June 23, 2005
The Evil Stepmother Dies
The aftermath of a real-life fairy tale, without the scripted ending.
What do you do when you lose someone? Someone you really hated?
It's a little awkward, I'll tell you that much. Last month, my stepmother of more than 25 years died at age 67 of lung cancer. It was a terrible death, one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, which, incidentally, she was.
What was my grudge? I hadn't seen her since I was 17, the day I vowed I'd never see her again -- dead or alive. That was the day she hid a piece of her jewelry, a brooch shaped like a bumblebee, and tracked me down at a crowded Santa Rosa public tennis court to accuse me of stealing it while my brother and father looked on.
But that is just the end of the story. The beginning is this: She never spoke to me directly, only in the third person, as in "Teresa is getting fat. Teresa looks dirty today. Has she been playing outside? Teresa has no table manners."
It's difficult to exaggerate her malevolence. The woman repeatedly suggested I was adopted when we were alone together, which she denied doing in front of other people. She was the Great Santini in a denim wrap skirt and espadrilles.
Better yet: She was the fairy-tale evil stepmother.
The question is: What happens to the story when the villain dies?
Once when I was 8 years old, I caught the flu and couldn't get out of bed. She didn't feed me for two days while my dad was at work, oblivious. I was so scared of her, I didn't even tell him. This is a woman who once told me, "You should never wear your seatbelt. They don't work."
There are other stepparents who suck, I'm sure; mine was just one of them.
She didn't want me around since the day she met me at age 3, and she made sure I knew it. In turn, I fantasized she would step off a curb and be hit by a Mack truck.
I only saw her when I visited my dad once a month, taking the bus from San Francisco, where I lived with my mom. But that visit was more than enough to coat my childhood with a gummy film of dread.
Why did she hide that brooch? My guess is that she was angry my dad took us kids to play tennis that Sunday morning. She felt excluded and restless. So, she made a move that seemed logical to a jealous wacko, hiding jewelry to accuse her stepchild of stealing it. This was her pattern. If fun was being had -- my dad and I listening to poetry records from the library, my brother and I watching an especially funny "Gomer Pyle" -- she would find a way to stop the amusement.
Judaism tells us to "honor thy father and mother." But where does that leave someone in my shoes? Trying to think this through, I began speed dialing local rabbis.
"Tradition teaches you have to respect a stepparent, as part of honoring your parent. However, you needed to self-preserve, " Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, of Temple Sinai, told me over the phone. "God doesn't want us to be violently damaged, not our physical selves, not our souls."
This underlines what I already believed: Shaking my stepmother loose was the best thing I ever did.
As for my dad, I wish he had defended me that day or any other day. But to believe me over her would have meant kicking her out, overhauling his life, cooking his own meals, being alone. It also would have meant admitting that his mate was cruel to his kids, had always been, and that he'd allowed it.
Easier to look the other way and hope for the best.
My dad and I remained close all those years I never spoke to her, and that always surprises people. He was generous in letting me have my grudge. He may well have known my stepmother richly deserved it. He would drive hours to see me because I wouldn't go over to his house. My stepmother hated everyone in our family, so I never ran into her at gatherings. She was easy to avoid.
Now that she's gone, my dad calls me in Los Angeles almost every day, and he doesn't back down from his support of his wife.
"She was the smartest woman," he told me over the phone. "Life was never boring with her. I was just a dumb kid and she taught me everything."
She was 8 years older than my dad and had bookcases full of psychology books from all the community college classes she took. She never earned a degree, but she was happy to diagnose all of our mental problems. Maybe he found that helpful. And maybe she was intelligent -- odious and diabolical -- but intelligent.
In a sense, my stepmother was a good influence. Shame and the hunch that you are internally mangled really can give you a strong work ethic. I've spent most of my adult life trying to prove how wrong she was about me -- my lack of talent, my lack of beauty and manners, even my kleptomania, which she invented.
During almost every conversation, my dad now says, "Teresa, I'm not going to be with any more crazy women."
Because of my stepmother's unfortunate spending-to-earning ratio, and her yearlong illness, my dad now rents out a room in his house and drives a bicycle. Still, he wasn't a victim. He was a volunteer.
Whatever his reasons for staying with my stepmother, none of them will ever be good enough for me. But after hours on the couches of nurturing women with amber beads and hyphenated names and advanced degrees, I stopped being mad at my dad for failing to protect me. The feeling was just gone one day, like an ache in your shoulder or a crick in your neck you barely remember having once it goes.
I can lather up resentment for a long line at Starbucks, but I'm all done being pissed off at my dad, or trying to figure him out.
When my stepmother died, it was redundant. To me, she was already gone. Still for my dad, it was a devastating loss. Which makes this a complicated situation. The graceful thing is to listen, be supportive, tell him he'll be OK, give him books about grief and even copy edit his JDate profile, all of which I've done. "My wife recently died [cancer]" is just not what chicks dig in an Internet profile and I was there to correct it.
