August 31, 2000
According to the state of Nevada, I now have a new dad.
It's not every day your mother has a shotgun wedding at a Las Vegas chapel, so it was a special moment. Who was holding the shotgun? Uncle Sam. It was a forced wedding of the new millennium - one necessitated by tax purposes after the sale of the family home.
Still, I tried not to let that distract from the beauty of the moment. While the nonsectarian minister rushed through the vows like a spaced-out auctioneer, a pregnant bride-to-be and her kids clogged up the outside waiting room, eager for their turn. My mother, a practical woman to her core, bought the bare-bones wedding package for which the time allotment was just 15 minutes. Music not included.
As I stood at my mom's side, huge fake flowers cascading out of a large vase in front of us, there wasn't much time to get sentimental. My brother circled us with his camera, serving as both photographer and witness, and I tried to consolidate the memories I wanted to review in my head.
I was 14 when I first met Ron, the coolest cat I've ever known.
He actually uses the term "cat," as in "the cats are coming over to watch football," and gets away with it. That's how cool he is. Ron is in his late 50's now, pretty much retired from his career as a trumpet player and the person I see as an angel that was sent down from heaven to think my mom's neuroses are cute, cute, cute.
Ron just knows things. He knows how to cook a pot of chicken and dumplings so sublime it calls you from your bed in the middle of the night, fork in hand. He knows almost every classic Motown musician from the old days, having played with many of them. He has remedies for everything from a boil to a broken heart.
"Upper left-hand corner, honey. That's where a piece of music starts," he told me, while helping me pack up my belongings after a break-up a few years back. What I'd have to do is what any musician does after a mistake, take it from the top, start over, like he had done with my mom and she with him.
During the wedding, I thought about the contents of the trunk of my car on that tear-stained move-out day years ago.
Ron had packed almost everything I owned, minus the furniture, into the trunk of my car with geometric preci-sion. He didn't have to tell me there were still people who loved me or that the chaos in my life would subside, because that's what I knew when I looked into all that order, everything crammed neatly into such a small space, stacked with elegant perfection.
Most of all, Ron knows something that has eluded most people in his position: He knows how to be a good stepparent. Knowing he could never replace the closeness I have with my real dad, he didn't try. He just tried to get to know me. He didn't need to be called "dad" to act like family.
When Ron first moved in, it was a little jarring. My whole life, it had just been my mother and I. Her parenting style, a unique combination of maternal pride, intermittent hysteria and benign neglect, may not have been the best, but it was all I knew. Suddenly, there was a large Black man living in my house.
The first thing that struck me odd about Ron was not his race, but the mere fact that he actually liked me. My mother's previous boyfriends had been a dubious lot: the out-of-work poet, the portly lawyer who gave me Ernie and Bert dolls when I was long past puberty. They tolerated me, but it was clear that I was an albatross around the neck of my mother's love life. To Ron, I was like a bonus.
The relationship was given its first real test when he was witness to a battle between my mother and I so bloody it made Iwo Jima look like a thumb war. The nature of the argument was that I had neglected to fix the taillight on my car. Instead of jumping in and inserting himself as my new "dad," he quietly slunk away. Mom and I were still hurl-ing "you don't love me's" when Ron walked by and casually uttered, "The light's fixed."
He had gone to the hardware store, bought a bulb and fixed the light while my mother and I stood there yelling at each other. Now that's a cool cat.
How does a Black man fit into a Jewish family? Well, Ron's like a perfect pair of black heels or an expensive Merlot. He goes with everything. The first time he came with my mother and me to a family wedding, we looked over and saw him arm-in-arm with two older Jewish ladies. Having already mastered the hora, he was teaching them the Electric Slide.
Time was up for my mad dash down memory lane as we cleared out to make room for the next bridal party. On the way out, people stared good-naturedly as I slapped Ron on the back, saying, "Good going, dad."