Fears and events and prayers, Part I

by Jennifer on February 29, 2008

The Prologue (or, a rationalization): I’ve decided it might be helpful for the sake of past and future posts to give you some background about the important characters in my life. After all these years, I feel I can tell my story with some perspective and even a shadow of compassion. The purpose isn’t to make anyone accountable. We’re long past that.

My past influences the themes in my book, so writing about it here is not much different than there, if you subtract the fictionalization (though I do see the distinction). That said, the people in my family have a general and, I think, accurate sense of where they fit into my life. Whether they’re in or they’re out, and for what reasons. In a few cases, it’s been a bit ambiguous over time, but less so in recent years. No one on the perimeter of my life will read this, and if you know me well, you know them already. I’ve changed the names, and I will be as fair as I can–and as brief.

And it comes to you all of a sudden:
That was it! And you arise, for you are
aware of a year in your distant past
with its fears and events and prayers.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

The Beginning

Jennifer and Ducky, 1973, on a visit with our motherThe following is probably true about the genesis of any number of families: When my father met my stepmother, beer played a big part.

It was 1972, and from what I understand, it was impossible to get Coors beer where we lived in southwest Missouri–but you could get it over the border in Kansas. One week, someone made a beer run (my father? a friend?), and that’s how he came to be sitting on the back of his car in our driveway, drinking Coors beer, when she walked by on the way to the pool, wearing a bikini. Not long before, she had moved from Colorado, home of Coors. It was her favorite, and he offered to share.

Even though I know it’s not an original tale, I find it a bit embarrassing that all of the events of the rest of my childhood rested on this rough, elemental moment. Beer, and a bikini. Every other weekend, my dad might have been drinking Schlitz, for all I know. But not that day. Is that all it comes down to? A beer run? A hot day and thirst? One thing done, or not done? I know that’s how it is, but I’m not sure I like it.

The next February, on Valentine’s Day, my father married Sue in the office of a justice of the peace. She wore a blue dress. Sleeveless, polyester, and with a good amount of extra fabric through the middle, to accommodate her 7-months-pregnant belly.

In my next memory of that time, I remember walking down the hall toward her, and calling out her name to ask her a question. I was four years old. She was loading clothes into the washing machine at the end of the hall, and she stopped and turned to face me.

What did you just call me?”

“Sue?” I repeated, my voice uncertain now. The feeling in my gut told me I had done something very wrong.

“You are to call me Mommy. Do you understand?” The look in her eyes was both fierce and cold, a combination not everyone can pull off.


“Yes, what?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

The word felt strange to say, almost like it was nothing. Like a piece of tissue stuck to the roof of my mouth that would disintegrate at any moment. A notion, not even a real word. But no matter how odd it felt to me, or how transient, the word was mine. It did not belong to her, and I didn’t want her to have it.

I had a mommy, already. And Sue was not my mother.

That mommy lived in Kansas, and she wasn’t coming back. By then, I knew that much. Though I hoped. For years, I would hope.

At least a year, and maybe two, had passed since my mother left my father. Since she left my sister and me. We saw her a handful of times before my father married Sue, and would see her again two or three times after. The last time, I was six. (The photo above is of my sister and me on one of our last visits with our mother.)

After that, she stopped visiting. By all accounts, my father and Sue didn’t make it easy for her to see us, or even to talk to us on the phone. My mother told me 14 years later, when we made contact again, that she came to town for my 5th birthday, but wasn’t allowed to see us.

So she did try. And then she didn’t anymore. She went on to have three more children, from two other marriages and another relationship. I think my father told me, though the context of that conversation is a little blurry. (I remember trying to give off an air of interest without showing that I cared about this piece of information.) Was it out of the blue, or was he trying to let us know that she had moved on? That she had other responsibilities now? And other children she didn’t leave behind. Whether he meant it that way (though I believe he did), that was how I understood it.

My siblings, strangers in every way though the same blood ran through us all, became a mystery. To me, their existence was no more solid than a thought or a fluff of dandelion seed floating away from me.

It would be years, decades really, before I would understand all that happened in those early years. Who said what, who did what. Why. The stories would untangle and I would separate them into clear paths. This led to this. And this to that. It would all become clear.

Or it will. Any day now.

My sister, who you will recognize as Ducky in the comments (and from the photo above), posted this essay today over at Hints and Guesses. She adds her own slant on our stepmother’s nature, and explains a nickname that came to her just this morning.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

marlee February 29, 2008 at 7:43 pm

My heart is totally broken for that little girl. My son is four now and I cannot *imagine* what the pain would be like for him in a situation similar to yours.

What a strong woman you have become!


Brenda February 29, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Can you believe I didn’t know the beer story? Actually I can. I’m sure it was swept aside by certain adults, not told to others (who would have told), and forced way back into the far reaches of the beings of your sister and you so that it wouldn’t be spoken aloud when it could damage their reputation.

I have to go back to a comment in a previous post–the fiction one. That you could read religious fiction. It is always so astounding to find some of the people with the blackest hearts for some reason need to put on a religious act. Why is that? Does it somehow make them feel better about themselves? If they can convince the world that they are pure and pious (probably only you–and your sister–can imagine the difficulty with which I type those words about Sue and relatives, even though I know the context), does that help them convince themselves that they are not bad? That they are not so selfish that they refuse to see beyond any action of theirs? That they might even be good? I never understand that.

As usual, this post was quite well-written. I like that you boiled it all down to beer and a bikini. How often I wonder how the course of my life would have been different if just for one different decision. Usually I don’t want to think about the other way–knowing it would have HAD to be much worse because I have so little to complain about right now. BUT…. something like that. Who knows how life may have been different…. and likely a hell of a lot more pleasant. Makes you wonder why.

