Recently my stepmother was visiting us -- one of her semi-annual pilgrimages to Connecticut to admire how different it is from Florida. We were having a wonderful time eating lunch downtown, talking full-speed about our lives when she reached over and clutched my arm. "From now on," she said, "when you introduce me to your friends, could you say that I'm your mother?" Her eyes looked too bright. "I think the word stepmother has such a bad sound to it, don't you?"
I nearly choked on my tea. It's not that I haven't wished many times that Grace was my real mother. It's just that our relationship -- ever since its tumultuous beginning when I was a teenager and she married my father -- has always been based on the most scrupulous honesty. We two are the survivors in a family of catastrophes.
"Sure," I said. But already I was lying. I knew I couldn't do it.
The fact is, I already have a mother. She and I are not particularly close, and actually I am more likely to call Grace when I have a problem to discuss or am in need of some old-fashioned mothering. But still, it is my mother whom I think of as Mom. Yet, for as long as I've been alive, it's been Grace's contention that if life had been truly fair, my mother would never have gotten into our cozy family picture. She was the understudy who somehow landed the big part.
You see, my father was in love with Grace from the time he was a kid in junior high. It wasn't exactly a foregone conclusion that they would someday grow up and marry, because she was also wildly flirtatious with his younger brother. In fact, to hear the family legend, Grace frankly was one of those women who couldn't make up her mind and was having a good time weighing her options.
But by college things were definitely going my father's way. He and Grace carried on the standard 1940s courtship: cotillion dances, trips to the countryside, church picnics. I've seen the pictures: Grace, with her shoulder-length blond pageboy and creamy white dresses, smiling; my father, tall and strong, gazing down at her, lost in love.
There wasn't even a disapproving family to contend with. Everything was in place for them to marry and begin their happily ever after together when, right after graduation, they had a lovers' quarrel, and my father was coincidentally offered a job elsewhere. He left town in anger. Maybe he thought the change of territory would do him good and help Grace see how much she missed him. Those were the days when playing hard to get was considered a worthy solution to any kind of romantic problem.
Instead, when he went to rent a room in a boarding house on his first day away from home, it was my mother who answered the door and let him in. "This," he told me once, "is how you know God has a sense of humor."
Grace would be mortified to know how often my mother and I discussed this story as I was growing up. She and I would sit on her bed, usually late at night, my mother's speech slurred by the Valium she'd taken. She was never well. She was prone to migraines and anxiety attacks, unexplained fits of hysteria where she'd throw things and scream at my father and then collapse in a heap on the kitchen floor. Several times a year, she went away to what she called the "nut ward" to get better.
But she loved the story of her triumph over Grace. "I threw open that door, and there was the most unbelievably handsome man I'd ever seen in my life," she'd say. "And he took one look at me, with my little white sandals and my toenails painted Kiss Me Pink, and I knew I had him. He was like a fish caught in the net."
Then at other times she'd say, "Grace thought she could continue to treat him mean, and that he'd always stick around. Ha! She didn't figure on him running to somebody like me. I knew just the cure for her kind of nonsense!"
She and my father were married three months from the day they met, and I was born 11 months after that. Grace wants to think that it was a dismal marriage. But it had its perky moments, as I have told her. There were lots of laughs, games of Parcheesi and Go Fish, dancing in the living room after dinner. My mother kept her figure, and her toenails were always Kiss Me Pink, and her hair whipped up into a blond bouffant. She liked parties and playing the ukulele and staying up late and playing the stereo loud. My father always seemed to be smiling -- but in all honesty I can tell Grace it was the kind of smile people give when they're shaking their heads at the same time, as if thinking, "What an unholy mess."
I saw all this. I saw my mother trying too hard, grabbing my father's hand to get him to jitterbug in the living room. I saw his pained but smiling expression, and the way her gaze always lingered on him longer than his did on her. Sometimes watching them made my heart hurt.
When I was 12, I came home one day and found another man sitting in the living room with my mother. He was "Uncle Jack," she said, in a tone of voice that was all wrong. Later that night she came into my room and said it would be best if we didn't mention Uncle Jack to Daddy.
