Though I have six kids, only three of them grew under my heart; the other three grew in it. I got married again when Jack was seven and one of my wedding gifts was another set of two boys and one girl – my husband Lance’s children by his first marriage.
They didn’t move in with us until we’d already been living in our house for several months, but we prepared for their arrival just as hopefully and anxiously as ever we’d readied the nest for a newborn. We set up their rooms, accumulated a basic layette (girls’ size 6 and boys’ sizes 8 and 14 instead of diapers and onesies) and alerted our pediatrician that they’d be coming soon. We tried to anticipate every possible outcome so we could prepare Joy, Red and Jack for their new siblings – not an easy matter, because their birth mother (Bertha) was very outspokenly against the whole situation.
11 year old Bender and 7 year old Sassy came first, one hot August afternoon. Bertha arranged to meet Lance at a truck stop about 25 miles from our house. I waited in the car while the exchange was made, so as not to make it any more difficult on the kids. It was not as though we hadn’t met yet – as soon as Lance and I knew we were going to be getting married, we started taking the kids out with us two-on-one so we could get to know each other. Still, Bertha had filled their little heads with every Evil Stepmother story she could devise and when they got into the car the poor little things had eyes as big as manhole covers and were obviously expecting me to eat them alive as soon as we drove away.
Rocky was 13 and spending a few weeks at his Grandmother’s house when the transition happened, so we didn’t get him until nearly the end of the summer. He was delivered to us by train and we picked him up at Union Station, a lone little guy with baggy pants and spiky hair and 80-year-old eyes.
Rocky was an Old Soul wearing a punk rock skin, and he was old enough when his parents separated that he’d already realized that Things Were Not Good at home. Bertha always said about him, “He’s five” (or whatever age) “goin’ on forty, haw haw haw!” and it was true – when Lance wasn’t home, Rocky was the grown-up in charge. He went from that to being the second-oldest child – and a CHILD – with remarkable aplomb, though it can’t have been easy.
Bender was a blue-eyed dynamo. At 11 he’d already been diagnosed with ADHD, allergies and general cussedness – which as far as I was ever able to determine was Valley Talk for “he acts like a boy.” He was a charming Tom Sawyer, a combination of fierce loyalty and a total rejection of any obligations. Thanks to Bender there was never any question of “breaking the ice” in our new family – if he was around, everything breakable was already broken!
Sassy was adorable and terrified. She was Bertha’s pet and spent more time with her than anyone else once the boys got old enough to escape the house, so she’d heard more than they had about the horrible things I was going to do to them and the horrible person I was. She’d flinch in the most heartbreaking way if I spoke to her and her most-repeated phrase in those early days (about everything from her new school to a new food) was, “I don’t twust it.”
Lance and I had decided early on that we were going to start on Day 1 with a firm set of rules, curfews and expectations, and that we were going to stick to them come hell or high water. This was designed to give all six kids a small island of security in the sea of upheaval their lives had become, and it was also designed (with a deviousness of which we were very proud) to give the kids a chance to unite against a common enemy: Us. This worked surprisingly well, and they were astonished to learn years later that we had actually KNOWN about their clandestine midnight poker games, the times they snuck out of the house together to go to the park, and the Spy Club that recorded our every word, move and action. People who meet our family now often say, “I can’t believe they’re step-siblings! They all get along together so well!”
Well, I have a lot of theories about why that is, and you will probably be reading about many of them in the coming weeks. The long and the short of it is, though, that we get along well because we worked very hard at it, and because (step or not) we’re a family. Families have a shared history, inside jokes, semi-healed wounds and great memories.
I will always be grateful to Lance for that wedding present.