My Stepfather, Our Complicated Relationship and the Impact it Had on My Life

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This is my mother Lulu and my stepfather Frank, just a few years before they passed away. My mom died first and then my stepfather died about 18 months later.  Lots of irony because she took care of him for years after a stroke and then he outlived her. He actually came on to a mourner at her funeral. They had one of those on again, off again, mostly on again, relationships; it lasted over 40 years. I didn’t much care for Frank. He was an alcoholic who stopped drinking at a certain point, I don’t recall when. He married my mother with seven children, but he was selfish, crass and a racist. The conflict between us began the day they returned from their quickie marriage in Mexico. She divorced my father and married Frank on the same day. I still don’t know if that’s even possible; they might have been lying to me. Truthfully, I didn’t care.

I was eight years old when they married and my mother walked through the door first. She was in a festive mood and introduced her new husband; my stepfather.

Mom said, “Kids, this is your new father Frank,”

and he said, “You kids can call me dad.”

I thought to myself, “I don’t want to call this man dad, I have a dad,” but he insisted.

I knew of course that my mother had been sleeping with this cretin for a while; a long while. I knew that my father found out about their affair and threw my mother out on the street. She took us all to a Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, hotel that night and none of us got any sleep or at least I didn’t. Frank (not yet my stepfather) picked us up the next morning and I stared him down in the hotel elevator and point-blank asked him,

“Are you sleeping with my mother?”

I already knew the answer, but of course he denied it. One of the many reasons I hated the pig. It wasn’t long after this incident that they were married or at least said they were married. I admit I was a precocious child. I was super observant (still am) and I didn’t like what I saw. I felt that I was being forced into a situation I didn’t want to be in and I felt shame. Lots happened that seems almost fictional when I think about it today. Like the time we were camping in the woods and my mother pulled a rifle on Frank and we, my brothers and sisters, were certain she was going to kill him. I would have preferred to have Frank out of our lives, but I didn’t want to see my mother in prison. There were always lots of rifles around, Frank was a deer and rabbit hunter. He went hunting one time and my mother was in a panic because she hadn’t heard from him for days. I secretly wished him dead. A couple of days later he brought home a buck and we had to eat venison for a month. He often boasted about his kill and the number rifles he owned.

His rifles didn’t scare me, he scared me. There was a time when they were having a huge brawl in their locked bedroom. My mother was screaming my name and begging for help, but I couldn’t open their locked door. I called 911. When the police arrived they asked if there were any weapons in the room and I replied,

“No, just my stepfather’s hunting rifles.”

I remember the look the two police officers gave me. This was the chaos I lived in; sad to say, it all seemed very normal to me. I learned to be independent and resilient. I stayed away from home a lot and never told my mother where I was  and she didn’t ask. When it was just my mom and I, she would discuss her marriage with me. I liked being her confidant. I didn’t offer much in the way of advice; I hardly knew what to say. I  hoped she should leave him and she did leave him several times. Each time she’d call my father or her first husband Joe and allow them back into her life for a brief moment. Frank was always who she wanted to be with and she’d take him back in short order. As a child I believed that all marriages worked this way.

I viewed my own marriage as inevitable; everyone married didn’t they? My father had a gay son from a previous marriage and when I would ask why he wasn’t married, my father would say,

“He’s different.”

I certainly did not want to be different; therefore, despite my orientation, I started thinking about a wife and family. When I was nineteen years old and a college student in North Carolina, I was set up on a blind date with Lisa (not her name). Lisa was beautiful, smart, funny and perfect in just about every way and I knew almost instantly that I wanted her to be the mother of my children. Did I know I was gay? I knew that I had an attraction to men, but it was very easy to tuck that away into the far corners of my troubled mind. What I wanted more than anything else was a “normal” life. Of course I regret having pulled Lisa into this dishonest vortex, but that story is for another time.

Lisa and I were engaged about a year after we met and decided to marry after completing our undergraduate degrees. I can only tell you how it was for me; I was excited to have found someone exceptional to spend my life with. We spent all of our time away from university, together. My mother was thrilled to have a family Thanksgiving dinner that included Lisa and her twin sister. We were all excited about the day as we awaited its arrival. However, as with my holidays in our house, this one too would be filled with drama — I should have known better.

On Thanksgiving eve, 1979, my mother and stepfather had a big argument. My mother called me when I was in my dorm room preparing to return home for the holiday (I was about 35 minutes from home and I had a car). My mom asked me to come home right away. She said that my stepfather had “come after her” while they were arguing and that she was hemorrhaging badly. I said,

“Mom, shouldn’t you call 911?” and she replied,

“I’d rather wait for you to get here.”

I was home in 30 minutes, having gone way over the speed limit, to once again, rescue my mother. We sat in the emergency room for four hours until she was finally admitted. She kept repeating,

“I feel so badly that Thanksgiving is ruined.”

I, of course, assured her that we would find a way to make it happen and we did. My mother was released Thanksgiving morning and I agreed to do all of the cooking. The only dish I was unsure of was her stuffing recipe and my mom said she’d walk me through it. The whole time I was cooking, I was concerned that my stepfather would return home. At one point I heard him enter his camper in the backyard. My mother assured me that we didn’t have to worry about him. She said that he’d just stay in his camper and get drunk. She also shared that he was very angry that I brought her to the hospital. He felt that even though he had argued with her, it was his place, as her husband, to care for her. This was the mother/son, husband/wife, tug of war we battled throughout their entire marriage. What happened that Thanksgiving day is forever etched in my mind.

