“The Jennie Webb Site”
- “A Lump in the Road to Domestic Bliss”
- The Stepmother Files: Week One“
- “A Lot of Men in Her Life”
- “The Other Side of Mother’s Day”
- “The Ramifications of Football Season”
“Girlfriend’s Guide to the Universe”
This weekend we got to the bottom of our on-going domestic dispute, my husband and I. A painful journey, but it didn’t end in divorce proceedings. Not this time, anyway.
The dispute, perhaps familiar to some of you, revolves around the fact that if there’s anything domestic to be done, I’m the one who does it. This includes cooking (or what I do that passes for cooking), cleaning (or paying dear Esperanza when she comes twice a month—let’s not push things here), picking up after a large man and his large daughter, doing dishes, laundry, gardening, shopping, bill-paying (it is an extremely stressful thing to do, regardless of whose checking account the money comes from), home improvements and repair (or ferreting out decent repair people), cat care, decorating (hey, it counts!) . . . Basically, I handle everything around the house but the TV remote. My husband’s got that down.
Oh, and there’s also the little, inconsequential thing I do at home called “pursuing a career.” Always forget about this one.
So does my husband. That I do work, and do bring in money (albeit not as much as either of us would like—for the time being, anyhow) always seems to slip his mind. As does the fact that what I call “work” doesn’t even include all of the Betty Crocker stuff. (A girlfriend I hadn’t talked to in awhile—a girlfriend from my not-so-long-ago single, apartment-dwelling, stepdaughter- and cat-free days—called me up the other day. “What are you doing?” she asked me when I answered the phone. “You’re not going to believe this,” I answered truthfully. “I’m baking a casserole and ironing.” That was a sad day for us both.)
You know what I mean, girls. My married (or partnered, provided their partner is a man) friends all tell the same story. Guys just don’t get it. “I go to work all day” is their united, clue-less response, and all of the hours and emotions and ingenuity it takes for us to deal with the stuff that never gets noticed—because they’re at “work” when we deal with it—are swept under the rug.
Do I hear an “Amen,” ladies?
Hence, it’s only natural that I feel it is my duty to occasionally remind my own partner of all that I do, insofar as both career path and domestic-bliss activities are concerned. (I’m sure he’d say that the occasions are much more frequent than I’d admit. I’m also sure that he thinks these reminders are issued just to cover-up the real truth: that I spend my days watching “Oprah” and eating bon bons.)
It was just last week that I felt he was due for a pleasant jog in his memory. That is, a kick in the head. I’m not sure what it was, exactly, that got me going. But it may have had something to do with his general attitude lately. That is, a bad attitude because the place he goes off to in the mornings “to work all day” is becoming more and more odious to him. So when he gets home he has the energy to do just about nothing. And wants to do more of the same over the weekends.
It was in a very subtle, gentle way that I set about reminding him of my value and need for validation. (I wasn’t too terribly shrill, I don’t think; no glassware was broken.) But when he played the “I go to work all day” card, I just couldn’t stand it anymore.
“You,” I said to my husband in the sweetest possible tone someone can use with a statement like this, “Are a lump.”
“Oh,” he said to me with a smug, lump-like smile. Then he pulled out the real ammunition: “And what are you, Martha Stewart?”
That did it. Nobody insults me in that way. I’d call my lawyer in the morning. Or, since I don’t have a lawyer, find one in the yellow pages under “Divorce.” I’d do this after I got a good night’s rest with our big bed all to myself, seeing as how the couch is the only place for lumps to sleep.
But I’d give him one more blow, I thought, before I left the room. (I was planning an exit wherein I indignantly grabbed my cat and slammed the door behind me.)
“You know what this is really about?” I said to him, in my best Saint-at-the-Inquisition voice. “It isn’t about the money I don’t make, or where I don’t go to make it. It’s that you hate your job so much, you want me to spend all day doing something, going somewhere, where I’m just as miserable!”
He paused for a moment. I steeled myself for a lumpish retort. Only then he said, “Yes. You’re right.”
“You’re right.” And he paused again, looking more heroic than lumpy. “There’s part of me that wishes you had to go to a job you hated, too.”
“Oh.” I thought about the many years I’d spent doing just that. And I added, as much an affirmation as anything else, “That’s not going to happen.”
