Valentine’s Day makes me think a lot about relationships, and certain moments in my dad’s relationship with my stepmother are etched in my brain. I don’t recall the first time I met her, but I do remember the nights I learned of both their engagement and their marriage.
For the former, I met them for dinner at a Thai restaurant in the Virginia suburbs, not too far from my hometown or my new apartment in D.C. My dad grew up in India, so he always enjoyed ethnic food, but after my parents’ divorce, he often ate meals off the McDonald’s dollar menu or out of a Hamburger Helper box. Partially because it was easy, but also because he was cheap. That’s how I knew he meant business with this woman: they tried all sorts of new restaurants and he never once complained about the cost. So off I went to an “authentic” Thai dinner and noticed a diamond ring on her left hand. I made it through the meal, telling them congratulations before finding an excuse to leave. I called my boyfriend in California, telling him the news while I got gas before crossing the river back into D.C., as it’s cheaper than in the district (the apple doesn’t fall far).
I moved to California that summer to be with Chase, and my dad moved to North Carolina a few weeks later, to be closer to his fiancée. About six months later, on a Friday afternoon, my brother was on spring break from college and visiting me in San Diego, when I received a call that they had gone to the courthouse to get married. That night, we went to a bar near the beach with friends. I drank a lot and kept saying to Chase, “I can’t believe my dad got married today.” I’m fortunate that I don’t really get hangovers, but the next morning I was still a bit queasy from the thought of my dad married to someone other than my mom.
For the next couple years I was always polite to my stepmom, though I didn’t think she was as fun as my dad and she was a total neat freak. I realize to those who know me that this may sound like “the pot calling the kettle black.” They came for a visit and she spent hours scrubbing the grout in my kitchen counter tile. I’ll admit it looked amazing, but it was a rental apartment and she was on vacation. I am organized and neat, but that lady is out of control, I thought. Is this her idea of fun?
A few more years passed. I got married and had Clay. She was beyond helpful at our wedding. She helped me unpack in our first house, making sure I arranged the kitchen in a way that would be kid-friendly. Clay couldn’t even crawl at that point, so as a new mom, I didn’t even think about the fact that putting fragile items within arms reach would be a bad idea. She loved Clay as if he were her own grandchild and they spoiled him. My kids were my dad’s greatest joy and she was there to experience that joy with him. I liked her more as time went on, but still rarely talked to her directly. I always called my dad, then would occasionally chat with her for a few minutes.
Everything changed when my dad died. She tried to revive him, but after a massive heart attack, it didn’t help. Though she had called me I was nursing a two-week-old baby and didn’t hear it. Upon seeing the missed calls, I called my brother first. Then her. We spoke for some time, in the middle of the night. I don’t know what either of us said, except that before hanging up, she said “I love you.” Our relationship took a different turn then and there. I didn’t love her in the traditional sense because I hadn’t taken enough time to get to know her. I loved her for the way she loved my dad. For the fact that his last meal was pizza and ice cream (his favorite) and the last TV show he watched was Desperate Housewives (hers).
In the years since, I have maintained a relationship with her. That woman I thought was uptight? Turns out we have a lot in common. She flew in to visit us yesterday. Appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day. My dad was my first Valentine and he was her last. This year we were each other’s. Last night we celebrated as a family, enjoying pizza and (too many) sweets with Chase and the kids. I’m sure my dad smiled looking down on his two unlikely Valentines and wondered which one of us would be the first one to clean up after dinner. For the record, it was me.