I was surprised to find myself referenced in the lines of the obituary. Somebody was mindful — maybe the parent of the other three step-grandchildren, though I’m not sure who they are.
When the deceased and I first met, I was already a young adult, so I don’t know that I ever considered her a step-grandmother, though perhaps some if not all of my younger sisters did.
I find myself touched to be included all these years later, to be considered family, even while the ground beneath that sentiment shifts, inviting closer inspection.
My “step-grandmother” was an elegant woman — or maybe “graceful” better captures her, but a grace born of self-composure more than wealth or finery. Despite her graciousness, however, she stung me once, irrevocably, and all these years later, it comes back to me, when I am the age she would have been then.
My father, the surgeon, began sleeping with her oldest daughter, the operating room nurse, when I was in college and the nurse in her 20s.
My parents soon divorced, and my father’s new bride had the large church wedding denied to my mother two decades earlier. My mother, a generational Catholic, born on Christmas Day like her Aunt Doll, was turned away from the Church, not because she was expecting me — which she was — but because my father’s grandfather was Jewish.
There was, as a result, nothing to be annulled of my parents’ city hall marriage when my father married again.
After the parish affair, the my father, the surgeon, and his new bride, the young OR nurse, built an extravagant home on the water. I helped them move in, and soon after I stopped by with my childhood friend to show her the place. My father had helped his new friend, the architect, with the design and he was exceedingly proud of it.
My childhood friend knew my father back when he lived with me in the stately brick home that once belonged to his parents over the toll bridge. That home seemed almost campy in comparison, especially since it was situated on an island upon that the OR nurse and my father made clear was inferior to the wealthier one upon which their new home was built.
My childhood friend also knew my father when we lived in an even campier home on a side street of the same lesser island over the toll bridge. It was in that house, in fact, that my fifth and sixth sisters were born, less than a year apart. “Irish twins,” they call them. My mother was Irish.
It was in this same home that my mother began to buckle under the weight of too much to bear alone. It was there that my father’s private practice began to take off, as did his earnings — along with his sense of self, which was already atmospheric.
My mother remained on Earth, tending to their six children, ages newborn to 15, and to the home and even to the books for my father’s office, not to mention to a full calendar of social engagements expected of a surgeon and his wife. My mother was introvert.
It was in this lesser house on a side street on the lesser island with six children that my mother found herself in her mid-30s at the edge of disappearance as my father’s life increasingly revolved around itself.
And it was soon after we moved from the campier home into my father’s parents’ home on the main thoroughfare of the same lesser island that my mother jumped, as they say, “from the frying pan into the fire,” but not without a warning, which she delivered to me two years before my parents split.
I was 16 that summer. I remember where my mother and I were that day, seated inside the minivan under the shade tree just after she picked me up from my summer job at the hospital and before she dropped me off at my evening job as a hostess and dropped off one of my younger sisters at a friend’s house.
“If your father and I ever split up,” my mother said, seemingly out of the blue, “he’ll be with that OR nurse — the tall, pretty one. She’s more his type.”
My mother said this matter-of-factly, maybe even wearily, from the driver’s seat of the minivan, which was filled with my father’s children.
“Dad introduced me to her today outside the operating room,” I said.
My mother nodded, and she remained there at the wheel of the mini-van for some time without pressing on has to pull away from the curb of the house that had belonged to her in-laws before it became ours.
* * *
When my childhood friend and I arrived at my father’s new waterside mansion, we entered where I had been instructed to enter: through the garage door, but only after knocking.
No one ever knocked at the stately home that had belonged to my grandparents on the lesser island over the toll bridge. “Knocking was for guests,” I was told, and even close friends were considered family.
I knocked on the door inside the garage and found my new “step-grandparents” inside, seated around the kitchen island. From their perch, they could see out to the water through the spiral staircase that my father and his friend the architect designed to appear suspended in midair at the center of the home.
“Hi, Kelly,” my step-grandmother offered with her signature grace. Her husband nodded from his stool beside hers. It appeared that no one else was home.
“I wanted to show my friend around,” I said enthusiastically. My step-grandparents nodded their approval.
I proceeded with my childhood friend past the spiral staircase to the sunken dining room and beyond it to the living room with its floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the water.
From there, I took my friend out onto the deck and down onto the dock, after which we spiraled back around through the side door, passing between my father’s office and the den, and into the kitchen again, where I turned to head up the spiral staircase seemingly suspended in midair.
“Kelly,” my step-grandmother said from her watchful perch at the kitchen island. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go upstairs.”
I was part-way up the spiral staircase, and I looked back toward the island, confused, and so my step-grandmother explained, suggesting that I should wait until my father and her daughter were home before going upstairs.