“Good. I hope it doesn’t,” he said.
And then the lump got up and did the dishes.
—The Gazette, October 14, 1999
I survived the first week.
And I’m counting down the days.
The days of being a full-time stepmother.
Yes, up to this point I was weekend stepmom, married to weekend dad. Of course there were occasional mid-week or extended stays, but for the most part she lived there and we lived here. And we were all pretty darn happy that way.
But for six weeks this summer, my stepdaughter’s mother is, as she likes to say, “performing opera in Rome.” Or as we like to say (albeit under our breath) “paying a lot of money to take a class in Europe so she can say she’s performing opera in Rome.”
And the abandoned waif is, as her stepfather—who’s not performing opera in Rome—likes to say, “All yours!”
Meaning ours. All ours. That’s every day. Every night. Except for the occasional reprieve her stepfather’s agreed to give us, knowing that we’re entirely at his mercy and must be very, very nice to him. And he’s pretty darn happy that way.
I had dinner with a girlfriend last week, and a friend of hers joined us. I mentioned that we were to have an addition to our household for the next month or so. This woman says, beaming blissfully, “Ohhhhhhh! Enjoyyyyyy!”
It took me a moment to realize she was serious.
The woman obviously doesn’t have kids.
So we prepare for the first week of “enjoyment,” accepting the fact that we’re all going to have to make adjustments. My husband prepares to stop being a doting, anything-you-want-honey, anytime-you-want-it dad so that he’ll be able to maintain our new arrangement, and my ten year-old stepdaughter prepares to transform from a pleasant, we-can-discuss-this child into a disagreeable pre-teen. I prepare to spend a lot of time away from the house.
“I can’t wait for my mother to come back!” has become a familiar refrain.
On that we’re in perfect agreement.
Thank goodness I have friends who give me sound parenting advice like “Jennie, it will get better,” and “Jennie, don’t let it upset you,” and “Jennie, come over to my house for a martini.”
And my stepdaughter and I do manage to spend quality time together. In the car. Where we have fulfilling chats like this:
“We’re almost there. Put your shoes on.”
“But they’re wet!”
“Your shoes? Why didn’t you say something before we left the house?”
“I don’t have any other shoes!”
“Oh. We’ll have to go shopping then.”
“I hate shopping.”
“Oh. Anyway, those socks are thick.”
“But they’re wet!”
“The socks are wet?”
“No, the shoes are wet! I told you that!”
“Right. But the socks might keep your feet dry.”
A look of complete disdain as the socks go on the feet. Followed by, “These socks are lumpy!” And many whiny, small mole-like noises of struggle as the shoes fly about the car. “I can’t get my shoes on!” Whimper, whimper, whimper.
“So wear the shoes without socks!”
“But they’re wet!” High-pitched squeal of frustration.
I take a deep breath to calm myself. A moment of insight. “Maybe we should get you some sandals. So you can just slip them on and it won’t always be this big of a deal.” Because shoes and socks are always, inexplicably, a really big deal.
“I can’t wear sandals! My toes are ugly.”
“They’re not . . .”
“You know that! I can’t wear sandals!”
“Okay. Some new socks then.”
“My feet sweat!”
“That’s why I thought sandals…”
“I hate shopping! And why do you keep talking about sandals?!”
A moment of silence.
Then, “Aaaaahhh! My socks hurt! My shoes hurt! My feet hurt!” And a blood-curdling scream befitting a teen horror movie.
“Would you stop that?!”
“You know I have problems with my feet!”
“What do you want me to do about it right now?”
“Nothing. I just need to cry!” This kind of honest statement is from someone who’s self-actualized.
“Well, don’t! And it pisses me off!” From someone who isn’t.
Yes, by the end of the first week I have truly become the evil stepmother. She doesn’t even have to do anything. And when she does do something—like say something sweet or make me laugh or ask a question which reminds me she’s just a little girl—it’s even worse. I have absolutely no maternal instincts. I am a hateful woman. I am a terrible human being.
The only reason I didn’t feign an interest in opera and escape to Rome myself?
I was talking to someone I don’t really know all that well, and noticed a picture of her three daughters. She’s a warm, intelligent, funny woman who I’d imagine is a really good mom. Unlike me.
