On My Stepmother’s 80th Birthday

Today my stepmother turns eighty.   I am not able to be with her or even send her a card due to the broken relationship with the man who is my biological father.

One of the great mysteries of my life is how someone with whom I have no genetic connection could love me more than my blood relatives.   My immediate family unit fractured when, within two hours of my birth, my biological mother died.  Her sacrifices and challenges are a story better saved for another time.  I know how lucky I was to get the replacement mother that I did.  After all I could have gotten one like Cinderella’s.

My early life was one of tumult and I’m thankful I have no memories of the shuffling from family member to family member.  I’m even more thankful that I landed in my stepmother’s loving arms and eventually in her heart.  She and I have a bond stronger in some ways than an inherited parent-child relationship since it is a bond based on choice and not biological obligation.  Our bond was so strong that, having never been separated from her since before I was two, my first day of school I dissolved into an inconsolable, sobbing mess.  No one could convince me that I had not lost her forever; that she had taken me to this strange place and would never return.  The school ended up having to call her to come get me and take me home.

As hard as it was for her she gave me a stern command to never do that again and confirmed that I would go back to school the next day and would stay the whole day and not cry.  I went back but I don’t remember the second day of school at all.  But even though she had to discipline me at times her love never wavered.  One of my fondest memories is, clad in my pajamas and pink, fur-collared house coat, falling asleep in her lap while trying to make through to the end of at least one Mannix episode.  Mom gave me love and comfort in a household full of tension and detachment.

She brought music to my life that I would never have been exposed to without her.  While I appreciate and enjoy a good ‘Cheatin’ Heart’ country song I fear that would have been the only music I would have heard without her.  She filled the house with Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.  The songs of the early rock/rhythm and blues magicians (yes, I meant magicians not musicians because they were so much more than mere musicians) were the accompaniment to our weekly household chores.  I still need a good dose of 50’s Rock and Roll to productively complete the mundane tasks of housekeeping.  Her approach to cleaning taught me a lot about music’s power.

And her influence didn’t end there.  It was not unusual to have her, in the middle of dusting, to take my hand and dance the Jitterbug.  While I was, I’m sure, quite clumsy at first over time I learned those rhythmic steps and turns.  I remember how smoothly she moved across the floor and transferred hands as she twirled and danced to “Bye, Bye Love”, “Ain’t That A Shame”, “Ruby Baby”, “Chantilly Lace”, “Kansas City” or some other wonderful 40’s or 50’s song.  She taught me rhythm, to love music and to have fun dancing.  Years later, when I was trying to learn the ‘Shag’, those steps came back to me as the two have a great deal of similarity.

But life wasn’t all fun and dancing,  She was dedicated to making sure we did our homework and were successful in school.  I remember many times she would have my spelling words on the ironing board calling them out to me as she used a soda bottle sprinkler to dampen the clothes.  She taught us to keep our rooms clean, our clothes neat, and to study hard.  But she taught me more than just the necessities of life and the joys of music.

She taught me that humor eases pain and hard circumstances.  When she was recovering from her initial fight against Myasthenia Gravis several years ago she had no appetite.  We tried to get her to partake of nutritional drinks but she was not at all fond of them and would screw up her nose with every sip through the straw.  Once when I was trying to talk to her about how important it was to drink the ‘offensive’ supplements she looked sweetly up at me, and in an effort to change the subject, said, “You have such pretty skin.  I wish I had pretty skin like yours”.  As soon as I ‘called her’ on her ploy she broke into a wide grin – like a child who’d gotten the punch line perfect on a long-practiced joke.

The things she taught me are far too wide-ranging to share in a short blog.  The best lesson I learned from her is that love extends far beyond the requirements of blood and kin.  She taught me that even when she wasn’t near her love surrounded me and I was in her thoughts.  I still have some of the lovely letters she wrote to me in college in her perfect cursive writing which I spent my youth desperately attempting to copy.

Yes.  She is my stepmother but we share a love and bond deeper than many biologically related mothers and daughters.  She will always be in my heart and I’m sure as I sit writing this she knows how much I love and miss her.

Happy Birthday, Mom.  I didn’t forget.

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