I looked up the remaining curve of the staircase knowing that my four younger sisters’ bedrooms were just beyond the railing on the street side of the house, just past the guest bedroom with its balcony view of the water.
But what was true in the home that my mother bought with her alimony after the divorce — a three-bedroom Victorian with only a single bathroom for six girls, her new beau, and their baby boy — was even more true in my father’s house — there was no room for me.
In fact, the only sign that I could find that I ever belonged to my father was a single photo that sat beneath the spiral staircase on a hutch in the sunken dining room.
This photo had been a birthday gift in the year my father left us. The oldest of my younger sisters had arranged it. A professional photo of our father’s “Six Misses,” the name he had given to his first boat, a pun on the absence of a son, each “Miss” belonging not to his new bride but to our mother.
Of this error of existence, my father reminded us often — how he’d never had a son and how the very sight of his six girls was at times a source of pain to his new bride of the children she would never have with him.
I could see the photo of the six of us on the middle shelf of the hutch in the sunken-dining-room from the spiral staircase, and in the years to come I would always think of it as a sign, however vague, that I was truly related to my father — that we had ridden his motorcycle together on the beach, my arms wrapped around his warm belly; that he and I had built campfires in the Rockies and learned to ski together at Copper Mountain; that he had taught me to swim and how to ride a two-wheeler; that he’d given me my first stitch in my knee in the kitchen of our ranch in Newport News; that we’d lived together in a trailer in NJ when we were a family of three, and in a highrise in Philly where as a family of four, in a rancher in Virginia when we were five, and in a split-level in Colorado where we became six, and on the base at West Point, where I’d accompanied my father on his rounds and scrubbed with him for surgery, and later worked with him as his office at the shore when he joined my grandfather’s practice, an office I’d frequented as a girl.
My father eventually sold the office, too, like he sold my grandparents’ house, disposing of what remained of the past we’d shared, disposing of me, too, I guess. I had lived above the office in the apartment upstairs during the summers that I was in college, and after me, the oldest of my younger sisters moved in, as did the sister after that, each of us displaced and reeling, seeking solace in what remained of the past.
I’d meant to continue spiraling up the stairs of my father’s new home despite my “step-grandmother’s” admonition. Wasn’t it my father’s house, after all.
But my childhood friend paused at the foot of the sweeping staircase, looking up at me suspended in mid-air and back at my “step-grandmother” perched on the kitchen stool beside her husband, certain of their place.
“Maybe we can come back another time, Kel,” my friend said with more awareness of the gravity of how my life was reshaping.
And so it was, that with I descended the spiral staircase and exited through the door to the garage.
And it was in this way, little by little, and sometimes like a crack in the world beneath my feet, I came to understand that I was no longer related to my father, not in the way I had been, and not in the way I had taken for granted that I always would be.
And something else. Something unspoken: I was never to speak of this.
* * *
When I spoke up anyway, I would not see my father for some time. I would not have my calls answered. I would not be invited over. And most unbearable, I would be blocked from seeing my four youngest sisters who had been forced to move in with my father after my mother jumped out of the frying pan of her marriage to my father into the fire.
It was soon after my mother moved her six girls and her new beau and their new baby, a boy, into the house with the single bathroom, that she began to spiral.
The oldest of my younger sisters and I called on my father for help, but if he wasn’t too busy with work, which he always was, then he was out every night with the OR nurse and couldn’t be bothered with something as small and inconsequential as caring for or even visiting his children.
It wasn’t until someone in the public eye reached out to him that his hand was forced, and so he brought his four youngest daughters, ages 5 to 14, to live with him in his townhouse, renovating the garage into bedrooms and turning the care of said children over to his 20-something girlfriend where it belonged.
“You’re a mother now,” my future step-grandparents said to their oldest daughter, the OR nurse, about her late nights on the town with my father, the surgeon, “You have responsibilities.”
When the OR nurse began to buckle under the weight of work and caring for four children and the townhouse in which my father lived with them, my father did what he did when my mother began to buckle: He expected more of his children.
This was, in fact, how I came to be fired from his office in the summer before my parents split up. He’d arrived at my bedside one morning in the dormitory above the garage in the stately home on the lesser island that had once belonged to his parents, and issued a directive:
“Kelly Ann, get up and help your mom with laundry.”
When I explained that I had been taking my own laundry to the laundromat and that I had to get to work that morning, he replied, “You’ll do it before work.”
When I explained that I was expected at 9, he said, “You’ll skip work today and help your mother with the laundry.”
When I asked why he never helped with the laundry, he told how important his work in comparison to mine.
When I said that I could not miss work because the office staff expected me, he fired me, right there, under the covers.