Desperate, I took a chance.
“Tell me, do you ever, well, um… hate your daughters?” I asked her with little hope of comfort.
She looked at me with a blank expression, and I cowered, knowing she could see right into my cold heart and black soul.
“Of course I do,” she said simply. “Sometimes you can’t help it!”
Week two will be easier. I’m sure of it.
—The Gazette, July 15, 1999
Some women would be ashamed, but not me. It was actually very recently that I . . . Well, I had a lot of men in my life. It just happened that way. Don’t get me wrong, I was and am happily married, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes, some women need something more.
And I guess I needed more than most.
It all started with a fellow named Robyn. He was a friend of a friend, and he was a contractor. It was innocent enough at the beginning. He, too, is married with a lovely wife and an adorable baby boy. The first time he came by, my husband was at work. I got an estimate for some home repairs and remodeling, and that was that. I never really dared to dream that anything more would ever happen.
But everything changed with the approval of our home improvement loan. That started the phone calls, and e-mails, and explicit sketches FAXed back and forth—this is what I wanted the wall in my bedroom to look like; could he handle that?
Before I knew it, materials were selected at a local lumber yard and Robyn and I had set a date for our initial assignation. It was too late for me to get out of it now even if I wanted to. It was a done deal: signed, sealed and delivered. I didn’t even feel cheap the first time money changed hands; it needed to happen, I needed it to happen.
Let the construction begin!
Yes, the fateful day soon arrived, and I nervously watched as my husband went to he office in the morning, with his daughter in tow. He would drop her off at camp, and I would have house to myself. (Except for the cat, Monk, but he wouldn’t give me away, would he? I could just bribe him with extra kitty treats if he started to let the mouse out of the bag.) Just as we had planned, Robyn pulled up, and introduced me to his band of merry men—he knew I had what it took to keep them all busy for a long, long time.
There was Phil, always arriving early and eager to get to work. He had a car with a space ship painted on the side. He explained that it had been used in a music video, “So they just gave it to me!” He was a musician, he said. Then there was Scott, happily in charge of the crew which consisted of Phil and a quiet man named either Moses or Alex, depending upon whom you asked. Scott had a booming voice; he was a musician, he said. It lasted for a number of days with these three. They sweated and I served them lemonade. They made sure everything was just how I wanted it, and I recommended lunch spots.
When a sudden bout of flu took Scott away from the job (or was I too much for him?) it was just me and Phil, who suddenly found himself car-less. It had gotten impounded, he said. (Take this as a lesson, those of you who are given free cars from music video shoots.) These were blissful days. Phil and I had coffee together in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoons I would drop him off at various locations in Hollywood. Where he’d meet up with other musicians, he said.
Then I guess my demands were too much for Phil alone, even with Robyn checking in regularly. And along came Andrew. Yes, Andrew was from Oklahoma. He was Phil’s neighbor. He had a car. But above all, Andrew was a man—not much more than a boy, really—who appreciated my coffee. He took it black, while Phil was light and sweet. Andrew and Phil were quite a team. But one morning it was only Andrew. Robyn came to explain to me that he was going to use Phil on another job. It was for my own good, he said. I’d grown attached to Phil.
And so it was Chris and Bernie next. This pair couldn’t have been more perfect: Chris got along with Monk and was smart and funny enough to keep me on my toes, and Bernie. Bernie was a musician. They’d occasionally get help from Andrew, or Moses/Alex, or a devilish soul named “Babyface,” or a meticulous painter named Angel. But it was Chris and Bernie who ultimately did whatever it took to make me happy during the final days. Robyn made sure of that.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. No more concrete to pour, no more wood to cut, no more braces to be bolted, no more drywall to be plastered, no more walls to paint. Nothing.
And everything looks… Well, it looks beautiful. I couldn’t be happier, I tell Robyn. It’s a job well done by all involved, and I mean that.
He was supposed to come over the other day, Robyn was. Just to give it all a once-over. For old times sake. My husband had gone off to work and I had brewed extra coffee in anticipation of his arrival, when the phone rang. It was Robyn. He’d gotten hung up on another job, and wouldn’t be able to stop by after all. But he’d call tomorrow.
It’s okay, I said. There’s really no need; everything’s fine.
