For nearly fifty years my stepmother Donna has made it clear there’s room for her alone in my father’s life. The way she stands so close and clings to him, the hundred excuses she’s made for breaking dates, the heavy breathing that lets me know she’s listening on the extension phone when I call. It’s only because she’s fighting cancer—in surgery now to remove half a lung—that I have my dad with me now for a few weeks. Without Donna around to interfere I feed him treats, plump his pillows, stroke his gnarled hands. The universe must think itself clever, arranging this set-up now, when my ninety-year-old dad can’t remember my name.
His confusion agitates the old guy, but the pleasures of food help to keep him calm—the familiar tastes and textures, the structure mealtime gives to our days. Since my father arrived my husband Gary and I have moved from balancing plates on our laps, as we’ve done for years, to dining at the table on china with linen napkins. Gary cooks three course meals: pot roast with vegetables; pork loin; roasted chicken. I sweep in after his offering of meat and potatoes with a plate of apple crisp, still warm and topped with vanilla ice cream, and watch him lick his fingers to get every drop.
On day eight of my father’s stay, my stepmother is discharged from the hospital and joins our household. I’ve braced myself for her arrival, sure to disturb our gentle pace. Hired nurses have helped me care for my father on a relaxed schedule: a nap in the afternoon, a Fred Astaire movie after dinner. Now, despite the oxygen tank she pulls along behind her tiny frame, Donna shoots orders at the nurses. Get him up and walk him down the hallway she demands. They scurry to do as she bids. I grind my teeth.
At dinner she tucks Dad’s napkin in his shirt and cuts his food. He drags a piece of meat through the gravy spilling from his mashed potatoes and smiles lovingly at his wife. I shove a hunk of dinner roll into my mouth, hoping the thick carbs slathered in butter will tamp down the fury his devotion to her stirs in me. Suddenly I’m thirteen, my father has married this woman I didn’t know, in a ceremony I wasn’t invited to attend, and I’m visiting his new home for the first time.
That long-ago night Dad picked my sister and me up from the run-down rental where we lived with our mother and drove us to the freshly painted A-frame he’d built for his new life. The house was small, maybe 1,000 square feet, surrounded by forest. I ran in the front door and up a flight of stairs to the loft overlooking a sunken living room. Peering over the railing I saw through an open door to the house’s only bedroom.
Donna called us to the table. I bounced down the steps from the balcony and into the kitchen to eat dinner with my father for the first time in months. If there was tension in the room I wasn’t aware of it. I assumed my new stepmother’s tight smile was genuine. She had made meatloaf for dinner, one of my favorites. I got up, chattering happily as I crossed the kitchen to the fridge and stood scanning the contents for ketchup. Donna leapt from her chair and started toward me.
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to take food you haven’t been offered?” she said, her voice sharp enough to puncture my buoyant mood. I froze, my eyes darting to my father. I expected him to jump to my defense, but he said nothing. I slunk back to the table and into my chair.
When I got home that night, I told my mother about the ketchup incident. Mom stormed to the wall phone and dialed my father’s number with a cigarette burning between her fingers, the long, coiled telephone cord wrapping around her as she paced.
“Tell that woman she better not speak to my kids like that again,” she bellowed into the phone.
We weren’t invited back. Until I was a grown woman, I never spent a single night in my father’s house. My list of grievances mounted year by year, Donna to blame for all of it. The times she and Dad left me out, missed school functions, forgot to call. The summer months when the two of them sailed their boat through the San Juan Islands, missing my July birthday every darn year. Donna was the villain—even when she tried to be kind, nothing she did could change my mind.
Now here we were, living in close quarters, the past bubbling just below the surface. He might not realize it, but my father is firmly in the middle between Donna and me—that much hadn’t changed in nearly fifty years.
Week three with our houseguests a new nurse named Mia comes to work a forty-eight-hour shift. From her first hours in my home something about that woman grates on me. Several times I’ve found her huddled with Donna, whispering. When I walk by, the two of them stop talking and wait for me to pass before their private chat begins again. They glance over at me, and then back at each other, shrugging, gesturing. I scurry away, the outsider.
By the end of her second day with us, Mia has pronounced every religion but hers wrong and everything on our dinner table unhealthy. Donna takes Mia’s side when I defend pork chops (no one’s had trichinosis in decades) and when I challenge Mia’s religious pronouncements Donna looks across the dinner table at her new-found collaborator and raises her eyebrows.
After dinner I find Donna and Mia in the hallway with their heads together. When they see me, they step back from each other and look away. I stomp upstairs, close myself into my office, and call the agency to tell them I want Mia off our rotation of nurses. When Donna finds out, she begs me to change my mind.
“Mia’s so good with your father,” she argues.
I don’t respond.
“But Mia’s my favorite!” she pleads.
“Sorry,” I say, though I’m not sorry until the next morning when I find Donna in the kitchen making tea. Her breathing is still labored from the surgery, her normally ruddy skin nearly white. She’s shrunken, her shoulders rounded, a vulnerable seventy-eight. The look on her face says she’s still stinging from my decision to dismiss Mia. I suspect she feels trapped; wishes she’d never agreed to stay at my house. She pours boiling water into a mug and dunks a teabag, her eyes avoiding mine.
I absently fold and refold a dishtowel, tuck my hair behind my ear, move a plant into the sunlight streaming through the window above the sink, my certainty about yesterday’s decision crumbling. I wish I could explain to my stepmother that my feelings about her are so tangled by our history that even her harmless friendship with Mia pushed buttons I didn’t know I had. It occurs to me I’ve blamed her since I was thirteen for my father’s disinterest, cursed her for keeping him away from me—as if he wasn’t a grown man who could choose how he spent his time. She’s been a buffer, easy to blame when the truth about my father was too painful to acknowledge. It might make a difference to say this aloud, to have a real conversation with Donna and clear the air, but the words refuse to come.
The words will never come.
Donna blows on her scalding tea. I open the pantry and push aside the canisters of flour and rice and dig out my secret stash of dark chocolate, remedy for disappointments, heartache, missed opportunities and plain foul moods. I touch the old woman’s shoulder and offer her a piece. She takes it, and we stand together for a moment, there in my kitchen, with sweetness on our tongues.
Joyce Tomlinson received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing from Pacific University. Her work has been published in several literary magazines, including Hippocampus, Crab Creek Review, Lunch Ticket, and December. She was awarded a residency at Playa at Summer Lake in Eastern Oregon. A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Newcastle, Washington with a huge Bernedoodle and a regular-sized husband.