My father stormed out of my bedroom above the garage at the house that had once belonged to his parents just as he stormed into my younger sisters’ bedrooms years later in the renovated garage of the townhouse where he lived after the separation.
He told my four little sisters, ages 5 to 14, that if they didn’t behave for his girlfriend, the OR nurse, if they didn’t treat her better, if they didn’t help her more around the house, that he would send them back to live with my mother, the mother who had jumped from the frying pan of one marriage into the fire of another, and who had been too drunk to brush her children’s hair or bathe them or pick them up from school or make them dinner.
My father never made good on that threat to return his children to his drunken ex, but I was on the receiving end of those sobbing phone calls of my little sisters while I was at school. By the time my father married the OR nurse and moved into the waterside mansion, one sister was sent away to boarding school, while another moved out before she’d finished high school, crowding into the studio apartment above the doctor’s office with another sister rather than remain in the beautiful home beside the water.
* * *
During those spiraling years of displacement, I would find my father’s new in-laws — parents and brothers and sisters and spouses and kids and family friends — happily ensconced inside the new home, circled around its spiral staircase, certain of their belonging.
My father and his bride always extolled the helpfulness of her family and friends so that I might better understand that relational ties like mine had been commodified, and center stage had been earned by my father’s new family and friends, while I was forevermore cast as an extra, easily forgotten, often in the way, and mostly ignored, as I was just some years back when I traveled 300 miles to attend the funeral of my “step-grandfather.”
On rare occasions, if I stumbled upon my father home in the mansion alone or if he’d had a couple drinks, but not yet too many — say, at his annual black-tie Christmas Party — he might recognize me as his daughter beside the glow of the twinkle lights as if a fog of amnesia had cleared. He might bend down then in his black tie beside the spiral staircase to kiss my forehead or tussle my hair as if I wasn’t only a reminder of the wreckage he’d helped create and left behind, as if I wasn’t a reminder of the children that his new wife would never have with him, as if I wasn’t the one who spoke out about all the pain spiraling around him.
With a snifter of Grand Marnier in hand beside a tower of shrimp and sliced sirloin, my father would suggest that we get together again, as I blinked back tears, feeling found after so long lost to him.
My father might invite me over for dinner or to an outing, but when I’d arrive at the scheduled hour, it was clear that others had been invited too, others who had all arrived ahead of me, so that I would be seated as far away as possible from him.
Once, maybe twice, or even three times — I shudder to recall them at all — I arrived at the set time, dressed “to the nines,” something that was a challenge on a first-year-elementary-school-teacher budget, but necessary in order to glean my father’s approval and notice, only to knock on the door to the garage to no answer inside, not even my “stepgrandparents.”
The stools. The kitchen island. The spiral staircase. The sunken dining room. All of it empty.
I might call my father then from inside his vacant house, if I could get past the humiliation, but he never answered the call.
He rarely did. Or does. Even now.
* * *
Eventually, I came to understand that like the mother to whom I belonged, I, too, was an ex, tolerated or endured, particularly on holidays and special occasions to which my mother was never invited. And, much like her, I was derided, as were my younger sisters, as if we were all responsible for the affair my mother had with a man half her age, to which as a woman, let alone a wife, she hadn’t been equally entitled.
“You are a failure as a daughter,” my father pronounced on the eve of my graduation party from college, magna cum laude. “I’m only having this party because it is the thing to do. People will expect it.”
My father sneered as he said this, his voice riddled with his disgust with me. He had called for help with the laundry that had been piling up in the town house after my youngest siblings moved in with him, and I had been unable to drop my studies and my work to help out.
It was the morning of my graduation from college when the oldest of my younger sisters called, as she often did, sobbing.
“Mommy isn’t going to make it,” she said. “She’s really drunk.”
“It’s OK,” I told her. “Just hang up and try to catch Dad before he leaves so that you can get a ride to the city.”
When my father and his fiancée arrived with my sister, her eyes brimmed red, but it was clear that we weren’t to talk about my mother’s absence, just as we were never to talk of the pain beneath the surface of our father’s new and improved life.
* * *
As the years passed, the spiral staircase at the center of my father’s new life began to crack, and I mean this literally. The staircase was unable to withstand its suspension in midair, requiring what we all require: solid footing.
In the absence of such footing in my young adult life, I turned toward the page, toward expressing what others refused to see or say or acknowledge.
Throughout those years, I wrote in my journal every day until writing became a practice and the practice became a center and the center became the thing around which I began to shape a life of my own.
There were times, however, when I sensed an opening in the cracks within my father’s new life, an opening into which I might purchase belonging, however brief, by deriding, say, a younger sister, who one by one acted their unmet pain in adolescence.
