I wrote this for a live presentation several years ago, but thought I’d share it here today, since Father’s Day is a week away. And don’t miss NEXT week’s Sunday Brunch, when we interview a father-son team!
While they are depicted in literature and media with far less frequency than stepmothers, the sad reality is that when stepfathers appear, they tend to be dark, murky, or just plain dangerous. Examples of evil stepfathers include Murdstone in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the King in the movie Radio Flyer, and the titular villain in the horror movie series that began, rather ominously, with The Stepfather in 1987.
With a legacy like that, it’s not surprising that stepfathers are largely underrated. Children make the distinction between their stepfathers and their “real dads” as if these men are not truly human, and in a greeting card industry that rakes in roughly 7.5 billion dollars a year, finding a Father’s Day card for a stepfather is only slightly easier than finding that needle in the proverbial haystack.
It seems appropriate, then, for me to talk about a really wonderful stepfather: mine.
I’m not sure exactly when my mother met my stepfather, Ira, but I think it had something to do with a singles event at the UU church in Modesto, California. I do know that their first date was on Valentine’s Day, 1982. Ira was taking his son, who was about my age, to see Marcel Marceau perform in Berkeley, and he asked if my mother and I wanted to come along. His son fell asleep, I hadn’t had dinner and had to beg for a bagel from the snack bar – have you ever tried to eat a bagel and cream cheese in a theatre? – and the police pulled us over on the way home because Ira was weaving, not because he was drunk – I don’t recall there being alcohol involved at all – but because he was tired. It was not an auspicious beginning, especially when you consider that, unlike in a movie theater, you can’t hold a whispered conversation during a mime show.
Nevertheless, two months later, on Good Friday, my mother and Ira were married. My aunt and uncle were late, the organist – who was also hosting the wedding – was more than a little bit tipsy – and I boycotted the ceremony in protest. Well, I was only eleven.
Over the next few years, my mother and I learned to alter our Gilmore Girls-esque relationship to include a man, but it wasn’t easy. In fact, the first several months were not unlike first contact with an alien species, despite the fact that my mother had been married before. My stepbrother defected to his mother’s house, which actually eased the pressure at home, but I know it also hurt Ira more than he ever let on.
At the same time that I was adjusting to junior high school, and all that entailed, I was also watching our refrigerator turn into something that held such oddities as brewer’s yeast, sweet acidophilus, tofu, and plain yogurt. Ira, it seemed, was a health food nut. Far worse, however, was the truly frightening lack of taste buds he seemed to exhibit: the man liked mild cheddar.
He, of course, learned how to buy female sanitary products, to have all the parts of a meal ready at once, and to deal with a kid who had no compunction about yelling back when someone yelled at her.
There were screaming matches, slammed doors, and trips to family counselors. There was a three week period when my mother had moved to a new city to start a business ahead of us, and I was stuck alone with him. And eventually, there emerged a sort of truce on my part balanced by infinite patience on his.
By the time I was in high school, our relationship had progressed to the point where we had a warm friendship. I think we bonded over the two things we had in common: living with my mother, and a habit of staying up into the wee hours of the night devouring books. In my case, it was fiction, and in his it was math, but when it’s one in the morning, and there’s no one else awake, you share with the person who’s there.
While my mother slept, I would finish a chapter, wander down the hall to Ira’s office, and ask, “Want some tea?” And we’d sip tea, and talk about what I was reading.
Alternatively, I’d be curled up in bed engrossed in a novel and he’d knock on the door. “Melissa,” he’d announce, “I have to tell you something new I discovered about the number eleven.” Yes, it’s true. My stepfather, in addition to swallowing enough vitamins to nearly rattle, does recreational math.
By the time I was a young adult, Ira and I had formed some traditions of our own, like going out to lunch and to a museum on Fathers’ Day. One year, it was the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, which advertised their Fathers’ Day festivities with the truly painful slogan, “Take Dad to See a Mummy.” Another year we went to the San Francisco Arboretum, and after a great lunch in the Richmond District, I convinced him to take the coastal route out of the city, and we nearly got lost in the fog.
We’ve both mellowed in the twenty-seven years he and my mother have been married, and as much as I might like to pretend I am solely my mother’s daughter, the reality is that Ira did all the things a father is supposed to do, without any of the thanks he deserved. He has coached me through advanced algebra and helped me survive calculus. He has edited my papers, helped me run lines, and supported every cause I asked him to.
Together, we have planned surprise parties for my mother, shared secret stashes of chocolate-orange cookies, and watched all of Reilly: Ace of Spies, the Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot mysteries, and several seasons of Planet Earth. Well, I watched Planet Earth – he was always snoring by the time the opening credits were over. He has held my hand in the emergency room, and let me rant when I was so mad at my mother I never wanted to speak to her again.
These days, when I call my parents I talk to my mother more frequently, but the conversations I have with Ira are often more interesting because he still offers new paths for me to explore. I don’t call him “Dad.” Actually, more often than not, I address him by any number of affectionately insulting nicknames, of which the first was Gorilla Gams (his legs are seriously hairy) – but, however tacitly, we both acknowledge that he has been more of a father to me than anyone else in my life.
Stepfathers are special creatures. Like fathers, they are tasked with some of the messier aspects of parenting, but without the intrinsic parent-child bond, and without the same recognition. So, while my morning brew today is a freshly pumped cappuccino with perfect foam, rather than Ira’s version of tea: made with a previously-used teabag and water microwaved until it’s just beyond tepid – I raise my mug in his honor. He had to wait until I was twenty-five years old and married for me to tell him I love him. Here’s hoping other stepfathers have a shorter waiting period.