“We received a nice card from your Dad and Christa,” an elderly acquaintance recently told me. Never having thought of my mother as “Christa,” it took me a second to realize they were not referring to my younger sister. Initially, I dismissed this incident. Memory, though, is quite independent, and I found myself repeatedly rehashing that conversation and the questions it raised. Why did they assume that I didn’t call her Mom? Is that possibly the norm for families like mine? Could it be that I’ve just been incredibly lucky without ever having realized it – lucky that my stepmother has always been Mama to me? The quest to answer these questions has sometimes been painful and humbling, but always rewarding.
My birth-mother died when I was 15 months old. She had battled leukemia for over a year. During that time, Mama Lynn had spent all her energy in reaching out to others, and caring for Papa and us six children. She worked on our scrap books and photo albums and got our clothes in order for when she wouldn’t be there anymore. Edna St. Vincent Millay, the twentieth century American poet, once described loss as “a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night.” Although for me this grief is now more like a tide that comes and goes, Mama Lynn’s death has left a certain hole in my life that will never be filled. I don’t remember her, but I’ll always carry the knowledge of her love in my heart.
In Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman writes about this hole in the lives of women who have lost their mother in childhood or adolescence. Mother-loss, she says, creates a void which a daughter may spend her lifetime trying to fill. Most will have difficulty trusting another woman after experiencing their mother’s death, and many will never find a “mother substitute” to turn to for advice, counsel, and friendship.
Stepchildren experience loyalty conflicts which Wednesday Martin, in her book Stepmonster, says can be eased when a birth-mother gives her children permission to like their stepmother. Maybe Mama Lynn was subconsciously doing that for us the day she gave Papa her blessing, saying that if he found another wife in our church after her death, she would be happy. At the time this conversation was more than he could handle. Looking back, though, it has only been a comfort to Papa and to us children.
The autumn after Mama Lynn’s death, my sister entered kindergarten in our church’s school. Her new teacher was Christa. In the parent-teacher working together, a God-given love slowly grew between Papa and her. A few days after my fourth birthday, Papa told us that Christa would soon be our new mother. Those were exciting days! I often pull out the well-worn photos of the day when their honeymoon was over and we welcomed them home. The joy is tangible on every face: joy in this gift that God gave to our family.
Looking back now, I realize that I have never thought of her as Christa, “my stepmother,” or “my Dad’s wife.” They have always been Papa and Mama. My sister Christa and my two younger brothers are technically my half-siblings. We never thought of each other that way, though, and it never crossed my mind that Mama would favor them.
What is the secret then? How did Mama manage to love all of us wholeheartedly through our childhood and adolescent years? How were we able to end up a family that I couldn’t imagine differently? If Martin would have interviewed my family for Stepmonster, she may have said it was the result of circumstances and timing. I was four when Mama came into our lives – Martin describes this as an age when “children are generally open to forming meaningful attachments” – and Mama, who was in her late thirties, had been longing for a family and children of her own. The answer, though, lies much deeper than this. I think Eugene O’Neill, an Irish American playwright, touched on it when he wrote: “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.”
Remembering this “glue” has always been a reassurance. As a teen, I was the cause of much discord in my family through my headstrong attitude and temper. When Mama and I had run-ins, though, Papa always made it crystal clear that they were a team and that he would not tolerate any disrespect towards her. The ultimate healing from our brokenness, though, lies in God’s gift of “living by mending” which includes asking for, receiving, and giving forgiveness. This daily forgiveness and gathering together each evening to pray for Jesus’ protection and leading were the glue that kept my family together.
Now, as an adult living on my own, I realize just how lucky I am to have Mama as a friend a confidant. I wrote the following poem for her last July:
My privilege now – returning as an adult,
Seeking you out, and saying “Thank you,”
(As twilight’s gray cloak surrounds us)
“Life wouldn’t be the same without you –
Though others call you Christa
You’ll always be Mama to me.”
The fireflies light this moment
(A God-blessed gift of a moment)
July’s fireworks light the distance,
But God’s fireworks are enough for you and me.
I think often of the many stepmothers who are exhausted by trying and having their affection rejected. God sees their love, work, and effort. A stepfamily may never become just like an original family, but does this matter? Through the years, God’s grace kept inextricably gluing my family together in a wonderful way. With his grace as the glue, each family can become as he intended.