My ache for my father then was so deep that I sometimes felt the temptation of betrayal on the tip of my tongue, particularly when it came to the derision of my mother, who was an easy target — an uneducated woman without a career who not only had an affair with a man half her age but who went on to have two more children who she later orphaned before they were out of high school.
But I never did. I never joined in the derision of my mother or siblings. The cost of losing myself was too much to bear.
* * *
“You need to talk to your mother about her hair,” my father said, on that summer day when my mother was given two months to live.
We were all at the hospital, as were all eight of my mother’s children along with her young husband. He and I were in our mid-thirties then. We’d been high school classmates. He had been my boyfriend’s best friend.
My father took me and the oldest of my younger sisters out to the nurses station to explain how the cancer had spread from my mother’s smoker lungs to each of her organs and into her spine and up into her head.
He’d leaned over the nurses’ station where he drew an illustration in triplicate of our mother’s torso and head, notating each of the organs where cancerous tumors had spread. He handed my sister and me each a copy, but my sister ran away from the nursing station in hysterics, which first confused and then embarrassed and finally infuriated our father.
“What is wrong with her?” he hissed, as I held my copy of Mom’s cancers in my hand.
“She has always been overly emotional,” I might have said, while I remained stoic to impress to impress him.
But instead, I looked back at him blankly.
“She needed a father. Not a doctor,” I said. “She needed a hug. Not an illustration.”
I turned to walk down the hall to break the news to my youngest siblings — my only brother and my baby sister — the ones who belonged to my mother and my highschool classmate. They had been seated in the waiting room not only because their presence was a sting to my father of my mother’s affair.
I led the two of them, ages 14 and 17, through a set of doors into a private hallway that was filled with summer sun, and they leaned against the wall as I broke the news.
“Mommy is going to make it” I said. “She doesn’t have very long.”
I did not show them the illustration, but I brought them to see our mother then, and I left to go in search of refreshment. As I approached the cafeteria, I heard the sound of heels striking the floor and a smile came to my face despite myself.
I’d long recognized the sound of my father coming around a corner in a hospital. My heart had at the sound when I was working as a candy striper on the base at West Point. Passing nurses and doctors would always say, “You must be Dr. Salasin’s daughter! You look just like him! I bet you’ll be a doctor someday!”
On this day, however, on my way to the cafeteria, I tried to avoid my father again, but he insisted on talking to me about my mother’s hair.
“It looks trashy,” he said, shaking his head.
“It does,” I might have added then, and on this we would have agreed. I had always preferred my mother’s natural brown to the blonde that she’d chased after splitting with my father whose second wife had blonde hair.
In this mutual derision, I might have been comforted by my father’s company, in face of my mother’s diagnosis and my sister’s hysteria and the orphaning of my youngest siblings, not to mention the baby inside my belly, the baby who might never meet his grandmother because she had been given two months to live, and he wasn’t due for another for 9 weeks.
Instead, I stated the obvious to my father, telling him that his second wife and her friends did the same thing.
“They just spend hundreds of dollars on their hair every few weeks,” I said. “And Mom can only afford $20.”
“She should travel,” he said, pivoting his derision. “That’s what I would do if I only had two months left. See the world.”
“She wants to see her children,” I said. “She wants to be home.”
* * *
Three months later, just after the baby was born, my father sobbed so loudly at the back of the church that I took the baby off my breast and handed him to my husband so that I could bring my father the pack of tissues that I had in the diaper bag.
When I returned to the altar, I stood to give my mother’s eulogy, an honor I shared with my baby brother who has just started his senior year of high school.
The cracks continued to spiral around us during those years, and through it all my “step-grandparents” remained steady at their perch on the stools beside the kitchen island with the view of the water through the staircase that had begun to buckle under the weight of its suspension in midair.
Of constancy, the casual cruelty of my “step-grandfather” was another, throughout my early adulthood, and continuing on as I became a wife and then a mother.
In fact, each time I brought around the kind young man who later became my fiance, my husband and father to our two boys, my “step-grandfather” would go out of his way to find ways to insult the young man, to suggest to him that his life hadn’t amounted to anything.
When this young man went back to school to become a teacher, my “step-grandfather” took to critiquing the summer work he did around my father’s place, wanting to be sure that future husband knew what I was always to know, that we would never measure up, that we did not belong.
The gracious presence of my “step-grandmother,” however, was yet another constancy, and it is that grace that lingers.
In large part, I see now, because it sat in such sweeping contrast to the spiraling horror in which I was invisibly suspended and about which I was to remain silent.
(A version of this piece was published in The Commons, Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont, Issue #623, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, page C1.)