"He knows him," she said, "but they aren't really friends. I think Daddy might get the wrong idea if he knew Uncle Jack was here."
"So, if he's my uncle, how come I never heard of him?" I said.
"Don't be a smart-ass," she told me.
A year later, when I was 13, it had all been accomplished. My father had moved across town into a furnished apartment and the divorce papers were signed and filed away. My mother and Uncle Jack had married -- we were now to call him Dad -- and we were moving across the country to California. She probably wouldn't have to go to the nut ward anymore, my mother said, gripping my arm and imploring me with her eyes to be overjoyed with the news. "I am planning to be wildly, wildly happy for the rest of my life," she said to me. "You can't deny me that, not even if you mope for the whole rest of your life." It was a whole, fresh start.
"You broke up our family because you wanted to be married to another man," I told her flatly. "It wasn't a question of not going to the nut ward anymore. You were bored with Daddy and wanted someone else."
"Your father," she informed me coldly, "has been seeing Grace for years."
We have had 30 years now to let this sift down. And it has, as family legends always do.
My mother and Uncle Dad Jack divorced some time ago when he discovered her with another man. But Jack was an alcoholic, so she said no one should blame her for bailing out. The trouble was that the other man didn't stick around either, and now she lives alone, taking medications for the migraines and the crying fits. She's still got the bright pink toenails and the blonde bouffant, but she doesn't play the ukulele anymore. And she doesn't ask me if I see Grace.
My father died several years ago, after being married to Grace for 20 years. He wrote me the year before he died that he had found the happiness with her he had sought for his whole life. "I feel with her like every day is my birthday," he said. "I just want to spend the rest of my life saying thank you to her."
I have wanted to thank her too, because of the life she made for my father and because of her tough honesty over the years -- but mostly for her willingness to reach out to me, even though I am that epitome of social catastrophes: The Daughter of the First Wife. These days Grace no longer resembles the lithe blonde she was in those dreamy 1940s pictures; she is what my husband calls "a tough old bird," with her piercing brown eyes and her honesty-at-any-cost appraisal of her life.
"I don't want the bullshit anymore," she once told me. "All that fakery and insincerity people dish out to each other. Just tell me the truth. Always the truth."
But my father's death has made her fragile. She winces now when I talk about my childhood, and I see it and think, ah, it's because my mother was there.
Today, reaching across the table, her eyes filled with mischief, she says, "It's not so far from the way it was supposed to be -- you belonging to me, I mean. Suppose you really were one of my eggs really that somehow just got mixed up and lost and landed in this other woman's uterus?"
I am the one mixed up? I want to say to her. It was me, in egg form, who somehow landed in the wrong place?
We have all seen it from our own perspectives. There have been times, thinking about this huge complicated family romance, that I have seen Grace's fickleness as the root of the problem, the cause that drove a wedge between my father and her and prevented their early happiness. Then, at other times, I have thought life could have been so happy had my mother not been such a spatula-throwing screamer, waking the family up in the night with her howls of regret. I don't see it this way now, but there were years when I thought that my father could have loved her if only she could have settled herself down just a bit, developed some Grace-like serenity.
Today, though, I think of my father taking a three-month vacation from his intended life and finding himself on a 13-year train that derailed all his future plans. Has he no responsibility here, marrying a woman he knew he did not love and leaving behind the one he knew that he did? Did he think he could really get away with that, just tucking that feeling away somewhere and basing a whole life on the hope that it would never resurface?
Then I remember that these three were merely 20-year-olds when all these momentous decisions were made: 20-year-olds raised on jitterbug and hard-to-get games, with no consciousness at all of what it was to live by one's own truth. Grace's eyes remind me of my mother's, when she'd look at my father across the rolled-up living room rug, as though she were saying, "Let's pretend you are mine. Let's pretend she never even crossed your mind."
I reach over and squeeze Grace's hand. "I love you," I say to her. Because it is true and because maybe that is all any of us has ever needed.