Step by Step

Published on October 28th, 2015 | by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

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WHO WILL THIS BE TO ME by Betsy Graziana Fasbinder—from BLENDED: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience

“There is no guarantee of happily ever after,” writes editor Samantha Waltz in the introduction to Blended, a collection from feminist publisher Seal Press bringing together essays that reflect the diversity of experience in stepfamilies.

I’m posting this excerpt, a beautiful story by Betsy Graziana Fasbinder, just as Halloween approaches—and am tempted towards trite comments about the real threat of fairytale styled villains… Yes, archetypes haunt us all, as parents. And why do we tell children stories about “evil mothers” almost from their birth? Of whom are we really afraid?

Put aside familiar tropes, read these fresh new stories, instead. Blended offers raw honesty, some anger and resentment, much love and hope, and just a lot of truth telling about creating and choosing families. The volume itself is divided by shared themes—Coming Together, Self-Discovery, Evolution, Acceptance, Reflection. In one notable set of essays, the stepmother and stepfather from the same blended family each write, separately, so sharply unique in each’s own view that it reminded me of watching that Rashomon-y TV show “The Affair.” (Except here they’re talking about taking a family vacation to some kind of horrible themed resort, rather than sexiness in Montauk.) Blended includes straight, queer, younger, older, happier and more ambivalent parents, some newly in new love and others perhaps long in denial, many reflecting on their own multi-parented childhoods… “Families” are portrayed as one iteration captured in time. Ariel Gore writes in the foreword, “we learn as we go… Your family ‘should be’ just as it is, ever-changing and delicious.”

Fasbinder’s perspective, an early one in the book, surprised me. Not just because her story turns so lovely. But because, I admit, when I picked up this book I thought it was going to be all about divorce (maybe because of watching that TV show a bit obsessively…). But as Waltz also writes in the introduction to Blended, it is often grief that recreates family: “the words stepfather, stepmother, and step child exist in Old English forms related to the word ástieped, meaning ‘bereaved.'”  – Meg Lemke

Blended_print

One afternoon a few months before Tom and I were to be married, Max wandered into the dining room of the house we all shared. I was sorting through a box of old photographs and, when he entered the room, I turned to him. He tossed a bright orange Nerf ball over and over, said nothing, didn’t look at me, just focused completely on the ball. Though he was barely seven, I could already recognize in the way he threw the ball straight up and caught it the quick reflexes and fast hands of the athlete he would become. Soon he began to twirl around after each toss, catching the spongy ball behind his back. Then he bounced the ball off the wall over the table, then off the ceiling.

“Hi, Bud,” I said. “Nice moves.”

No reply. Wall. Ceiling. Twirl. Wall.

“Whatcha doin’?” he finally asked.

“Just trying to organize some of my pictures.”

In my months of living with Tom and Max, I’d learned to let the boy come close on his own. If I crowded him or moved too quickly, he skittered away, his tolerance for closeness dissipating like so much water vapor. If I was patient, though, we often ended up playing, laughing, and, recently, even snuggling on the couch with a book or a TV show.

“Who’s that?” he asked, peeking around my shoulder.

“My mom when she was young.”

“What’s she sitting on?”

“A paper moon. They used to have them at fairs and carnivals. People liked to pose for pictures on them.”

“That’s dumb. It doesn’t even look like a real moon.”

“After the wedding, I suppose she’ll be your grandma Sylvia.”

“Cool.” Wall. Ceiling. Wall. Wall. Twirl.

He caught the ball and then sidled up beside me, leaning his warm body against my arm and pressing a dirt-smudged finger on another photo. “Who will that be to me?” he asked.

“That was my grandfather, the one who died a few months ago.”

Max shrugged and resumed his tossing, this time switching hands. Right. Left. Right. “I already got a grandfather,” he said, not unkindly.

“Lots of kids have two grandpas. I guess my grandfather would have been your great-grandfather.”

“Hmm. Too bad he had to die. I coulda used one of those.”

As I continued my sorting and stacking, I felt a pinch in my chest. Death is always a barbed topic, but is particularly so for a child who lost his mother only two years before. I shuffled quickly past the pictures of dead relatives.

The Nerf ball stilled again and Max propped his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his upturned palms. “What about them?” he asked, pointing to a picture of my sister and her family. He’d known them his whole life, just as he had known me, played with my niece and nephew regularly, attended birthday parties and family dinners. But I could see that he was beginning to grasp the change that was coming. The difference in how he knew me before and how he would know me in the future.

“Di and Jim will be your aunt and uncle. Megan and Matt will be your cousins.”

“Sweet,” he said, looking into my face for the first time since he’d entered the room. His eyes were chocolate pools, his thick dark hair a sleek, shiny coat that made me want to run my fingers over it. “I don’t have any boy cousins. And how about him?”

“That’s my brother John. He’ll be another uncle.”

We sorted stacks of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends.

“Wow, you have a lot of people,” Max sighed.

“I suppose I do.”

He began to finger through the stacks, messing up what I’d already sorted, but that was all right. My original task no longer mattered. As we neared the bottom of the stack, a honey-thick warmth began to fill me. Perhaps my family was to be the dowry I’d bring to this little boy who had lost so much.

