My mom married my stepfather on the Fourth of July. Her second marriage and his third, the celebration was small and the guest list short on immediate family. The wedding took place across the street from my stepfather’s house — our new house — at the home of a neighbor who ran the nondenominational Christian church we attended. The following year, I would be baptized in that same neighbor’s pool, wearing a starched white robe, my sins washed clean in chlorinated water. Mom wore a mauve dress and a matching broad-brimmed hat. I donned a yellow dress and worked triple duty as flower girl, maid of honor, and ring bearer. My legs grew tired during the long ceremony, but I took my roles seriously, staring stoically at the minister.
Mom’s wedding ring was a cluster of diamonds and sapphires, my birthstone, because, as my stepdad liked to say, he was “marrying them both.” Unlike most men who spotted the truckload of baggage my 30-year-old single mother dragged into a first date and bolted for the nearest exit, my stepdad was thrilled to be a father. During the reception, he ushered me from table to table, showing off the trophy-sized version of his wife to his coworkers. Wasn’t his new family pretty? So charming, so pleasing, so blonde.
The reception took place on the neighbor’s waterfront deck. After the sun set and the new couple enjoyed bites of wedding cake, the stormy night sky lit up with a perfect view of the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display.
I wanted to like him, but I just couldn’t. He was too old, his tall, broad frame too physically imposing to find comforting. He was too eager to hug me. I felt bad that I didn’t like him, knew that I was being the stereotypical stepchild, unhappy with any parental copy vying to replace the original. I was softened by his prideful, paternal glow, but his hand on my shoulder was heavy and oppressive, like dead weight. The determined way he maneuvered me around tables of new faces at the reception made me uncomfortable. Well wishers and cheek pinchers said that Mom and I had much to be thankful for because my new dad loved us very much and would be very good for us.
Good for us. What about to us?
He was neither. This Thursday marks the 237th anniversary of our country’s independence and the 26th anniversary of my mother’s dependence on an abusive spouse. He was cruel and psychologically abusive, berating us — mostly her — on a daily basis. He picked fights, pushed us to breaking points, and then exercised his will, dangling our freedom in front of us like a carrot. If we took the abuse without “mouthing off” or “disrespecting” him, maybe we’d get what we wanted, which was usually a day without fights or insults.
I’ve found it difficult to convey the experience of living with him. He did not fit the familiar Lifetime movie mold of the abusive husband. He did not hit or molest us, but he told us we were unlovable and dim-witted. The golden trophy family he once proudly boasted became his “stupid bitches,” “lazy brats,” “fat pigs,” and “cunts.” Mom preached endurance to me; she saw our union with my stepfather as a trying but finite sentence. We would endure him until I was off to college. We would use his good neighborhood, zoned for good schools, to get me a good education and arm me with everything I needed — everything she said she couldn’t give me on her own — to get out. We strategized and conspired as if we were tunneling out of Alcatraz. Between the ages of seven and eighteen, it became clear that the dual escape we were planning was only meant for me. We argued and fought and Mom placated me, but her interpretation of our situation shifted from “I’ve made a mistake. I’ll make it right.” to “I can handle him. Don’t you worry about me.”
With each year of marriage gained, Mom gave something up in kind. First it was her job, followed by her car. Then she wasn’t to leave the house during the day. Next she was limited to one phone call per day (she snuck in more), with no incoming calls after 6pm. We spent the years keeping secrets from my stepdad to ensure I enjoyed more freedom as a teenager than she did as a middle-aged woman. She manipulated and cajoled and weathered his outbursts and accepted the brunt of his venom.
Five years ago, when Mom began forgetting things, withdrawing from family members, and acting insecure and fearful, I assumed that 20+ years of verbal abuse were simply taking their toll. Amidst the usual exhortations to leave him, I tried to give her perspective. “You’re not stupid. I forget things all time, and I’m not being berated constantly.” But her smile and trademark Pollyanna optimism weakened. Needless to say, recent research suggesting a link between depression and dementia comes as no surprise to me.
Now that early onset dementia has reduced my mother to a husk of her former self, my stepfather is in the unlikely role of caretaker. I believe he loves her as much as he is capable of the feeling. But he does not accept any guilt for Mom’s breakdown, and often counts her illness as another way in which she has made life difficult for him.
Only a few years into their marriage, my mom and stepdad stopped acknowledging their anniversary. There were no gifts, no cakes, no date nights. It was always just another 4th of July, just another Independence Day.