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Stepping Up

by Julia Sneden

We tend to think of melded families (his, hers & ours) as a phenomenon of our modern, divorce-savvy age, but in truth there is not much thats new about them. A few generations back they came about not by divorce, but from death of a spouse, something which happened all too frequently before the rise of modern sanitary practices and antibiotics.
      Of my eight great grandparents, at least four were members of melded families, most often because a mother or wife had died young. Within a couple of generations, however, the causes had shifted from disease and death to desertion and divorce.
      Whatever the instigating  circumstances, step relations have been with us for a long time. It seems to me that like any family relationship, step sometimes works, and sometimes doesnt. There are always preferences among relatives. Some cousins are like brothers and sisters to you, and some brothers and sisters are like distant and not particularly sympathetic cousins. It all depends on personalities. Some suit each other. Some dont.
      But the step-ness does bring with it its own baggage. One deals with a sense of intrusiveness, no matter how nice the new relation may be. Family relationships begin at birth, and the shared history enables many things to be understood without discussion. Step relations must quickly sort out family priorities, rules, jokes, habits, preferences, etc. Its also likely that at least one of the participants has had not much to say about becoming related.
      I have been a stepdaughter and a stepsister, and now Im a stepgrandmother. From my own experiences, I know that it can take a long time to forge good connections within melded families. So when my son became interested in a woman who had a five-year-old, I wondered how we would fit into one anothers lives.
      For starters, we met by the United States Mail. I sent her a photo of the llama that visited in my classroom:  a blonde llama with a bright blue bridle and a red neckerchief, standing on the carpet, right in front of the art shelves! She sent me a drawing of herself.  We exchanged photos. I sent her email. She made a computer picture of the new house, and when her mother typed her email responses, they sent the drawing as an attachment. By the time we finally met, we felt predisposed to like each other.
      It was, in fact, a felicitous fit. By the time her mother and my son decided to marry, I was already feeling deprived over not having had this child in my life from her birth. I craved photos of her infancy. I resented the distance between North Carolina and California. I wanted to shower her with stuff. I sent her a placemat of the United States, with silver stars on California and North Carolina, and a note which read: If only we could cut out the states in between, and stitch the Blue Ridge to the Sierra Nevada
      The ensuing years have tempered my impulsivity (though never my enthusiasm!), but they have also brought us into a deeper understanding. She and I have weathered a couple of dicey moments together, and have moved from the first razzle-dazzle claimings of new love to the more comfortable and real give-and-take of family living, even though we are together only four times a year.
     This child is a beauty. Her abundance of curly, dark hair (even her eyelashes curl tightly) and her sparkling brown eyes are exactly the things I, a blue-eyed, stringy-haired blonde, longed for in my childhood. Her mother tells me shed like to be a straight-haired blonde. Were soulmates in dissatisfaction.
      She has a sensitivity I understand instinctively, the sensitivity of someone whose world has been shaken and reshaped early-on. Like me, she is fortunate in having parents who love her, and who concentrate on her welfare in their dealings with each other.
     The first Christmas she spent with us, I saw her eyeing the glass cookie jar, which was filled with cocoa meringue kisses.
     Would you like one? I asked.
     She looked a little dubious, but just then, my son took one out and bit into it. I thought they were rocks, she said with a giggle.
     Ever since, cocoa meringues have been known as rock cookies at my house, and she and I laugh as we make them, hoping someone will come along and think theyre rocks.
     I appreciate her sense of humor. She likes my rock cookies. As I said, its a good fit.

         Thanks to the reader who responded to our "Age Rage" column with this observation: "Lately, I've noticed that in supermarkets and other stores, many young clerks have trouble acknowledging our existence. They continue talking to other people in the area, and never bother looking at you. I try to be friendly and pleasant, but it is not always easy when you are treated like an invisible presence."
     Oh my, yes! The other day I made a purchase while the clerk who was ringing me up was on the phone with her boyfriend. Did I exist? I did not! It does strike me, however, that maybe the phenomenon was related to her age, not to mine. I suspect she'd have treated anyone the same. Why do stores no longer train their young employees in the proper attitude toward customers?



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