“Whoa,” he exclaimed, laughing at my third-grade photo, the one where my hair had been expanded to new dimensions by an especially humid Indiana day.

At moments like those, Max was just a little boy, buoyant with energy, easy with a laugh. He played Legos and watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And he tossed balls. At other times, when he was still or thought no one was looking, it seemed that the earth’s pull was just a little stronger where he stood, tugging the corners of his mouth downward, making his eyes years older than seven birthdays would imply.

Just as I was about to put the last of the pictures in the box, Max pressed his finger once more to a face. “And who will this be to me?”

Beneath his finger I could see the edges of my own face. I was suddenly flooded with a heart-swell for which I had no name. This son of the man I loved was becoming my son. We’d have family Christmas cards and school art stuck with magnets to the fridge. I’d make goodie bags at birthday parties, snap pictures at graduations. All these things I’d never allowed myself to want, thinking that perhaps my own parents had left me so wounded that I could not allow myself children of my own. Now I was becoming a mother, but without the benefit of a growing belly or a baby shower to prepare me.

I should have known the answer to his simple question. I should have known how to say just the right, wise, magical thing. But I didn’t. So I offered the therapist’s cop-out question.

“Well, what do you think?”

Max shrugged. Then he looked away and I knew it was my job to field this one. Jumbled words bobbed to the surface of my mind, like those triangled answers floating in the blue waters in a Magic 8 Ball.

Finally the image rose to the surface. “I’ll be your second mom,” I said.

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry that your first mom died. I liked her.”

“What should I call you?” he asked.

My heart pounded against the cage of my ribs, and my stomach turned over. Mama, I wanted to cry. I’ll be your mama and you’ll be my son. I resisted. “You can call me Mom, or Mama. You can also call me Betsy, if you’d rather. Whatever feels okay for you.”

He stood there a minute, and I waited, expecting a pronouncement of my new title.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked picking up his ball.

“Burgers.”

“Sweet,” he said, tossing the ball as he walked out of the room.

At our wedding a few months later, Tom and I said our vows to one another. Then Max was invited to stand beside us and I made vows to him. I promised to step into the shoes his mother had been forced to leave behind, to help him remember her, and to be the best mother I could be.

After the wedding, for the next few days, Max tried out a new title for me. “Can we go bowling?” he’d ask, and then follow the question by mouthing the word mom. Or, “Can we go to the store?” And the mouthed word, mom. Mom was always silent. It seemed he was trying it on, seeing how it felt in his mouth. “Whatcha doin’, Mom?” “Can I watch TV now, Mom?”

My hopes floated like a pink helium balloon. Then, like a thousand hornets, guilt attacked the balloon, piercing it until it lost its air and sank. It felt wrong to take such pleasure in seeing his little plum lips form that singular syllable. After all, this new son of mine was an inheritance I would not have if he and Tom hadn’t sustained such an enormous loss. I felt small . . . and smaller still when old habits resumed and Betsy was once again my only title. I tucked this shameful disappointment away, telling no one.

Weeks later as I drove him home from school, Max pulled a baggie full of Cheez-Its from his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunch box. He munched away, licking the orange dust off each finger. With his focus deep inside the near-empty snack bag, he suddenly said, “I notice I don’t call you Mom.”

Oof. Who threw that rock at my chest? Dead hit. I breathed to calm my voice. “I noticed that.”

One last cracker, then four fingers to lick. “When I say Betsy, I mean Mom.”

I swallowed past the dry dirt clod that formed in my throat. “Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice to know.”

He looked out the window. “Moms die, you know. I think it’s maybe safer if you’re just Betsy.”

We could have a long talk about magical thinking and death and how nothing he could say, or not say, could cause me to die, or could have caused his mother to die. But this just didn’t seem like the time for all of that.

I willed tears away, not wanting to overwhelm him. He had enough to carry. “Thanks, Bud. I appreciate you telling me.”

Those big chocolate eyes found mine. I waited.

“Hey, Betsy?”

“Yeah,” I said, delighted with the new sound of my old name.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked.

Family Pic

A Family Portrait

Excerpted from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience edited by Samantha Waltz. Available from Seal Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright ©2015.

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About the Author

Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

Betsy Graziani Fasbinder became a second wife when she married a widower with a young son. Their family fashioned itself with loss and love as their foundation, and with tenderness and commitment as their guides. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Fire & Water and the founder of The Morning Glory Project, which celebrates those who have not only survived tragic loss and trauma, but have turned their heartbreak into heroism and their history into inspiration. Betsy has been a licensed psychotherapist in California since 1992. She lives with her husband in their intermittently empty nest in Marin County, California.



3 Responses to WHO WILL THIS BE TO ME by Betsy Graziana Fasbinder—from BLENDED: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience

  1. Joan Keyes says:

    Thanks for reproducing this beautiful story by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder. This story brings tears to my eyes.

  2. JodyL says:

    What a tender, thoughtful retelling of such an important aspect of their lives.

  3. Jenna says:

    I loved this so much. I think it is beautiful that you allowed him to come to you on his own terms, and that you acknowledged all of the complexities in the forming of a new family based on the loss of the original family structure. Great writing.

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