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Oregon Family Magazine

Hiding From My Stepmother

04/29/2015 ● By Sandy Kauten
It was suppertime and my 14-year-old self was shoveling in the beef stew. Sitting between my little brother and my new stepmother, I was thinking of nothing except the next bite. My arm was a blur as I speared the chunks and crammed ‘em in.

Suddenly my forearm was seized on the up-stroke in a powerful two-handed grip. In astonishment, I looked directly into the blazing eyes of my stepmother, who growled: “Slooooww doowwn.”

The snatch had been deftly done, which only made it more shocking. And not just to me; my brothers and father stared in amazement. We Epsteins did not grab each other’s arms at dinner. In fact, apart from puppy-play among the three boys, we were not hands-on people. But a year after my mother died, my father had married someone who obviously didn’t know our unwritten rule about mealtime arm-grabbing.

Still holding my fork, along with its skewered piece of potato, I said, “OK,” and she released my arm. Let me tell you, it was a subdued fork that went back into play. The lesson in etiquette had been more than justified, but its abrupt nature was an unsettling reminder that a stranger was in our midst.

I failed to appreciate her situation: Mary Ann had lived with her mother from childhood to age 35. Then she married a man 14 years her senior and moved in with him and his boys, ranging in age from 11 to 16 – and all of us still grieving the death of our mother.

Mary Ann was a shock to our system. Our parents, descended from Norwegian Lutherans and Russian Jews, had raised us on the old-school American melting pot principle. But for Mary Ann, to assimilate was to sell out, and she wore her Irish-Catholic heritage like combat fatigues. Yet she loved all things English. Yet she was generally angry at Protestants. Yet she hated bigotry. And Germans. We had been used to parents whose worldview was easier to understand.

Liquor was another issue. My non-drinking dad kept the booze under the sink with the silver polish and drain cleaner. To Mary Ann, that was evidence that we thought we were better than everyone else. So she bought a crystal decanter, filled it with Irish whiskey and put it on permanent display in the living room. It was her way of saying: Hey! I live here, too!

Avoiding confrontation and fraternization alike, I spent most of my time out with friends or in my room.

One evening when I was about 16, Mary Ann marched into my hideout, plunked herself down beside me on my bed and said, “So. What’s the problem?”

It was as if a skeleton had dropped out of the ceiling. I managed to ask, “Huh?”

“Between us. What’s the problem?”

But a direct, honest approach only works with someone else who is direct and honest. “Nothing,” I said. “There’s no problem.” She got no satisfaction and never tried that again. It wasn’t until I had teenagers of my own that I realized adults have an interest in them that goes beyond giving them money and thwarting their desires.

Our non-judgmental cat became her best friend. When a tribe of blue jays took to pecking at him whenever he went outside, Mary Ann borrowed a neighbor’s BB gun and killed one of the birds. She left its body on the grass as a warning to the others. Her demonstration of fierce loyalty should have boosted her ratings. But we Epsteins are not fierce people, and we were mostly alarmed by the killing. I was afraid she’d begun working her way down a list. 

Mary Ann had many other good qualities. She was generous and adventurous. She had an inquiring mind and loved art and history. Best of all, she could make my dad put aside his newspaper and live a little. No matter where Dad saw himself along life’s parade route, Mary Ann’s march was just getting up to speed. They dined out with other couples, ventured to bed-and-breakfast hotels, attended concerts and even toured England.

During the 12 years of their marriage, my stepmother and I tangled occasionally. But my bottom line was that she was my father’s wife and was doing right by him. Maybe her bottom line was similar.

Because I never knew where I stood with her, I would present her with framed photos of myself on Mother’s Day and other occasions. I figured that if she liked me, these would be good gifts, and if she didn’t, the pictures would be a fitting punishment. Now I realize there is a middle ground. That’s where people of good will compromise, co-exist and maybe even grow to love each other. I never went there. Maybe Mary Ann should’ve been a little mellower, but I should’ve been a lot more flexible and compassionate.

After she died, we found a stack of those gift photos, and the sight of a dozen 8-by-10 variations of my grinning mug made me ashamed.

Of course any conciliatory gesture now would be pathetically tardy. But maybe on Mother’s Day I’ll drink a toast to Mary Ann’s brave effort. I’m sure there’s a suitable beverage under the sink. I’m thinking whiskey, not Drano. (I’m sorry, but not that sorry.)

Rick can be reached at [email protected]