I never expected to call anyone my step-mom. To have a step-mom means your dad got divorced and he remarried or his wife died. In my case, it was the latter. My mom died when I was nineteen, meaning that my dad would likely remarry at some point. About two years after my mom’s death he met a woman who would become my step-mom. Two years may sound like a long time, but in “grief time” it might as well have been two months. Is anybody truly ever ready to accept the person who might try to replace her mom?
The circumstances under which my step-mom, Anne, joined our family were highly unusual. We weren’t acquiring a step-mom because our parents were divorced. We had lost our mom after her long battle with breast cancer and were living in a suspended state of permanent grief. When my step-mom arrived, my younger sister was angry and hostile in her misery. I was withdrawn and anti-social. Neither of us was able to see through our blinding sadness to understand the remarkable woman who would later marry our dad.
I didn’t know what to expect when my dad introduced us to Anne. Naturally, I assumed the worst. Still reeling from the turmoil and loss of my mom, I was hesitant about this new woman. My feelings were unsettled. I was suspicious of her motives, despite reassurances by my dad that she had no intention of trying to fill the enormous void left by my mom’s death.
It takes courage to marry a man whose wife has died and whose two teenage daughters are distraught over her death, especially when you have your own two teenagers who never wanted you to relocate to a new city to be with a new man. It was an uncomfortable situation to say the least. We made small talk at dinner and pretended things were normal, but they weren’t.
Every so often there is a rare person whose kindness is so remarkable it impacts your life in ways you can’t possibly know until many years later. Somehow, with grace and dignity beyond her barely 40 years, Anne saw me for who I was, despite my despair and feelings of unworthiness. With patience and warmth, she helped me pick up the pieces of a shattered life, which I assumed would never be possible. Slowly, she helped guide me back to a life worth living, a life filled with the things I wanted to achieve like college, graduate school, marriage, kids, but couldn’t possibly imagine without my mom.
Our house had stuffy air of stillness. It was devoid of happiness or laughter. Nobody visited because we were so checked out, we wouldn’t have known who to invite over. It didn’t matter that it was a pretty house in a beautiful neighborhood. It had no life left in it, despite the fact that two teen girls and a dad lived there. The reason the house felt as if somebody had died there was because our mom died in the upstairs bedroom. The day before she died, my dad sent me to my boyfriend’s house. My dad called me the following day, on a Monday morning, to tell me she’d died. He instructed me to wait until the coroner had removed her body. I did. We all knew it was coming. Cancer had ravished her body and she was blind, paralyzed and in a coma. Still, the shock of losing my mom at age nineteen was more than I could bear.
After my mom died, none of us had the strength to make any changes to the house, so it remained the house where Mama died. We didn’t talk about moving out the old furniture or getting a new sofa or table to brighten the house or make it more cheerful. Dinner was a sandwich in front of the TV. To move even a single piece of furniture would have been too painful. So we lived in the house and it stayed just the way it was the day she died. A year passed, then two. The house remained the same.
When my dad decided to get rid of some things, he made the unforgivable mistake of selling my mom’s clothes at a garage sale, without telling my sister or me. We found out when we drove by the garage sale. It was heartbreaking. Ignoring people sorting through my mom’s clothes, her favorite dresses, her shoes, we grabbed armfuls of stuff and began loading it in the back of our car. Infuriated, we yelled at people staring at us that the garage sale was over. We couldn’t contain our rage and tears and we didn’t try. We stopped speaking to our dad for a while.
Anne joined our grim mess of a family. Once she moved in, Anne rightly decided to update the furniture, to make the house a home. My sister and I rebelled fiercely, accusing her of trying to destroy our mom’s memory. Somehow, we came to an agreement as to which pieces of my mom’s furniture could go and those that had to stay. My mom’s favorite purple velvet couch was a point of huge contention. It stayed for a while and then we replaced it.
I knew she never intended to replace my mom for that would be impossible. She was there only because she loved my dad.
My dad married Anne. My sister and I attended the wedding, grateful that my dad was happy again, but still uneasy about Anne and her kids. I was nicer to our new step-mom than my sister was. I tried hard to show her respect and make her feel welcome. I knew she never intended to replace my mom for that would be impossible. She was there only because she loved my dad. She still does. They just celebrated their 25th anniversary.
Anne never tried to replace my mom. Instead, over time she became the friend and mother figure I desperately needed. She was the first call I made when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. During my very long labor, Anne held my hand and coached me through it, never leaving my side. When the nurse was slow to refill my drink, after 30 hours of labor, Anne let her know it better not happen again.
For the first week with my new baby, she stayed with my husband and me and taught me how to take care of my daughter in the most loving way a mother would teach her own daughter. Putting the baby in the car to drive home from the hospital, Anne sat in the back seat with the baby and me because I was so nervous.
When we got home with my baby daughter, Anne never left my side.
She’d say, “Wrap her like this to calm her down.”
Or, “Want me to hold her for a few minutes?” she’d ask, taking her and rocking her back and forth in her arms.
I think those first days secured a bond between her and my daughter that is still profound. After five days, Anne reluctantly admitted she was tired and went to her parents’ to get some rest.
By definition, Anne is my step-mom. But I know the word doesn’t do justice to our relationship. Whenever I refer to Anne as my step-mom, I don’t think it conveys who she truly is to me. She’s not my mom, but she’s more than the image the word ‘step-mom’ conveys.
Looking back, it couldn’t have been easy for Anne to create a blended family. When she married a widower with two grieving teenage daughters, she took on a family whose future was uncertain, who was breaking apart, slowly. Her entrance into our family is what has kept us together all these years.
Anne is my kids’ grandmother. My kids don’t call her a step-grandmother. She’s their “Nana.” Although my daughter knows Anne isn’t my biological mom, my daughter often says she gets her hazel eyes from Nana Anne. I cherish the connection they have — that we have.