by Ruth Marvin Webster
Since my mother threw a dart on a map of the Southwest and moved from LA to the desert metropolis of Silver City, New Mexico, we have visited her more than a dozen times. But none of these pilgrimages was more intriguing than the trip we made there to meet my future stepfather just before he and my mother got married.
Leaving San Diego late in the afternoon, we decided to drive through the night and beat the desert heat. My husband and I, two children, and a Doberman, set off in our VW Golf armed with dozens of sing-along tapes, coloring books, and Pocahontas figures.
As we pulled up the gravel path to my mother's newly built house, the sun was just rising. The front door snapped open and there appeared a man in a crisp navy suit complete with matching tie and socks. As I was struggling to extricate myself from my over-the-shoulder seat belt and sweep Big Mac lettuce from my lap, he stood at attention next to the door on my side of the car.
"A pleasure to meet you, Ruth," he said, stiffly extending his hand. My mother giggled nervously behind him in her bathrobe and slippers. Wafts of Old Spice blast me like Mac truck diesel fumes. I had never seen a man so hairless, shiny, and white. He was a living slice of Wonder Bread.
My new stepfather is the sort of man I suppose I knew existed but certainly never knew personally. He grew up in the Nevada outback, a miner just like his father, where he'd been devoted to his wife until her death six months earlier.
That first trip, I soon discovered that Dave was politically somewhere to the right of Strom Thurmond. He ardently believed the liberal media was plotting to overthrow the government and American civilization. America's resources were to be found and sold. He sported a "PEOPLE FOR THE AMERICAN WEST" bumper sticker on his truck. I am a member of Greenpeace and send e-mails to my elected representative urging her to save our national forests.
At the wedding, there was no difficulty telling who belonged on which side of the church.
The bride's mother (my 90-year-old grandmother), sported flip-up sunglasses and a décolleté neon dress. My grandfather wore a tie I had made in seventh grade, and polyester pants. My uncle was with his latest acquisition, the hostess at his Orange County country club. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Charo, she wore a white skin-tight see-through dress that fell to the floor.
After the ceremony and a long boozy lunch in the banquet hall, our side of the family was overflowing with laughter and tears. I leaned over to kiss the cheek of one of the more friendly stepchildren, and was met with the kind of frigid body language that unequivocally warns the attacker to stand back and move quietly away.
Were they part of a secret religious sect where lobotomies were performed at birth, like circumcision? People in that family and others like them never yell at their children or get divorced. They don't have breakdowns or go to counseling. No one is neurotic.
In this sort of family, women congregate in the kitchen to ponder pot holders and potty-training. The men drink martinis and have plastic sheaths in their breast pockets for Bic pens. The women wear wrap-around floral skirts and macramé vests. The Feminine Mystic has not been written or read. It's as if time has stood still. Zap. It's 1950s suburbia.
I wondered about their intelligence. This same thought must have occurred to my mother for she repeatedly mentioned how so-and-so had gone to college, and someone else had traveled the world.
"They were in Chile and South Africa, you know," she enthused. "Went there to run a mine." I wanted to tell her that living in a prefab tin house perched on the edge of a huge copper pit, no matter where in the world, doesn't count as travel, but I smiled sweetly instead.
"Your mother," my stepfather tells me as if this is a news bulletin, "is rather stubborn." I cannot help but resent his priestly tone before he even finishes the sentence because he is telling me he thinks he knows her better than I do. But I have been living with her all my life, observing her from the playpen to the classroom and beyond. I have been a student of her every mood. I have seen her sick and in the hospital, divorced and dejected, in every locale from Tahiti to Rome, from Hampstead to Tijuana. I know her better than she knows herself, and certainly better than some pick up player at the end of the game when darkness falls over the neighborhood.
My mother tells me he suffers terribly from jealousy. "He's so sensitive," she reminds me, with a forlorn turn to her mouth. We try not to mention anyone or anything that dates back to a time before he entered our lives. But every time he looks at me, I can tell that he is thinking of my mother having sex with another man. It doesn't help that I so resemble my father.
"He's put on 40 pounds since we've been married," my mother boasts as if this is a wifely triumph to which we all aspire. She's been feeding him homemade casseroles, milkshakes, and pancakes. Now she serves Spam and Maraschino cherries—something unfathomable to our mindset only a year ago. The two of them play card and board games to fill their twilight years together.
So at holiday parties, while I cheer for the Oakland Raiders and the Cal Bears, he claps politely for Texas A&M and the Dallas Cowboys. We are much like this country, deeply divided between the urban and the rural, democrats and republicans, the old and the young, and the rich and the poor.
When I enter the room, he still rushes to hide behind the Wall Street Journal and we never use the words Clinton or Bush. But we can agree to disagree because at the heart of the matter, we agree on one important thing: my mother’s happiness.
(c) Ruth Marvin Webster
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