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A Semblance of Normal

(by Annette Foglino)

Perhaps like many men, my father always had an eye for beautiful women, and my stepmother, Mary Ruth, was a classic example of beautiful, inside and out. But she was also tough on the outside, stoic and steady, covering up what I believe was a tender heart. She died recently at the age of 88, the devastating end of an era for me.

Maybe because I first knew Mary Ruth as a teenager, I didn’t see her as a mother figure, just a very cool lady who married my divorced father when I was 16. I never had any ugly stepmother issues. But while she was kind, her emotional barriers made it hard to become too intimate with her. I believe this invisible armor helped her to compartmentalize a traumatic past. Her first husband abandoned her when she was pregnant with her fourth child. (As my father described it to me back then, “He went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back.”) He left with his secretary to parts unknown, and it was up to her to raise their kids, all under the age six. Any time she got a lead on where he was living to get child support, he would leave.

With the help of her church and a few relatives, she struggled to raise her four children on a teacher’s salary. Once when she applied for what was known as “welfare” back then, a case worker came to inspect her modest apartment in Queens, New York, but denied her application because she didn’t believe Mary Ruth had been supporting her kids without outside help. Mary Ruth was kind of proud of that story because it showed how good she was at stretching a dollar.

When Mary Ruth married my father, I inherited four teenaged step-siblings, but she made the transition to a blended family easier because she was always pleasant and kind, sometimes even playing good cop to my father’s tough cop. (When he said “no” to something, it would often turn into a “yes” if he discussed it with her.)

Even though she wasn’t outwardly affectionate, Mary Ruth emanated a real loving presence that I didn’t feel from my own mother. I often wondered if my mother would have been more like Mary Ruth had she not had a mental illness. They shared many similar characteristics—both were teachers, well-read, thin, pretty, proper, and concerned about social justice and the poor. But my mother, who struggled with bipolar disorder, was inconsistent and emotional; we never knew when she would act out in an irrational fit. In contrast, Mary Ruth covered up any upset in her life with a gracious smile that somehow made its way out of her stiff upper lip.

Her skill at putting aside the unpleasant was on obvious display during holiday gatherings. My brother and I spent Christmas Eve with our mother and her Italian-American family, whose tradition was to exchange gifts on that night and celebrate with seafood and pasta. On Christmas Day, we’d visit my father, Mary Ruth, and my step-siblings on Long Island for a more Americanized feast of turkey, ham or roast beef, vegetables poured from a can, and pearl onions that came from a jar. Mary Ruth covered them in homemade cream sauce, a recipe from her former mother-in-law, who helped prepare our holiday meals before she and her husband joined us at the dining room table. For years, I assumed the elderly couple sitting across from me on holidays were Mary Ruth’s aunt and uncle, not the parents of the man who had abandoned her. (My father’s mother must have known because she would occasionally squint suspiciously at them from across the table.) But in typical “don’t-dwell-on-the-negative” fashion, no one mentioned the ex-husband or his whereabouts, ever.

For a couple of years, we were told that we weren’t exchanging gifts because some of my stepsiblings didn’t have the funds. Mary Ruth would spend days bargain hunting so that all of us would have plenty of presents to open. In the living room, with the scent of savory gravy in the air, Mary Ruth would hand out dozens of presents (including joke gifts like a singing fish for my father), and we’d all be connected in a joyful buzz. I’d leave those gatherings filled with love and satisfaction. Even if it was temporary, Mary Ruth offered a semblance of a normal, stable, and giving family.

When I was younger, there were times that I wished Mary Ruth was my mother, and then I’d feel guilty about it. My brother would spend a lot of time at friends’ houses, escaping the drama at home. But I kept holding on to the hope that my mother was going to pull out of her spiraling behavior. Once, in college, when I was having a dramatic blowout with my mother, I called my father, and Mary Ruth answered the phone. “I have to get out of this house,” I said, and she let me know that I was always welcome to stay with them.

A few weeks before I got married,