But I’m one of those who believe there is a reason most of the time. Not always, but most of the time. Maybe in some sick, twisted, worldly way, part of the reason is who you have become. There is no way to know who you would be had you lived through a “normal” (whatEVER that is) childhood. I’m sure I would still love you and we would “get” each other. But maybe some of that was to build you into something even better than you could have otherwise been. Maybe not. But at this end of it, you have taken the garbage and have done a damn good job of not letting that continue in the lives of your children and those around you. You are a joy to those who know you. You’re funny. You’re thoughtful. You’re compassionate. You’re beautiful. You would probably be all those things anyway, but you have taken your past and let it give you a depth of character that most have to earn–it’s not just in us.

I’m looking forward to parts 2 and beyond. I wonder what else I’ll learn?

p.s. CUTE picture. So glad you have it!


McSwain February 29, 2008 at 9:12 pm

A haunting tale, and well-told. Bet that novel’s going to be a good one!


flutter February 29, 2008 at 11:40 pm

This just kicked my ass.


dragonfly March 1, 2008 at 12:09 am

Beer and a bikini.

It makes me so sad that your mom wasn’t allowed to see you..

Disjointed comments because I don’t know quite what to say. I look forward to reading more..


JCK March 1, 2008 at 12:39 am

Jennifer, this was really painful to read. Knowing that little girl was you. I am sad for her, but excited that you can use the pain from the past to bring bounty forward into a novel.


Slow Panic March 1, 2008 at 6:31 am

I barely could get past the beginning. I don’t know how you are writing this. Wish I could fly out and give you a big hug right now.


Ducky March 1, 2008 at 8:08 am

See how light our hair was then?

We’re still laughing about the wings.

And for all we know, beer may have played a part in my own conception. You could ask.

I just thought of the funniest title for her: “Hitler with a Heart of Gold.”


Jennifer March 1, 2008 at 8:34 am

Ducky, I’m surprised no one thought of that one before now. Because it’s so freaking funny.


Landon March 1, 2008 at 8:51 am

I agree with what Brenda said about the possibility that the reason you endured all that was to create the person you are now. I’ve told you before that I think who you are as a mother (kind, patient, quick to laugh) is a result of the way you were raised. You are the mother you should have had. How lucky your kids are!


Melissa March 1, 2008 at 10:23 am

Wow. That’s so sad, really. I think you’re amazing to pull through and become the mom you are today. Way to go!


cce March 1, 2008 at 11:32 am

This is so tough to fathom, as a mother of two. But writing is good therapy. You’re brave to share so much of this. Writers can only write what they know.


Autumn March 1, 2008 at 11:46 am

You really are an amazing writer.

This was a hard read, knowing this was your life, and not something written out of imagination. You are a very courageous woman to put it all out there for the world to see, and better than I ever could be about not laying blame and writing fairly. And even more so for breaking a cycle that so many have no clue how to escape. Brava!


Tootsie Farklepants March 1, 2008 at 12:51 pm

I cried when I read, “[Mommy] the word was mine. It did not belong to her, and I didn’t want her to have it.”


Emily March 1, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Thank you for sharing this. I pause and think of all the weak parents in the world.


Sandy (Momisodes) March 1, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Goodness….that is an incredible post. Well written and so moving… Thank you for sharing this….


HRH March 1, 2008 at 2:45 pm

Thank you for writing this. I look forward to reading more even though…


Angela March 1, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Oh, so good that you got to keep your sister through it all, yes?


Mrs. G. March 1, 2008 at 8:39 pm

We are going to have to go out for margaritas soon. We have a lot in common.


liv March 1, 2008 at 9:30 pm

when i hear stepmother stories, i wonder about women. i wonder how we, as humans, can be so unbelievably and unbearably cruel.

i hope that if i ever ascend the ranks to stepmotherhood, i’ll be a sweet one.


Lisa Tobin March 2, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Oh-you must write that novel! It was gripping!
My husband has made lots of realizations about what he thought of his childhood and what was really happening–surprise, it also involved alcohol…
Loved this!


Blooming Desertpea March 3, 2008 at 5:59 am

This phenomenon called stepmother is still a huge mystery to me. Why is it so difficult to be nice to stepchildren? Why why why!!


Red Flashlight March 7, 2008 at 7:50 am

This post is a perfect snapshot. It resonates deeply because it feels so clean. You’ve left out the gory details, allowing the reader to imagine them by giving us just the right few.

The several times I’ve sat myself down to write my own tale I always always disintegrate into a rant-fest complete with bawling and screaming at people who aren’t here anymore.

Getting past the anger feels like an unknowable ko-an. So I just accept the anger and move on. I’ve given up thinking I could tell my story because I feel the anger gives me shackles of incompetence.

What have you done to get past it? Is that what also allows you to be ‘funny, thoughtful, compassionate and beautiful?’

I want to be funny, thoughtful, compassionate and beautiful, too!


Crazycath March 10, 2008 at 7:05 am

Came over to part two from David McMahon’s authorblog – so glad I read this first. Off to read part 2.


Julie October 2, 2008 at 7:03 pm

I had been left outside in my snowsuit by my dad at a very young age while my mom was at a cermics class and made to feel like it was ok.
Then taken to sit oustside a state prison as i awaited to be taken in as a “baD Kid” as my dad told me as i had sworn at my younger brother!]
I have 4 children of my own now and know that I have to forgive him for he did the best he knew how with the knowledge he was given!
But Good God!!!


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