While I might be tempted to blurt out, "Ding dong the witch is dead!" I don't. To me, there is no sense in respecting the dead just because they happen to be dead, but there is something sacred in respecting the living, in this case my dad, who needs me and whom I couldn't love more, despite his questionable taste in partners.
"You are obligated to honor your father," Rabbi Brad Shavit Artson, head of the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, told me, reassuringly. "But you're not obligated to lie, or to be a doormat, just to be a grown-up. This isn't the time to unburden yourself of your true feelings about your stepmother, but to shut up and be his help, make sure he eats and sleeps, be compassionate. That's all Judaism requires of you."
Because keeping my mouth shut is the most mature thing I've ever done, I want to follow Artson's directive. To that end, I've asked my dad not to read this particular piece.
As it happens, I had two stepparents. My mother also had remarried. Earlier this year, my stepfather died, which was like losing a parent, because he was good to me and I admired him. I figure when it comes to losing stepparents, this year I broke even.
Although we offered, neither my brother nor I attended our stepmother's funeral. Dad insisted he didn't want us to fly all that way.
A few weeks later, when the commotion ebbed and the grief set in, my dad invited us for a weekend visit. Our plan was to cheer my dad up, take him hiking and to the movies.
That's how I ended up back in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, in the damp house I hadn't seen for years. I stayed in the old utility room where I used to sleep with whatever hunkering golden retriever they had at the time. Just being there reminded me of how terrified I had been of her. I still had the sense that at any moment she was going to barge in and shout, "Teresa left crumbs on the counter! She needs to get out here now!"
My stepmother never worked at a paying job a day in her life, and had the tawny, crinkled skin of a woman who gardens a lot. As mean and squinty as her eyes were when directed my way, they were green and pretty, homecoming-queen eyes. Although my stepmother was always gaining and losing the same 40 pounds, to me she was all beefy shoulders and sinister stockiness. I have no idea how tall she really was, because in my mind, she was as fearful and looming as a defensive tackle, leaning her elbow in my doorway, impassable.
My stepmonster may be incinerated, but she still gives me the stone-cold willies.
The only perspective being an adult gives me is that she must have been really screwed up. Miserable and screwed up. Conventional wisdom and pop psychology suggest I suck it up and forgive her, but Judaism does not, Artson said.
The need to categorically forgive, he said, "is a lie we get from a weird, watered-down Christianity. It's not a Jewish teaching. In Judaism, we're only obligated to forgive someone who seriously apologizes and repents."
I'm embarrassed to admit this, but during her last weeks of life, I really thought she was going to make amends. Every day, I waited for that "sorry call," but it never came. She still owes me an apology and it's going to be pretty hard to collect now. Being in her dwelling without unleashing the full force of my resentment was like making a fist and digging my nails into my palms for three days.
The hallway was painted a sort of art deco dusty pink. That has to be one of her colors, I thought, and even though her belongings were mostly gone, her handprints were everywhere.
At one point, I noticed a Chupa Chups-brand canister decorated in a cow pattern, which looked like it could contain a large number of gourmet lollipops. It was propped against the wall by the front door. I figured it must be something a friend dropped by, because my dad doesn't have a sweet tooth. Every time we went in or out the door, there it was, this bizarrely cheerful candy tin on the floor.
As I was brushing my teeth one night, I suddenly recalled my dad telling me about my stepmother's cremation, how he hadn't scattered her ashes yet, that they both agreed not to waste money on a formal funeral or an urn. I distinctly recalled my dad saying how pricey urns are and how cruel the funeral industry is to prey on the mourning. I flashed back to the big cow-colored canister in the corner. Those weren't lollipops. Those were evil stepmommipops.
What happens to the story when the villain dies?
For me, it's been about my dad, about biting my tongue in his presence while still holding on to one unswerving truth; I didn't want her to suffer, but I don't miss her. And that's just going to have to be fine.
The Talmud says, "The world is like an inn; the world to come a home." Although I wish we hadn't been checked into the same inn, I hope she is home. I notice the Talmud says nothing about spending the hereafter in a gourmet lollipop tin, but I'm sure she'll eventually be scattered, ashes gusting up off some mountain as my dad and his latest golden retriever look on.
Here's the thing about villains; no matter how far they scatter, they also stick.
All of the rabbis I spoke with said the same thing. We don't have to forgive, but for our own good, we should try.
But what about that temptation I feel to do a happy dance instead of mourn? That can't be appropriate.
"Mourn the relationship that should have been," said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. "Sit down with a glass of wine and ask yourself, how nice would it have been if she had been supportive, protective, fun to be with?"
"Rabbi," I said, "that's what I did all of my 20s."
He paused and said, "Do it again."
Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award and L.A. Press Club-winning writer. She's on the Web at teresastrasser.com