year, and Earl had no problem full-on yelling at his granddaughter in front of everyone. I should have kicked him right out of my house then, but instead I followed Kaye’s granddaughter out onto the front porch, where I held her while she had a good cry.
The awful thing is, Kaye is not an advocate for her granddaughter, either. She criticizes and berates her as much as everyone else. And Dad? Well, he just agrees with Kaye about everything she does, because he loves her, and anyhow her grandchildren aren’t really his responsibility to discipline.
The not-unexpected result is that Kaye’s granddaughter has tried to commit suicide several times, with the last attempt on Superbowl Sunday (which I wrote about). Here’s the thing: Kaye’s family is a hot mess. I’m sorry for that. I feel like I can’t breathe when I think about that much sorrow and pain in a single family. But I also instinctively want to keep my own daughter far, far away from it. I don’t want to be connected to it AT ALL, I don’t want to have these ugly domestic situations spilling over onto my family. I hate that I even have to think about it or spend emotional energy on it when I have so many other things that are demanding my full emotional attention right now. But the bottom line is, Dad chose this, and I didn’t. I can leave when things turn nasty, and I will.
So I do not feel completely relaxed when Annika is with them, even when Kaye’s daughter and oldest granddaughter are elsewhere, because a “situation” may erupt at any moment. I also do not feel relaxed because Kaye’s grandmothering is so far removed from my mothering that we might as well be on different planets. Kaye is simply not attentive when it comes to the children. She pays little notice to where exactly they are and what exactly they are doing. She loses track of them in public places. She took them to the park last month and instead of getting out of the car to keep an eye on them, she stayed in the car and panicked when she looked up from her cellphone or whatever and they were GONE. (Don’t worry, she found them. But still! WTF?) She takes them swimming and buries herself in a book and closes her eyes and turns her face to the sun or maybe walks away from the pool area altogether without telling them, which is fine and dandy if you are alone, but not OK if you’ve got three youngish girls in the pool, even if they can all swim. She and Dad put them in cars with other people or take them places and then let us know after the fact. They don’t call, they don’t check in, they never let Simon and I know what is happening. One time Dad wasn’t paying attention while Annika was getting into his car and he BACKED OVER HER FOOT. And this is just the stuff that I know about.
Lastly, Kaye has the very annoying habit of talking right over me. I begin a sentence but before it’s halfway out she’s busted in with her own thoughts and opinions which frequently aren’t even relevant to what I was saying, but how would she know because she never bothers to listen to me? Talking to her is one of the most frustrating experiences in the world. Especially because she believes she is so full of wisdom and special, even telepathic, insight.
Which is why I bloody well don’t want to go to lunch with her. I don’t mean EVER; I just mean in the near future. I haven’t seen her since the fateful Superbowl party, and I’m not really ready to see her yet, but she’s called several times and Dad keeps bugging me about it. So finally yesterday I texted her and asked if she could get together for lunch today, but no, she can’t because she’s got a massage appointment. Jeez. She wanted to set a date next week but I put her off. I’ll have to see her on March 8, when we’re all going out to dinner for Annika’s birthday. And I know I’ll eventually have to go to lunch with her. I mean, she is my father’s wife; it’s better to get along with her than not get along. But oh, it costs me.