This morning my father called from across the country to tell me that his wife of 40 years — my stepmother since I was 10 — had passed away.
The chemotherapy for her cancer proved too much.
This woman was the first person who ever showed me what real work is. She had been raised as poor as poor gets in northern rural Minnesota; farm people who dig at ice and pray it grows food. At 15 she ran away from home to Minneapolis; two days into that unimagineably big city and she had herself a full-time job as a secretary: She looked 18, was deadly beautiful, and smarter than any four people combined. And she knew enough about how the world worked to start making it work for her for a change.
She must have been around 30 when she married my dad in 1968. When they met, my dad was already divorced from my mother. He was a Big Deal Actor in the San Francisco Bay Area, which even then was famous for the quality and diversity of its regional theater. He was a leading leading man, looking majestically cool in his black turtlenecks and sideburns; she was — as people who were in their 30’s in 1968 still tended to think of it — a real bombshell.
She took an acting class he was teaching, and was smitten.
“The minute I saw your father,” she once told me, “I swooned. Swooned! I simply could not believe my eyes. He was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen.” She pulled in her breath. “And when I found out he was single?” She stared at me, meaning to convey the enormity of her incredulity, and I saw flashing in her eyes that same resolve that had once set her walking away from her family’s land toward a life she knew could only be better. “Well,” she said, “I knew that was going to end. I said to myself, ‘Annie, that man is going to be your husband.'”
Within a year my dad had a new wife, my sister and me a new mother.
Literally, too: My dad and his new wife legally adopted my sister and me: in a day, they became to whom we came home from school.My sister left our Home 2.0 when she was 15 years old. I lasted until I was sixteen.
Nobody’s fault. Life is hard. Things happen. We all spin like crazy from hits we never even saw coming.
Once I left my house I didn’t have much contact with my father or stepmother for the next 20 or so years. Then (at 38) I became a Christian — and so became a generally kinder, more patient person. So I began writing my dad and Ann letters. After a while they invited my wife and me out to their home. So we went, and spent a week with them.
It was a trip. I had become a stranger to my own father–and to the woman who had basically been my mother for seven or so years. But we all had a lovely time; my parents and I weren’t, after all, total strangers.
And my wife cracked my dad up — my dad, who spent his life making others laugh. Whom no one is funnier than.
It’s a fine thing, to watch your father gazing at your wife with love and respect. Watching him watching her that way engendered in me a combination of emotions I had not known before.
My wife and I visited them again the following year. That was the last time we saw my step-mother.
She called me, for the first time ever, about a year ago. She had read my book, “Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang: Why I Do the Things I Do,” by God (as told to John Shore.) She wanted me to know that the book had awakened in her a desire to go to church. She sounded like maybe she was crying — except she was also clearly joyous. She sounded like a little girl.
“I can just go to church, can’t I?” she said. “Just to go?” That’d be all right, wouldn’t it?
“Of course you can,” I said. “Yes, absolutely.”
“You don’t think the sins of my past would somehow automatically keep me out?”
“No,” I said, “I’m sure they wouldn’t.”