After 30 years of absence, my stepmother has parachuted back into my life. I know, it’s hard to keep up with my family drama. But stay with me here: I learned something.
Rewind to 1967, when I was 10, crunching barefoot across the shards of a childhood shattered by my parents’ divorce. For years afterward, my mother was unable to get out of bed, leaving me to pack my younger sister’s lunch and take care of dinner.
So imagine how I felt when a glamorous, stable British lady appeared on the arm of the father I worshipped. Imagine what I replied when he asked if I (but, unfortunately, not my sister) wanted to live with them once they married. Imagine how I thought I was going to heaven. But what I got was a private hell.
My stepmother’s father had left when she was born, so she couldn’t comprehend my relationship with my dad; she told our family therapist that I made her feel competitive. The rest of her emotions were buried beneath a bulletproof British veneer. Dinner table banter often dissolved into a cultural showdown, once prompting me to ask, “If everything British is so much better, why are you living in America?”
I was sent to boarding school to help save their marriage, but they soon divorced. When my father married again, my now ex-stepmother called to enlist me on her side, but I refused. For the next 30 years, we never communicated.
A few months ago, she tracked me down by e-mail. In her seventies, she is a practicing psychologist in Europe. Her mother and sister have passed away, and she never had kids. She said old photos had prompted her to get in touch. When I replied that I’d found life with her to be “harsh,” her e-mails stopped for a few weeks. “That word took my breath away,” she later wrote, saying she’d been unprepared for parenting another woman’s child and for life with a man who, in her words, wouldn’t “allow” her to have children of her own. “That’s what we fought most about,” she told me, something I’d never known. Today she phones me and prattles on about British gossip, and I no longer flinch. The silly judgmentalism that used to tear deep into my heart, as if she were slighting me personally, makes me laugh out loud. That paternalistic word allow threw a rope bridge across the chasm between our lives; I’d never imagined that this tough, intimidating woman could have suffered equally under my father’s autocratic regime.
Have you found a new connection with someone you’d given up on? Tell me about it here in the comments section below.
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