Not everyone can say they’ve buried three mothers.
Okay, technically I didn’t bury any of them except my real mom. As she was cremated, it meant handing a box of her ashes to a cemetery worker who put them underground. The second “mom” to go was my mother in law in 2012. That should have been the end of it, but in a surprise wedding in 2010 my eighty one year old father married Marie, and suddenly I had a stepmom.
Marie passed away recently at age 89. A year or two back she had a stroke. She was not quite the same since then. I did see her one last time last October. I had a feeling it would be my last visit. She was barely mobile and needed help several times a day to do basic stuff. The stroke made her hard to understand. Mostly she spent her days alone in a one bedroom apartment in Riderwood, a huge retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland.
She went quite quickly in the end. She fell, was diagnosed with a failing heart too old to bother to repair, and spent just two days in Riderwood’s version of a nursing home, the same place my mother died. She was having trouble eating breakfast, was suddenly uncommunicative and a couple of minutes later pronounced dead.
She lived pretty much as long as my father, who died at 89 and a few months in 2016. They had five years of marriage, four of them pretty good before my father’s pulmonary disease became apparent and eventually killed him. Generally stepmothers are quickly forgotten after your parent passes away. Thankfully, our family was the exception. All eight of us made a point to keep Marie in our lives, calling her and visiting her when we were in the D.C. area.
I felt especially blessed because I convinced her to come and visit us in our new Massachusetts digs. She arrived on the Amtrak along with my sister for a weeklong stay. Marie was a good egg, but the spicey kind. Like my dad, she was a dopily devoted Catholic. Unsurprisingly, she first ran into my widower Dad at church. Riderwood has a chapel and a priest comes by on Sundays to perform Mass. It took my father enrolling in a square dancing class at Riderwood for the relationship to bloom in earnest.
The whole having-a-stepmother thing threw me for a loop. I knew my father wasn’t happy as a widower. His five years as a bachelor were awkward and strange. I knew he was chasing a few women. Despite there being few widowers and plenty of widows there, few were interested in remarriage. But that’s how it had to be for my father. He was born to be married. It took time, perseverance and bit of stealth but he managed it.
He flew cross country to introduce Marie to his sister, all on the QT. I had no idea until we learned that he had been hospitalized in Los Angeles with the flu, apparently acquired at 40,000 feet. I remember actually reaming my dad out: how could he do this and not let us know? I guess it wasn’t technically my business, but as my sister and me were the only two local members of the family, we expected to know. But Dad wanted to do some courting his way.
Marie turned out to be a good match, and I believe a better match for him than my mother. Marie was all about family, but sharp and could have an acid tongue at times. No one could roll over her and she would be no one’s patsy. She was also quite conservative, which was very much unlike my dad. She raised ten kids of her own, and helped raise a number of grandchildren. She ended up at Riderwood after her husband died and quickly and happily enmeshed herself in its vast and complex social scene.
Hosting Marie for a week turned out to be easy and fun. We got to know her much better. I walked her around the local park, took her to the local art museum and we all went out for ice cream. Marie, we discovered, was incredibly competitive. Scrabble was her passion. We had a Scrabble board. Not a day went by when we did not play at least one game, and she won most of them.
Once I visited her at Riderwood when my brother Tom was visiting. Tom is also extremely competitive. Watching the two of them play Scrabble was like watching a Jeopardy! championship. The air was thick with tension. The rest of us felt outclassed.
Marie also had a ton of energy, which only slowed a bit in retirement. She was social in ways my father was not. My father was good at glad handing and remembering names, but forgot details. Marie remembered details and the small stuff too, like calling friends just to say hello or sending cards on special occasions.
So I drove to Maryland to attend her funeral. Only three of us on my side of the family eventually made it. Two more wanted to but the logistics got too complicated. Suddenly twelve years later I was amidst her extended family again. I could greet most by name as I had met most of them many times over the years.
We commiserated with them at her wake and sat in the second row at her funeral mass. Afterward, we attended her reception. We helped move some property of my dad’s from her apartment. There were handshakes and hugs with her family, but we all implicitly knew it’s unlikely that we would see each other again. She will eventually be cremated and her remains placed next to her first husband’s in upstate New York.
I grew to love Marie, which is why I made the long drive to be at her funeral. I cried a bit during it, even as it seemed familiar as the soloist and songs sounded likely the same as at my mom and dad’s funerals. She lived a long life and largely on her terms. Life threw a lot at her but she seemed to handle it all with determination, faith and gusto. Adversity seemed to only make her stronger.
Only one relative from my parents’ generation now remain: an aunt who just turned ninety. We visited her some years back. So Marie’s death feels like pretty much the end of a chapter in life. In a way though it was a good kind of grief to experience. I’m a better person for not only having a stepmother in my life, but for having Marie in particular in my life.