We began our summer vacation yesterday by driving to South Carolina to spend a few days with my step-father, “Grandpa Teaser”. He was aptly named by Zoë, when she was just a toddler, because he teases all children (and some adults too) relentlessly. He steals pacifiers, tickles, threatens to throw kids off the dock, and declares with an almost straight face that every child can benefit from a daily spanking. But, he also drives a mean pontoon boat and teaches Grey how to shoot a BB gun.
We’ve just returned from a boat ride and a picnic on a little lake island, and Grey and Grandpa are on the back porch trying to take out a couple tin cans. I am downstairs in the bar/billiard room, sitting at the kitchen table I grew up with (now, almost a discard – relegated to a back basement corner) trying to decide if this is still my mother’s house. My beer sits on a coaster that clearly declares this to be her bar. A large portrait of my mom still hangs upstairs above the huge stone fireplace. Her mother’s writing desk is in the living room, occupying the place my mom’s piano used to sit – the piano is now in my own living room. In a third floor bedroom closet, both my own wedding gown, and my mother’s hang side by side. I tucked them in there just weeks after my mother died, trying to protect them from the purging that was occurring all over the house.
It’s been nearly three years. Many things are the same: the stashed wedding gowns, the china I helped my mom select, the knives she was so proud of, the spice drawer chock full of bottles that probably haven’t been opened since she died. But, a lot of things are different too: There are fewer pictures of my mother, fewer pictures of my children on side tables and bookcases. Many of the photos have been stashed in drawers, or returned to me, or replaced with photographs of Grandpa’s biological children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to feel like we are being oh so gently erased. Eased out. My mother and step-father were together since I was ten years old, I’m no Johnny-come-lately. And still, the physical evidence seems to be disappearing faster than even my shoddy memory can let go.
And there’s something else.
Upstairs, my step-father’s first wife is cooking us all dinner. The wife he was married to when he met my mother. The other other woman. I won’t go into details, but just trust me when I say it was not a quick or pretty divorce for anyone concerned, least of all me. Anyway, now Wife #1 is standing at the counter, whipping up a pasta salad.
Absorb that for a moment.
I can’t go up there. She’s being perfectly lovely and ever so gracious, but every time I walk into the kitchen and see her there I get completely discombobulated. I can’t remember where the silverware is, the dishtowel drawer utterly slips my mind. So she asks, sweetly, if she can help me find something and I feel like screaming, “Yes. Yes you can. Because this is MY MOTHER’S kitchen with MY MOTHER’S cookware and dishes and spices and MY CHILDREN’S heights marked on the doorway and I know every nook and cranny but you are NOT.MY.MOTHER and so I’m hoping you can help me find MY MOTHER.”
But of course, I don’t. Because my mother raised me to be polite.
And besides, she’s trying really hard. She’s cooking for us (which is usually my job) and cleaning up after my kids, and helping Juliette spell Dunkin Donuts. And she’s not even looking at me like I’m the Devil’s spawn, which, considering the circumstances, I kinda am.
So I’m trying to be equally gracious. I’m trying to live right here in this moment, without dragging any of my ten-year-old, eleven-year-old, twelve-year-old, thirteen-year-old, oh you get it baggage with me. I mean, good grief, the woman is nearly 80 years old. Grandpa is nearly 80 years old. They have a history. They have a family. It just makes sense, right? Even if no one bothered to mention it to me. And the truth is, I want everyone to be happy. And everyone seems happy. Everyone alive, anyway. My mother would be turning over in her grave, if she had one. Or maybe not. Maybe she’s reached some place of peace where rivalry doesn’t exist, where the highest good is all that matters. I hope so. Otherwise, I’m in for some serious haunting.
But the question still remains: Is this my mother’s house? By that I mean, is this a place I still belong? Or have I unwittingly become some kind of interloper? Some sort of half-orphaned vagabond, carrying all my memories in repurposed cardboard boxes, leaving everything tangible behind for someone else’s use?
With all the discussion about blended families, I’ve never, never, heard someone address a situation like this. That’s ok. I’m accustomed to uncharted territory. For now, I’m just going to keep on living in the moment, trying to be brave, trying to be kind.
But I might sleep with one eye open. I’m still afraid of ghosts.