jeudi 17 février 2011

Stephearts and Valentines

My recent reading material
(Flora McEvedy's book is terrific, by the way)

I have been reading. A lot.

And I have been thinking. Even more.

I grew up a child with a mother and a father, and a stepchild with a stepmother and a stepfather. I am now an adult with another parental divorce under my belt, resulting in another stepmother, who has grandchildren. That's manageable, though, since my first stepmother wasn't very interested in the job. Neither was my father in his, for that matter. At least not with the children from his first marriage. His own stepdaughter from his second wife's first marriage and daughter from his second marriage were another story, however.

Following me still? I suspect it's easier and easier to follow these divorce-split family trees. The forest is growing since parents haven't really gotten that much better at marriage since I was a kid, but haven't given up on it altogether, either, and more and more of us needed extra holidays at school to celebrate (or not) all of the adults who participated (or didn't, finally) in our parenting, and extra sheets of paper to get all those branches in.

Given the weakness of the branches of my own family tree with its split trunk, it is perhaps not surprising that I crashed through into the branches of another similarly broken family tree, although you would think I might have been smarter. The single life was not all that bad in hindsight, which, as we all know, is 20/20, but hope springs eternal and somehow we seem driven to move into the married state. I am now the wife of a husband with two exes and stepmother to five children, ranging in age at the time I married him from five to nineteen; three from his first marriage, and two from the relationship that followed.

In the months before we finally left the States for our new home in France, my son asked me one day, "OK. So, if the oldest are 16, 18 and 19, and the youngest are 8 and 5, then I will be in the middle, right?" We were both enthusiastic about our anticipated Brady Bunch family. I believed I was prepared.

Had I not, after all, voluntarily participated in a number of sessions of family and individual therapy over the course of my post-parental divorce life? Had I not read many books prior to my last shopping spree on for literature on the stepfamily? Had I not survived, thrived (after a manner), and even managed single-parenting rather well? Had I not known my husband for many years before we married? Were we not two intelligent and loving people surrounded by friends and family?

Or, was not that just the problem?

If stepfamilies are a special challenge, they are not all equal, and after my latest reading I have realized that if the challenges they throw at you can be measured on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a walk in the park and 10 being stepfamily hell, ours isn't even described in the books. Vague reference is made to that sort of situation, The stepfamily that cannot be named. You can feel the author tremble and shy away from going there.

Those of us who have, however, found ourselves there are left in Hansel and Gretel's forest, not Pooh Bear's Hundred Acre Wood. We have a choice, though: we can succumb to our fear and despair, or we can find our inner Frodo. To escape my own early adolescent stepfamily forest, I walked to school many a winter morning, pretending the hair on my toes meant I was a Hobbit, and I could manage my way along the wood on the way to the middle school, walking absolutely silently in my mother's old red leather clogs. You can be at peace in a forest, if you go deep into yourself.

And so I waited for my newest books to arrive, and then I read, made notes and underlined text, looking for the crumbs that would lead me onto the path out of the forest and to a home, sweet home. I was full of the inspiration, guidelines and support I felt I needed to better take on my stepdaughter's residence in our home, and so I fell from my fragile branch hard when she shook our tree with all her adolescent might Valentine's Day. I had (I had read) done so many things more right than my husband believed. What had gone wrong? I asked myself, driving aimlessly from village to village in the dark, wondering if Formula 1 accepts dogs as well as reservations and credit cards in the slot at the door.

You fell for it again, said my saner, more realistic self. The one who saves me on a regular basis from myself, the one who thinks I am all powerful. You believed that you were powerful enough to make up for all the evil of "the bio-maman who cannot be named". You alone cannot. You with the rest of the world combined probably couldn't either.

See? It was true. I had wanted to step in and make everything better, including things no one can make better for one's stepchild because we are the stepparent, and yet we have to try and do our part, as awful as it makes us feel most days, and as badly as it shakes our family tree on the worst of them.

You cannot take the place of her mother, as wonderful as that would be for everyone. And, you do have to go home and face it with your husband, just like Sam said, said my sane self, very calmly.

I had driven from the house, dogs and their food and measuring cups added for additional proof that I really did mean to leave. I did. I really wanted to. I have really wanted to more times than I can count, and the urge gets stronger and stronger. It has become a full-fledged fantasy in vivid color and detail. I can see it. I almost know exactly how I would do it. Rapide was whimpering alone in the back end, and Fia was sliding back and forth with each turn on the leather backseat, trying to keep her head on my coat for a pillow, while I felt colder and colder in my shirtsleeves.