It was a beautiful thing while it lasted. As is our house, now. Just ask my husband.
—The Gazette, August 26, 1999
I’ve always been on the other side of Mother’s Day. I’m the one calling and sending flowers and gifts and cards across the country to my own mom and grandmother. And for the past two years I’m the one arranging a special holiday meal for my mother-in-law. (This extra trouble is made up for by the fact that I now get to say “mother-in-law.” It’s a great thing. For those of you without one, try it on for size. Thanks to 1950s television, this is one of the most evocative phrases in the American language.)
And being the self-less soul that I am, I’m even the one taking my stepdaughter out shopping so that she has a Mother’s Day gift for her mother. (Yeah, I may be playing the martyr, but know that I consider these small efforts well compensated because I’m able to say when she’s a brat, “She gets that from her mother!”)
Anyhow, for me that’s what Mother’s Day was about: other people being the mother. But this year was different. This was the first year I felt like I should be on the receiving end. This is the first year that I, the evil stepmother, wanted some recognition for the stop-gap mom stuff. This is the first year that I pouted and thought to myself, “Where’s my card?”
Because this year I was the one taking my stepdaughter school clothes shopping, picking out hair clips and veto-ing make-up. I was the one talking to teachers, arranging school meetings, and repeatedly saying, “No, I’m the stepmother.”
I was the one who held her and wiped her tears at the end of “West Side Story,” who told her how wonderful her songs were, and what a talented artist she was.
I was also the one who sternly said to the fiercely defiant child, “Go to your room!” And the one who was pretty darn surprised when she actually did.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
This evil stepmother gig isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
So on the morning of Mother’s Day I wake up, knowing I’m going to get gypped. “Happy Mother’s Day,” my husband says to me ever-so sweetly. Right. “You, too,” I say, adding pathetically after he’s left the room, “Thanks for the flowers.” (Not that I really wanted or expected them; I had a hard enough time training him to stop by a florist on Valentine’s Day).
Then my child the cat jumps on my chest to give me his Mother’s Day greetings, which roughly translated are, “Feed me, pet me, play with me, me, me, me, ME!” I try to convince myself that if he’d been able to go on a sort of feline shopping trip, he’d have picked out a nice floral chew toy or catnip-scented sachet for me. But I intentionally don’t do a very good job so that I can feel put-upon and neglected.
My father and his girlfriend are in town, and they stop by early for coffee. “Happy Mother’s Day!” my father says to me. “Thanks,” I respond weakly, holding my chin up like a brave little soldier.
And at this point I stoically ask my husband, “Shouldn’t we be calling your mother?”
You’re starting to get the idea. My husband says he’s going to write a song about our life together, entitled “Joan of Arc is Hard to Life With.”
The day goes on, we take my mother-in-law to brunch, I do some work, call my own mother, do some more work, call my grandmother, feed the cat, do some more work, and look around my office, wondering whether there’s room for a shrine when I have myself canonized.
Then the phone rings. “We have a singing Mother’s Day Telegram for Jennie Webb,” the unfamiliar voice says. “From whom?” I ask suspiciously, thinking this has got to be some kind of scam.
Without answering my question, a group launches into a chorus of “Happy Stepmother’s Day” sung to the tune of “Life is a Cabaret.” “From your evil stepdaughter,” a young giggling voice says when it’s over.
I know I qualify for this holiday, because nothing could have pleased me more.
Then I remember something. I open a drawer in the kitchen and find a single bamboo skewer. A couple of years ago, when I was dating my husband, I went over to his house on Mother’s Day. I arrived just as he was taking his daughter, then seven, back to her mother’s. She didn’t want to leave. “Remember, it’s Mother’s Day,” he said to her. She looked at me, and picked up the first thing she saw on the counter. “Here,” she said, handing me the small skewer. “It’s so you can spear fish. Happy Mother’s Day.”
How could I forget such a treasure? A gift which will come in handy on our upcoming stepmother-stepdaughter spear-fishing outing.
—The Gazette, May 13, 1999
“You have to understand,” my husband says to me, holding my hands, his eyes welling with tears. “It’s been such a long time! Twenty years!”
I’ve never seen him quite this emotional in broad daylight. This is obviously something that touches his soul, and my reaction may determine the course of our still-new marriage.