I cooked all day preparing for a 4:00 p.m. dinner. Lisa and her sister arrived at around 3:00 p.m. They sat with my mom and I was happy to hear laughter coming from the living room. I began thinking that I might be able to pull this off. My younger sister set the table and we called everyone to dinner; there were seven or eight of us. We were in middle of expressing our gratitude, about what I’m not sure, and my stepfather walked into the dining room, obviously intoxicated. He had come into the house to get a jug of wine. I couldn’t even look at him. Odd that this is almost 40 years ago, but I can see and hear it as it were yesterday. Frank glanced around the table, showed his teeth and said,

“I hope you all choke on your food.”

I admittedly have never been able to remain quiet and so I spoke up,

“Maybe you’ll choke on that wine.”

Then, all hell broke loose. He lunged for my throat and most of what was on the table ended up on the floor. There was lots of screaming and Frank’s hands were squeezing harder. I could not breathe. My younger brother grabbed him from behind, but Frank threw him off; my mother pleaded with him to let me go. I don’t actually remember what I was feeling while he was choking me. I do remember thinking that this was the way I was going to die. Frank must have had a moment of clarity and he finally let me go. I gasped for air and surveyed the dining room. Dishes, glass and food were everywhere; not a morsel was edible. Lisa and her sister were holding each other and crying. My brother Leo was talking Frank down and my mother was weeping in the corner of the room. The turkey was upside down on the floor next to the table.

I walked over to Lisa and her sister and said,

“Come on, we’re getting the hell out of here.”

We went to Lisa’s house so that we could calm down and process what had happened. My neck had huge welts and two large handprints. My mother called me and begged me not to involve the police. I told her that I wouldn’t call the police and that I never wanted to see or speak to my stepfather again. She said she understood and that she would be throwing him out and divorcing him.

Lisa’s family prayed and asked me to join them; I pretended to talk to God. What I did instead, was to tell myself that I would never again subject myself or anyone else I loved, to such abhorrent abuse.

I did eventually forgive my stepfather. I also stopped calling him dad.

 

 

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My intention is not to hurt anyone by dredging up the past. My parents (all of them) are deceased and my siblings have moved on. It’s more about sorting it out in my own mind; giving myself permission to be truthful with myself and others. I believe it helps for friends and family to know why I married and why I often react the way I do, in certain situations. Why I often seem insecure and why I fight certain causes; why honesty in relationships is so important to me.

 

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This is me with friends on our 66th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I’m the kid on the top far left. I always hid behind others; I lacked confidence. I didn’t like to be in photos then and I don’t like it now. The kid with the bat was my best friend Joey. He had enough confidence for all of us. I followed him everywhere and kept my mouth shut. Joey’s parents were my self-appointed God parents and they knew all about what was happening at home. It was so bad for me at one point, they crossed the street and calmly spoke to my mother. They asked her if it might be easier on her if I lived with them for a while. They told her I’d be close by and could see her everyday. My mother threw them out and I was grounded for a week. Myrna and Joe were the best kind of people. They raised me up and empowered me. The two of them and Myrna’s mother Anne, taught me the power of education and hope. We all have a story and our stories sum up who we are.

 

'I was 17 years old'
Dad and I at one of our weekly dinners @1976. Notice how I was hunched over and looking away from the camera.

12 thoughts on “My Stepfather, Our Complicated Relationship and the Impact it Had on My Life

  1. Your words are riveting and have me on the edge of my seat. You are an amazing writer. Once again, I’m sorry for your pain, we all have it but at different levels. I feel that some of our childhood experiences make us who we are today. Personally, I felt no one cared or understood who I was nor what I needed, I try to do that for others. xoxoxo

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  2. I feel like coming there to hug you! I never saw that side of him. I guess he mellowed I his later years. I do know that Lu was very proud of you and your accomplishments. Always spoke of u with a bursting heart.

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  3. Well written, with honesty, clarity and no excuses.. life is often cruel …. And kids are just kids. Makes no sense. In the end forgiveness jis the answer. And compassion. In order dor us to move on. I am sorry I won’t be moving closer to you in Portugal … Just yet! But lots of visits – Big hug coming your way next week from Ireland to Portugal with love.

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  4. That was just an incredible read. It brings a truth that some don’t want to think about…things they experienced in their own childhood. Keep going with this. Sending hugs, laughter and love your way…

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  5. Dearest Chris,
    Love your honesty and your ‘unputdownable’ writing. Another answer to why you moved to Portugal, this writing you could maybe never have done back home, where life (and memories) sometimes absorb creative energy . I always want to leave my home and go elsewhere to write, so I recognize that part.
    Much of what you write will help a lot of people. Not only because they went through similar situations, but also it will stimulate them more to keep their eyes wide open and notice children with abusive parents; and try to help them get out of that situation, just as your friends parents did for you. You came out a loving, refined and wiser man but so many children that go through the same, follow in their parents footsteps and let history repeat itself. You cannot blame them for not knowing otherwise.
    Please keep writing, because not only are you a good writer but a great storyteller just as well. Love Annelies

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    1. You’re so write about what relocation has done for my creative process. Thank you for your love and encouragement. I can’t wait to see you.

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