I had not packed nor dressed appropriately to run away from home. I had also, I realized, forgotten the dog food bowls.

That was when my cell phone started to make the bleating sound it does when the battery is about to die. I had failed to foresee this, too.

I held it in my hand and thought about who I could call and where I could go. I was dressed badly, had no luggage and two dogs. The choices were not many. Worse, support among friends and family for our monstrous stepfamily has been thin. From those who probably believe I deserve everything I am getting for making his ex miserable (it's her fault) to those who don't, but who do enjoy thinking that my dynamisme and positive, up-beat self will be more than enough to see me through the roughest patches of the deepest, darkest forest with aplomb and scarcely a scratch in my nail polish (works wonders to keep me from trying to cry on their shoulders), that didn't leave anyone, really, to call. So, I did what was left to do; I began crying. Hard.

I cried through Bennecourt and La Roche-Guyon, and on into Vétheuil. Rapide whimpered along, and Fia went on sliding back and forth on the backseat as I wound through the country road, the ronds-points and the sharper turns in the old villages, confounded by her cheerful and confident mistress' newly discovered misery.

I found myself in a parking lot in Vétheuil by accident, having missed the turn onto the main road.

You'd better watch it. You could have gotten hit from the side there, you know, and you have already been rear-ended tonight, said myself, as I looked around the parked cars blankly, wondering how I had managed not to even see the road.

"I am sure that had there been a car, with its lights on no less, coming from my right, I'd have noticed the road," I said, pretty defensively.

Maybe that was what shook me out of my pity party, but as I drove out of the village and up the steep hillside toward Fontenay-Saint-Père, I became calm. I love that rise up out of the valley of the Seine and onto the ridges that line it, like the crests of so many waves along the beach. From there, you can see the points of yellow light, gathered together into clumps, villages made distinguishable in the night. Each point of yellow light a window, with a life behind, or a street lamp, lighting pavement and homes.

My phone rang. I looked at the screen and heard it bleat its warning, "Appel Sam".

"Hi, Sam," I said in my most welcoming and upbeat voice. "What's up?" I could sense Fia relaxing, reassured by the return of the mistress she knew and trusted, while Rapide turned the volume up on her whining. Sam wasn't buying it either.

"Audouin told me you had a fight." My Disney facade crumpled.

"Oh. He did? How did he do that?"

"I called to see what happened with the woman who ran into us after I left you with her to get my train, and he told me."


"That was really nice of you to call to check in and see how things went, Sam," I said, very sincerely touched by the sign that I might be at least a fairly good mother. My phone bleated loudly again. "My phone battery is about to die any second," I added.

"I know. I can hear it," he said.

In the end, it took 50 minutes for it to die, and I listened to my son's wisdom, good advice and realized that when I had cried thinking I could not ask for support, my need was heard. The exact right person called. That is a magic road for me.

As it turned out, he was the one my husband had thought to call when he needed support, only Sam saved him the call by calling at that moment himself to see how things had gone for me, and my husband told him. He hoped, he said later, that my son would call me. He thought, he said, that if I saw his name on my cell phone, I would answer. He was right.

"Et il m'a rappelé pour me dire que tu as oublié ton chargeur de portable, alors je pouvais compter que tu rentrais à la maison," he said, a grin starting to play at his lips. A little prematurely for my taste.

My son called him back after my phone went dead to tell him that I wasn't, and that I had forgotten my cell phone charger, so he could be sure I'd be coming home. My son had the wisdom not to share this with me. This is a truth about my marriage: my husband lacks this wisdom.

I did not drive straight home, though. I went and got gas and drove toward home, choosing to head up the ridge toward Bonnières and on to Vernon, Saint Marcel, Gaillon, Les Andelys and up the ridge to the ruined château, through Hennezis, Notre-Dame-de-l'Isle, Vernon again (the other side of the Seine), and Giverny.

Think about it, said my saner self, tourists from the world round come here just to see Monet's garden, and you get to live here nearby in France and drive through the middle of it when your world crashes down around you.

That was a way to think about it. It was, oddly, cheering. At least there were no lines.

I turned after Giverny and drove on to Villetz-Limetz, back to Bennecourt and over the bridge into Bonnières. I considered one last time the option of the Formula 1 over by the highway, temped by the idea of a room of one's own.

If they do have a no-dogs policy and there happens to be someone from the normally non-existent staff right there in the entry, you know Rapide will never move quickly enough to get past them unnoticed, said my reasonable self.

