I’ve been working on this piece for a month. The writing has felt like hugging jello—impossible to contain, with goo oozing in every direction. The topic is blended families. Not exactly my field of expertise, although I do have a few observations to make on the subject, like maybe a book’s worth.
Our blended family just passed the five-year mark. In the annals of family dynamics, I’m told that five years is a benchmark; it typically takes at least that long before a blended family starts to feel and function like a whole. What started me thinking about them—about us—is the photo at the top of the page, taken in November 2003. On the day before Thanksgiving, Katy captured our imperfect lives at a time when they had turned perfect. A man raising his two children, resigned to life without a partner, falls in love with a woman who figures she and her daughter are a bigger package than most men want. Tony and I were neither young nor foolish. We knew life would change, just not how or to what degree. We chalked up any oh-my-god-how-will-this-work trepidation to the excitement of a new adventure, and rode into the future atop a thirty-foot wave of happiness, lighthearted and beaming.
We’re in Santa Fe for our wedding. Tony has walked to the plaza to replace the shirts he left in Denver. Pierce is the first to ask when Dad will be back.
“Soon,” I say. “He’s already been gone an hour. He’ll be home soon.”
Twenty minutes later I hear Tess drag a chair through the kitchen, headed toward the back door. I watch her lift the semi-sheer curtain away from the glass and carefully position the chair to face the door. When she has it where she wants it, she sits. From across the room I feel her willing her dad to return. She says nothing but hums a kind of mantra. She wants him home. Outside, clumps of daffodil are blooming in the garden. Light rain taps at the window. As dusk settles, the child looks smaller and somehow fragile in the shadow of the curtain. She shifts in the chair, lifts her feet off the crossbar and folds her legs Indian style, resting her chin in her right hand.
At last she speaks. “Becky, when will Daddy be home?”
“Soon, honey, I think soon. He’s fine. Come over here. Let’s play 21.”
I shuffle the cards, hoping for distraction. She considers my proposal; leaving her post might delay his arrival. I pat my thigh as if beckoning a puppy. She hops down and joins me. With one arm around her and the other on the table, I shuffle the deck one last time. Midway through the second game, she hears the door open.
Exchanging marital vows or sitting for a portrait is an act to signify a shift in status but the real work takes its own sweet time. The process of making two families feel like one is largely an ongoing act of faith, kinda like commandeering the little engine that could, chanting I think I can, I think I can. Essential to the mix are grit and muscle, bone, blood and heart, good humor and luck. Trust is an issue. So is sharing. Possessions that once were yours, as well as parents, time and space, take on a communal quality. Like all things worth having, you need to want it—even when you don’t.
I’m up against deadlines for three clients. Ali’s attendant arrives thirty minutes late on a Tuesday to announce that she’s quitting. Pierce turns 12 and a switch is flipped; words are exchanged for grunts and his straight A’s turn into the rainbow coalition. Every letter is represented. Tess is equipped with radar; she appears as if on cue to foil every attempt at private conversation between husband and wife. Ali is choosing to spend more and more time in her room behind a closed door. The cleaning lady quits via voicemail the morning she’s scheduled to turn this place around and Max, our cocker spaniel, has taken to lifting his leg in the house now that Tony has usurped him as top dog. I’m in over my head.
Like the firstborn who tells her parents it’s time to bring the new baby back to the hospital, the immensity of what we have undertaken is slowly revealed. Reality settles in, one load of laundry, one jealous outburst at a time. While friends are sending kids off to college, escaping to the mountains, awaiting the arrival of a first grandchild or even taking up traveling as a new career—not that I think about or even notice these things—I welcome two youngsters into my fold, round the clock, 24/7. One day the house is quiet; the next it isn’t, and won’t be for a long time. Peacefulness is trumped by talking, squealing, running, arguing and giggling. I find candy wrappers buried under pillows, trip over backpacks and legos, and share my airspace with a boy and girl who vie for their father’s attention with renewed vigor, for now there are three competitors: the sibling, the woman their father has married and the daughter who requires extra help and attention. We witness sibling rivalry on steroids. Daily.