I smile sweetly and squeeze his hands and give him a look that says, “I’m there for you, babe!” But the truth is that I don’t have a chance of understanding. Not really understanding. I’ll try my best to play along, though, because this will all be over in two weeks. (Maybe sooner, but we don’t want to hear talk like that!)
In two weeks the Rams will (cross your fingers) go to the Superbowl.
In our house my husband the Rams fan usually does the football thing downstairs. For the games, he retreats to what we call the rumpus room. It’s his own personal lair of musical equipment and unpacked boxes and patched-together furniture and empty beer bottles. Nearly 700 square feet of masculinity with a separate entrance, decorated in my husband’s definitive style: from the framed Muhammad Ali lithograph to the Rams lap blanket to the 8X10s of bands he played in, which he uses as coasters. The rumpus room is the envy of every man who goes down there. I’ve seen it happen over and over again: they open the door, their eyes light up, they turn into 17-year-olds, and they say to my husband, “This is all yours? Cool!”
So the rumpus room is where my husband’s been spending his Sundays lately. It’s him and the NFL, having their quality time alone together in their shared sanctuary.
Only this past weekend was special, my husband said to me. It was the playoffs. The Rams were in the running. He asked for a special dispensation to watch football upstairs. I think he couched it by saying that it would mean a lot if I were there, watching with him. Joining in the experience. “You have to understand!”
In reality I think his request had something to do with the fact that there’s no bathroom downstairs. But as I said, I’ll play along and pretend to be indispensable. And so the game begins.
“It was twenty years ago that the Rams went to the Superbowl,” my husband says to me. “That’s the only time they’ve ever been.” His eyes are glued to the TV screen. Does he not notice that I’m reading the Sunday Calendar, or not care? “Hmmmm,” I answer.
Then he wistfully adds, “Vince Ferragamo was the quarterback then . . .” The quarterback was Ferragamo? Was that before he went into the shoe business? I think to myself. But I only say, “Hmmmm.” And move onto the Sunday Magazine.
My husband perseveres. “They were the biggest underdogs in 1980, and they didn’t win, but this year they’re really looking good. Go! Stuff ‘em!! These guys they’re playing are really tough. Some people say that the Rams are doing well because they’ve played rotten teams, but they really are the most balanced team. Really. Look at ‘em! They’re explosive!!! WHOOOOO! See, it’s been ten years since they were anything but laughable, before they left L.A. to go to St. Louis, I mean they went to St. Louis from Anaheim, where they moved before they moved to St. Louis . . .”
His monologue goes on. And on. I look at the TV screen. I am watching one of the sexiest commercials I have ever seen. It’s for a razor, a razor which has been specially designed to reduce drag. Another sexy commercial, for a car. A car which closely cuts curves. My husband is still talking. I start reading the comics.
The phone rings. I hand it to my husband, knowing who it is. It’s his buddy, a fellow die-hard Rams fan, calling to get the score of the game. He’s calling from England. He gets a play-by-play of the entire first half from my husband.
I glance again at the television and see padded men dancing around, slapping each other. It’s half time. The announcers are talking about bobbles. “They said he bobbled it,” says one disembodied voice. “I don’t think that was a bobble,” says the other. “It was little, but it was a bobble.” “Is a little bobble still a bobble? I don’t know.” After about ten minutes of this, one of the them adds, completely seriously, “Bobble is a fun word to say.”
The second half is about to begin. We know this by the blaring theme music that this television station uses for its football coverage, which my husband describes as a Nazi Christmas Marching Song.
“Okay, I gotta go now,” my husband says to his friend. “No, I’m not going to put the phone down by the TV,” he laughs. “This is already costing you a fortune. I’ll call you when it’s over.” Oh, sure. What’s a little international charge on the phone bill when it comes to the Rams?
“Okay,” he says as play resumes. “They’re behind now, but that’s because they took the lead early on. Look! There’s Kurt Warner’s wife. He’s the quarterback. She’s got a new hairstyle. There was another Kurt Warner, but that was with a ‘C.’ C – U – R -T. He played with the Rams for a very short period, less than a year. He was mainly a running back for the Seattle Seahawks.”
“Hmmmm!” And I tackle the Book Review as the game continues.
—The Gazette, January 20, 2000