To my surprise, one morning Dr. Ken Natsuko showed up at the front door. I answered in my bathrobe having barely succeeded in getting George, Jimmy, and my step-son Jack off to school. In my previous incarnation as a single struggling mother, only my children had health insurance, so having a doctor come to the house for my cough seemed like a miracle of Moraine’s small-town life.
I had “walking” pneumonia, the doctor said, probably because I was run down. I knew better: I was sick because I couldn’t cope with my husband’s edict that I change nothing in the house.
All I remember of that six-week period was that I was either in bed or sitting in an ugly gold-colored Early American chair next to John’s unique indoor built-in barbeque. The barbeque, built to John’s specifications with a rack for cooking large batches of steak and chicken, was housed on the opposite side of the free-standing fireplace that faced the unused living room. It was built so John would not have to barbeque outside when he came home late from the store. That spot was the warmest room in the house because it also received direct heat from the aged forced-air heater. During those weeks, I barely moved from that worn, stained chair, watching my new family through an antibiotic, coughing haze as they interacted with one another. As for my children, it was a time of great exploration: new house, new rural surroundings. Mommy was home and so they were happy.
What I saw was that the Stewart children were entirely different from their father. While John loved his life, his customers, and his business, John’s children seemed caught in his riptide, unable to pull themselves away from his bidding and the insidious pull of the store.
Charles was the eldest at 28. He was handsome with blond good looks. He worked as an accountant for a government agency, and he was the one who made up all the profit and loss financial statements for Stewart’s Market. Charles seemed older than his years, as if he carried a great weight on his shoulders, but he was a kind man and seemed eager to be of help. He was married to Carol, a very thin, pretty woman with curly blond hair whose lean smile told me she was unhappy. She desperately wanted children, Charles did not.
John’s second child Dennis was 25 years old. Tall and good looking in a Tom Cruise kind of way, he wore a forbidding demeanor. He spoke little and when he did, it was usually a command. He worked full time at Stewart’s Market, taking up the slack for his father, which was often because John regularly left the market to attend countless Rotary or community meetings, or to play tennis with friends.
Dennis was married to a lovely, cheery young woman who was from a wealthy family. They had an adorable two-year-old daughter, and when I married John, Beth was pregnant with their second child.
Deena, 20, was John’s only daughter. She was not much different in personality than her brother Dennis, but she exhibited deep emotional problems. A visible sign of her angst was her filthy bedroom. She never spoke unless spoken to; the one exception was to reprimand my children. Deena had a friend Missy, who practically lived at the house, often spending the night in Deena’s bed. The implication of that relationship was beginning to dawn on me, but I was in no condition to address it.
And then there was Jack, my 13-year-old step-son who thought he was going to be the next Danny White, the star quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. He was incredibly competitive in sports—baseball, soccer and field hockey, and absolutely loved professional football. I knew Jack wasn’t happy about his father’s marriage because he seldom looked or spoke directly to me during those first few weeks after I moved in. While Jack’s bullying behavior with my boys didn’t help our relationship, there was a part of me that wanted to reach out and mother him because I could feel his unhappiness.
Our marriage had upset the Stewart equilibrium. No one expected John to remarry—particularly John’s sister Joann—especially a woman fifteen years younger with two children. As I look back, I believe the family thought John loved the freedom he exhibited after Gloria died—his trips to Las Vegas with a number of desirable women, his political parties, the endless rounds of social events. The Stewart children surmised John was lonely, but they really did not believe he was lonely enough to bring a woman into their household. This revelation came to me during those six interminable weeks when I was sick and never left the confines of John’s house.
During this period, I had no idea how to rectify the situation I found myself in—living with a family that didn’t want me. What kept me going was my firm belief that John’s children would gradually welcome me because of my deep feeling for their father.
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