In my dream I carry a baby girl on my shoulders, a toddler with blond hair and eyes the color of my own. She is light as a feather. My hands wrap around her tiny fists to balance the bouncing body. We’re both laughing. I look up and see that the child is Tess at an age when I didn’t even know she was in the world. I imagine writing a book. I call it The Missing Years.
My adopted child arrived from Korea two days shy of five months, not exactly the beginning but close. I acquired my other two through marriage. At eight and eleven, habits were formed. Routines were in place. Their way of being in the world had taken hold. Like the child on the chair between the curtain and the glass, I watched and waited, unprepared to make a move without a working knowledge of where they had been. I had no memory of first tooth, first word, first day of school. I did not know the color or scent of their favorite blanket or stuffed animal. They had not hidden behind my pant leg in a room full of strangers or climbed to the top of the refrigerator in my kitchen. I was not imprinted with their baby scent or the sound of their giggle. Memories provide context. They’re a framework to lean on when a fist goes through a wall or a squeal reaches ear-splitting decibels. Without the foundation of the early years, what follows can feel groundless, like falling in love or stepping into quicksand. You feel left out of some irreplaceable magic that happened while you were away. You build your new house starting with the third story. You pray that the support beams are strong enough to sustain the structure until you’ve filled in the lower levels with materials not indigenous to the original house. In a reflective moment, you wonder how things would have played had you started where most people start: at the beginning.
We sit around the table on Christmas Eve, guessing about the presents under the tree. “I wonder if I’ll get Barefoot’s new cookbook” I say. The kids shoot fast glances at one another. Ali turns the sound off on her talker and types something only Tony, sitting next to her, can read.
Two days later Pierce opens the car door and sets a present on my lap. I take off the paper and there it is, the latest Back to Basics cookbook from Barefoot Contessa. “Merry Christmas,” he says from the back seat. “I bought it with the Barnes and Noble gift card Dad’s client gave me.”
What am I to my husband’s children? It’s a fair question from the woman who parents but isn’t the Parent, who is mom but not Mother. For three years I asked the question of Tony on a regular basis. I was looking for some kind of validation, some assurance that this drastic shift in my life had a payoff. Without an answer that satisfied or one I was ready to believe, I kept on doing what mothers do: pick them up from school, take them to voice lessons, to Blockbuster, to the homes of their friends, remind them that elbows belong off the table and all four chair legs on the floor, cook dinner, take them shopping, ask about school, go on bike rides, write checks, bake peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, attend their performances, give them money, tell them I love them. To my relief, the question no longer matters. I let it go; it’s theirs to answer, not mine. I know I am not the Mother. I also know I am the woman they see every day, the woman they have learned they can count on, a steady albeit too often tired presence in their lives. To them I am Becky, unless they’re on the phone with a friend. “Hang on,” I hear them say. “I need to ask my mom,” and they turn to me.
I sit in front of the fire with the Sunday New York Times. Ali is on the laptop in her room. Tony and the kids have gone to dinner with friends. Halfway through the Book Review, I hear the key in the front door. The dogs start barking. Squealing and roughhousing follow. The silence is broken. I hear Tony talking about the afternoon but my attention is on the once pervasive quality of Quiet that has all but vanished from this home, and the new sounds that have taken its place.
When Tony runs an errand, the children no longer wait at the window for his return. On occasion Pierce still asks when his dad will be home, but now the question is code for When Will Dinner Be Ready. The five of us have found a rhythm, set down roots. We’re building a collective memory and quietly preserving the years before we knew one another. Daily we bear witness to one another’s lives. We have survived a home remodel, middle school, buying a business, a house burglary. We’ve been together, for better and, trust me, for worse, in restaurants and in bowling alleys, on scooters and bicycles, at movies, plays and performances, on beaches, mountains and hiking trails, in cars and buses, on trains, boats and airplanes. We’ve said goodbye to one another hundreds of times—and learned that we always come back. I’ll give a nod to the experts. Five years later, we’ve rounded a bend.