by Tanya Cumberland
“Why don’t you call Aunt Samantha ‘mom’?”
The question caught me off guard, and I looked down at my step-cousin in surprise. His Aunt Samantha was my stepmother; that’s why I didn’t call her “mom.” Still, I was worried about being tactful with him. He was only about ten years old at the time and hopefully still innocent. There was no need to burden him with the messy details of my family’s situation.
“Because she’s not my mom,” I said, trying to appear calm and cool to hide how unnerved I really was. My real mother was back in the Mid-west, and I missed her. My stepmother would never replace the woman who had sacrificed so much to raise me alone after the divorce. I hoped my cousin would be satisfied with my answer and drop the subject. I was out in California visiting my stepmother’s family along with my father. There were other adults listening to our conversation, including my step-mother’s brother, which put me in a very uncomfortable situation. Who knew a fun dinner out would turn into a reminder of my family’s sliced-and-diced nature so fast?
“Still, why don’t you call her ‘mom’?” my cousin persisted.
I braced myself internally as outwardly I shrugged and looked away. My voice fell into the sing-song cadence I use with children. “Because she’s not.”
I think what helped me bite my tongue on a bitter retort was that I could see my cousin’s perspective and where he was coming from. All he knew was that my stepmother was his beloved aunt. If his aunt was married to my father, then she was my father’s wife, and thus my mother. Life obviously isn’t quite this simple sometimes, though, and I was old enough to realize that.
During the very same trip, I had another experience, but in this one my behavior was far from tactful. I was in the car with my father, stepmother, and her father. I no longer remember the topic of the conversation we were having, or the exact words of the insulting comment my father made to my stepmother, but I still remember my grim satisfaction. My irritation boiled to the surface as I thought, “Yeah, take that,” and smiled to show my approval of his hurtful words. What happened next has stayed with me these ensuing six years. I wasn’t rebuked. I wasn’t yelled at. I wasn’t scolded. It was worse.
I was sitting in the back seat behind my step-grandfather, and as I shifted my attention to the rearview mirror, his gaze met mine. I was taken aback by how filled with sadness the old eyes were. Shame filled me as I realized that I was still smiling at the comment directed at his daughter. I was sure that he saw my smile and the vindictiveness evident through my own eyes. His look had more effect on me than any scolding could have. As I was talking to my mother over the phone later about the incident and the look in his eyes, she replied, “Of course. She’s his little girl.”
These two incidents served as a lesson for me. They helped me to see my stepmother through the eyes of the family that is close to her—her nephew’s showing me an innocent, questioning gaze, and her father’s showing the hurt he felt from his daughter’s pain. She doesn’t have to replace my mother to be family. And she doesn’t have to be family to be loved and respected.