I was 2 years old when my stepmother Gini burst into my life like some sort of a glamorous Valkyrie—bound and determined on bending me to her will.
She had platinum blond hair worn in an Aqua-Net bouffant, thick black eyeliner and a figure that rivaled Jayne Mansfield’s. At night, she peeled her false eyelashes off like she was undressing her face.
When I arrived for weekend visits with my dad, I balked at Gini’s house rules: a bath every night, no elbows on the table, no cursing and no shooting of weapons, real or imagined. In my mom’s world, I went barefoot, sporting black feet and dirt rings around my neck and once accidentally shot my stepdad, Nick, in the foot with his pellet gun, which I mistook for one of the toy guns my stepbrothers and I used playing War.
Life would’ve been perfect for my tomboy self if not for the escalating fights between my mom and Nick. After I went to bed, I’d often hear them screaming and throwing all kinds of things at each other, and I worried that Nick might hurt my mom.
Luckily, he never got the chance. Early one morning in 1975, she shook me awake. “Pack a suitcase, sweetheart. I’m divorcing Nick,” she said. “You’re staying with your dad … just for a while.”
The closer we got to my dad’s house, the more panic grabbed me by the throat. I couldn’t believe that Mom was leaving me with a Force of Nature Beyond My Control, namely, Gini. I still remember the first morning I woke up in her house. It was Sunday.
“Shannon,” Gini said, “it’s time for church.”
Church?! Why did I have to go to church when my own father—an atheist—didn’t? To make matters worse, Gini had the nerve to introduce me to the bishop as her “daughter, Shannon.”
“Actually, you’re my stepmom,” I snottily corrected her. “My real mom’s looking for a job, then she’ll come get me.”
Gini’s stricken look caused me a moment of remorse, but also exasperation. Why couldn’t she just leave me alone to do my time?
For the next few weeks, I disappeared into the steamy pages of bodice rippers, until the day my wicked stepmother discovered me binge-reading “Devil’s Desire,” confiscated the book and told me it was time to “rejoin the family,” which sent me straight to my journal to curse this perceived indignity.
“Rejoining the family” was a euphemism for chores like vacuuming, scrubbing toilets, dishwashing and pulling weeds. I felt like Cinderella even though my stepsister, Gina, toiled right next to me. I remember daydreaming about my own funeral and imagined Gini flinging herself on my casket wailing, “Why did I try to parent Shannon when she already had a real mom?”
The only problem was that my real mom was struggling to pull herself together (which she eventually—heroically—did). In the interim, years went by and before I knew it, I was a seventh-grader still living under Gini’s thumb.
One night, as I slaved over dinner dishes, I felt her lurking behind me.
“Shannon, what’s going on?” she asked. “I can tell something’s bugging you.”
“Robert Lyle asked me to go steady,” I told her. “He’s this really popular eighth-grader. Everyone thinks I should go with him, but I really don’t want to.”
“You just tell him your mom says you’re too young to go steady,” Gini replied.
I was so relieved! It still annoyed me when Gini referred to herself as my “mom” (even though she was the one who taught me how to shave my legs, hook my training bra and affix a menstrual pad to my underwear), but in this case, I was happy to make an exception.
Not surprisingly, things between us became even more strained as I got older.
“Where were you yesterday afternoon, Shannon?” she asked.
“I was hitting tennis balls at the junior high school.”
“By yourself? You weren’t meeting a boy?”
How did she know? Was she Agatha Christie? I had a secret tryst with a boy named Chuck who I’d met over spring break with my mom. He was 19, smelled like sunshine, tasted like Corona beer and rode a motorcycle.
“How do you know I met a boy?” I asked. “Did Gina tell you?”
“Gina didn’t tell me anything.”
“Then how did you know?”
We stared each other down for what felt like forever until Gini blinked first.
“I’m not proud of this,” she said. “And I might be wrong to have done it, but I … I read your journal.”
“I hate you!” I shouted. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you!”
OK, I only shouted it in my head. But my eyes seared her soul. I was grounded for a month, although I did manage to sneak off with Chuck once after that—but the thrill was gone.
I then escaped to college but not from the thrall of bad boys (I am my mother’s daughter!) until everything came to a head the night I turned 30 and discovered my then-boyfriend romancing another woman in his apartment at 2 a.m.
One hour later, I was huddled in my childhood bed, sobbing into Gini’s favorite purple robe. She gently took my left arm and massaged it from wrist to shoulder, then took my right arm and did the same.
“From the very first moment I saw you, Shannon,” she said quietly, “I wanted you to be mine. I’m so glad I got to have you. I sure do love you, honey.”
Normally, I would’ve been annoyed to hear her talk that way, but in that moment I needed to be claimed.
It took five more years to give bad boys up for good, and no one beamed brighter than Gini when I walked down the aisle to marry a faithful, loving man.
But after the birth of my daughter, I realized something had to change between us. Sitting next to her at a family gathering, cradling my baby, I girded myself.
“Do you … do you want me to start calling you ‘Mom’?”
The words hung between us, forced and unnatural, and then a surprising thing happened. Or, I should say, didn’t happen.
Gini didn’t gloat. She simply said, “Whatever you’re comfortable with, honey.”
At 67, my stepmom no longer wore thick black eyeliner or false eyelashes. Her hair was still the same shade of platinum blond, but was cropped close to her head. She could still intimidate, but there was a vulnerability about her that I hadn’t seen before. Which is not to say it was never there.
As she watched me with my daughter, Gini smiled and said something I had heard before: “From the very first moment I met you, Shannon, I wanted you to be mine. I’m so glad I got to have you. I sure do love you, honey.”
“I love you, too … Mom,” I said and began to cry.
Gini’s love—no matter how hard I tried to push it away—had saved me.
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