"Fia would. Maybe Rapide could stay in the car?"

Myself squinted at me. Rapide had finally quieted down and was snoring away in the back end, Fia was out like a light on my boiled-wool coat on the back seat, rocked to sleep by all those sliding turns, and I had turned the heat way up to stay warm.

You'd have to deal with getting back out again in the morning. Besides, you're almost home. It is your home, you know. Go to it.

"May I sleep in the guest room in the petite maison?"

Yes. You may sleep in the guest room.


I heard my husband clear his throat up in our room as I hastened the dogs across the terrace below, trying not to be heard. Rapide didn't get it, of course, why we were going into the petite maison, into a room normally off-limits to her no less, and I had to hiss, "Rapide, viens ici! Maintenant!" while Fia decided she had to drink from the old fountain-become-a-fish-pond. Noisily.

"Fia!" I hissed again, scaring Rapide away, "viens ici!"

They both trotted off to pee, or poop. Something. I heard paws scratching the dead leaves and moss-filled grass. I was exasperated. I was going to get found out and have to face my husband before whenever I would decide to do that.

"Fia! Rapide! Venez ici. Allez! Al-lez!" They pushed past me, two confused (one aggitated) dogs.

Rapide never really did calm down. She wanted to be in there. In the big house. Where she always sleeps at home. Fia gave me until nearly full light before climbing up on to the bed to cuddle.

Then, I faced my husband.

It was sad. Life settled sadly back into its tracks. I went to the grocery store in the evening, and I bought -- groceries. It was the day after Valentine's Day. Leaving my distraught husband in the dark in the middle of the garden the night before between his hysterical daughter and his furious wife, bereft of all happiness, I had shouted back over my shoulder, "Bon Saint Valentin!"

In the supermarket, I reached for a tablet of baking chocolate and headed for the cake decorations. I would buy a tube of that stuff with which you can write on a cake, and I would make a heart. A broken heart. I would rewrite and represent our household rules, and I would present the cake, offering her the tube with which to draw the lines to repair the heart.

That's kind of dumb, said myself. I mean, it's pretty out there symbolism. No one could fail to get it, and, well, it could backfire.

I thought about it. Quite a few minutes, squatting there in the day's "Madame la présidente" ensemble. I had had a meeting. At least I was presentable. That's cheering, even emboldening.

"I know. But maybe this is a symbol my husband would appreciate, even if his daughter rejects it," I said, putting the tube of glittery pink stuff into my shopping basket and heading for the check-out lines.

When I got home, there were red tulips on the table that I hadn't noticed earlier in the afternoon, when he had returned from the garden center with the fat wood for the wood stove. They were for me.

I checked.

Then, his son sprang on him that the message that he was not going out this evening had not sunk in and he did expect to be driven to his party. I supported my husband, explaining to my stepson -- following all the breadcrumbs the books describe with great care -- why it was important that he spend some evenings at home with us, and I supported my stepson, explaining to my husband why it wasn't reasonable to tell him that he couldn't go to a friend's 18th birthday party just because he needed to spend some quality stepfamily time at home.

My husband got the keys and drove him to his party, accompanied by his younger daughter, and I got busy on the cake.

The presentation of the household rules went down with great adolescent disdain. Undaunted, I pulled the cake out of the cupboard and set it in front of her after dinner. She squeezed her lips to suppress a smile, doing her best to look like it was the stupidest thing she had ever seen, and my husband practically emitted light, so much was he beaming.

"C'est quoi?" I asked her.

"Un coeur," she said.

"Un coeur fendu." A broken heart, added my husband, glancing up to me, "Un beau symbol."

"Tu veux le réparer avec ça?" I asked, holding the tube of glittery pink stuff out to her.

"Non," she said, shaking her head, determined not to give a centimeter.

My husband reached for the tube and began to squeeze glittery pink stuff onto the cake, connecting the broken lines. He got the top right, and then he connected the wrong ones at the bottom.

"Pas là," chided my stepdaughter, taking the tube from his hand. "Tu as fait les mauvaises lignes. C'est ici," she said, connecting the lines at the bottom to make the heart's point.

We don't know if she is still actually living with us (she moved in in early December and more or less out after my husband's last dispute royale with her mother two weeks ago, over discontinuing the child support for her, naturellement; it was her mother who practically begged us to take her, after all) or her mother (my husband says with us, bien sur, and she isn't pronouncing anything very clear), but a custody battle appears to be rising along with the bad moon.

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