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My Stepmother’s Love: A Story Of Caring, Cooking And Misplaced Shame

My mom would have been so thankful for her.

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Ashley Seil Smith
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My brother, Daniel, and I moved in with our dad, stepmother and their baby, James, late one night. Our mother had just died. We arrived, holding a few bags of our favorite belongings. Our stepmother, Lynn, stood in the doorway, tall and willowy with blue eyes and a crown of dark, waved hair. She offered a kind smile, hot chocolate and Garibaldi biscuits. I survived those early weeks on autopilot, trying to accept that I would never see my mum again. This was suburban England in the 1980s. My brother and I didn’t have therapy or talk about our loss. Instead, we navigated a new life and we got to know Lynn, who was quieter than my mum and less demonstrative.           

Soon after we moved in, during a break from school, Lynn was waiting for me in the kitchen when I woke. A stay-at-home mum, Lynn planned activities for every school break, and today she would take us swimming, hoping to give us all a distraction as my dad had suffered a heart attack a few days before and was being monitored in hospital.           

“Did you hear the phone in the night?” she asked. Her East Anglian roots were given away by her round vowel sounds and her love of samphire, a sea vegetable found along the Norfolk salt marshes.           

“No,” I lied. I had just turned 12, my hair was scruffy, long and brown, my eyes dark like my dad’s. I had woken when the phone rang in the early hours. Lynn had answered and it and had a brief conversation. She then called her mother, explaining frantically that a nurse said my dad had collapsed and she had to go immediately as he wasn’t going to survive. I listened as she ran down the hall and scrambled to get dressed. The phone rang again as she was leaving, and then she called her mother back to say the hospital had the wrong patient. It wasn’t my dad.           

Lynn described the night’s events, and I felt shame take hold, a weed growing thick and fast. I hadn’t been able to get up and hug Lynn, to offer my assistance. I had stayed, rooted to my bed, pretending I was asleep.           

Mid-morning, we walked into the sports center, Lynn pushing James in the stroller as Daniel and I carried rolled-up towels under our arms.           

“Two children, one adult and one baby to swim, please,” Lynn said.           

The girl shook her head. “No open swim today, just lessons and swim team.”

Lynn’s shoulders dropped. She leaned on the counter. “But I checked...”

“Special hours for the school break.”      

“My husband’s in hospital with a heart attack, I told the kids we could swim today. You don’t understand. We have to swim.” She shook and her tears fell fast. The girl called the manager. Lynn’s words became indistinguishable, but I understood. Hours earlier, she thought she was a widow at 34, her husband traded for two orphaned children. I tried to make my arms reach out to her, and tried to say something to stop the people in line from staring. I wanted to make Lynn feel better. Instead, I was still, my throat dry, my shame deepening. The manager, a slight man with sandy hair, muttered apologies as Lynn sobbed. We walked back to the car, our dry towels still rolled up.           

After Dad recovered, we settled into a routine. Lynn never again broke down as she had at the sports center. If I needed a ride or a call to be made, Lynn was ready and willing. Each year on our birthdays Lynn rented baking tin numerals to make our ages in cake form. Every Thursday was food shopping day, and she delivered Tunnock’s caramel biscuits and Cadbury’s chocolate to our rooms, just as she stocked the pantry with all of our favorites. She planned summer trips to the Spanish isles. She threw dinner parties for six or eight of my dad’s colleagues at a moment’s notice, learning new recipes on the fly. Famous for her myriad side dishes — herbed carrots and zucchini, three different kinds of potatoes, sautéed broccoli, garlic mushrooms — all piping hot, followed by her sumptuous desserts of profiteroles, cake and trifle, Lynn dazzled with her cooking.           

At age 24 I moved to America, and 11 years after that my dad passed away. My eldest son attended university in England, and Lynn took him to and from the airport each time he crossed the Atlantic. When he visited her, she took care of him as she had taken care of me: with a desire to please, and dinners cooked from scratch.           

I called Lynn recently to talk about that morning at the sports center. I wanted to apologize for not comforting her as I so wanted to.           

“I don’t remember it like that,” she said. “We came home and you took charge, and made us all dinner, even though you were so young. I never forgot that.”           

On hearing Lynn’s words, I vaguely remembered cooking that evening. The shame I had carried for three decades dissolved as I began to understand. I hadn’t shown Lynn the hugging, fierce love that was my mother’s kind, but I hadn’t let her down. She didn’t need me to throw my arms around her; she had received my love in the way she gave hers: in the care taken over a meal. Her love was in every hot meal served, every commitment fulfilled, every birthday cake baked. I know how thankful my mum would be for that love, and for Lynn’s role as my stepmother. And — with all my heart — so am I.