Iron Maidens: My Stepmother and Her Mustang

Over four decades, I watched my stepmother’s 1966 lavender Mustang age from the sleek toy of a spoiled trophy wife, to a dented and sagging monument to waylaid dreams. My father gave Della the car to make up for saddling her with two kids. When his ex-wife, my mother, died in a psychiatric hospital, she left my sister and me in need of a home. My dad solved the problem by compelling his young bride to raise us, brushing aside her pleas that she hated children. Other relatives offered to take care of Jan and me, but my dad insisted it was his job and he would do it. He took us in, but left us entirely in Della’s care while he pursued his ambitions as a rising young scientist. He ignored every hint that our ‘new mother’ offered a lap like a bed-of-nails.

Growing up, the sight of Della’s Mustang rolling toward me made my palms turn damp. Far into adulthood, I often awoke in terror, reliving my stepmother’s approach. But I also remember Della taking me to movies with her in that car, and the times we shared pastries in it. Her occasional kindness kept me working to wring affection from her heart, to make her into a good mom. It planted a stubborn hope that she harbored a mother’s love for me.

When I first saw it, the Mustang glowed with the color of a velvety tuft of lavender on a spring morning. As years passed, I watched it decline in pace with my stepmother. These days, it sits alone and collapsed in a dank garage. The way it looks now evokes the same ache as my memory of Della on her deathbed. It is a crushed thing that was once beautiful, though without a heart and made of steel.

I became aware of an advancing evil on Christmas Eve, the first in my memory. My mom and I were waiting for my father to come home. It was long after dinner, and far past my bedtime. When at last he stomped into the house, a gust of chill air and snow flurries entered too, as if he were a god of winter trailed by icy spirits. Under his left arm he carried a wooden sled, with cherry-red gloss on its steel runners. He had wrapped it in newsprint; its glistening blades poked through the smudged and crumpled paper. My dad’s arrival thrilled me, especially since he carried my hoped-for gift, but my mother was near hysterics. Her eyes looked red and tired, and her hair was not brushed. “You don’t give a damn about your kids! It’s Christmas Eve for God’s sake!”

“But I bought them presents.” My dad seemed confused by her shouting. He placed his trench coat on a hook in the hall, as fluffy snowflakes on its shoulders melted to raindrops.

“Where have you been all this time? What was so important you couldn’t make it home for your children on Christmas Eve?” She glared at him, looking for some sign that he valued his life with us. Even from ten feet away, I could see her eyes shining with tears. “Couldn’t you have come home on time for your kids? If we mean so little to you, maybe you should move to California. You could be with her!”

My father looked past my mom, his eyes moving blankly from sofa, to lamp, to me. The defeat and exhaustion on my mother’s face spurred an ache in my chest. I held an afghan that trailed tassels I fingered nervously, as my joy about the sled gave way to foreboding.

My parents’ arguments often revolved around my father’s desire to move to Los Angeles. Every June, after he finished teaching, he drove us from Minneapolis to a rented beach house up the coast from Malibu. He spent his days working at aerospace firms, and his nights going to parties and nightclubs. He liked the climate, the ocean, and the availability of ‘free love.’ Years later, I learned he dragged my mother to parties where people enjoyed group sex. He may have discovered Della during one of those coitus-promoting gatherings. “Swinging’ was a shared hobby for my father and future stepmother, one they brought into our house many years later, after my older sister finished high school and moved out. My mom despised L.A. because of its loose carnal mores, but my father yearned to settle there for good. I believe he also pined for Della, the sexy and adventuresome young secretary.

My parents divorced when I was four years old. One year later, our mother moved us from Minnesota to Detroit, her hometown. We settled into a freshly remodeled tract house owned by her well-to-do parents. They urged my mom to build a new life, but the breakup had crushed her. She sank into a tar pit of depression. We stayed with our grandparents for weeks at a stretch, while our mother underwent shock treatments in psychiatric wards. Each time, I anticipated her return with as much excitement as a child waiting for a new puppy. But often when she came home she seemed less like my mother than before she left, and more like a ghost. The topics of her speech wandered without compass, and she did not remember exciting events, like the fact I had finally ridden a bike without training wheels a few days before she departed for the hospital.

We’d lived in Detroit less than a year when my father introduced everyone to Della, his former mistress and new wife. One day my sister and I were dropped off at the ramshackle farmhouse where my dad grew up, where his mother still lived. Built in 1890 in an open clearing, it was now surrounded by suburban tract homes. My father and his bride sat on the screened-in front porch, crowded with army-green metal armchairs and chipped wooden tables. The foreigner had a blond mass of hair swirling above her head in a style I’d never seen. My father had given her two strings of pearls, which rested on a chest much fuller than my mother’s. Her hot-pink fingernails looked like tiny letter openers. I felt anxious around her, even though she focused all her attention on her new husband, leaning in close to him, sometimes whispering in his ear.

My dad’s remarriage had the same effect on my mother as removing a vital organ. Her sojourns in the hospital lengthened, and her periods at home diminished. One balmy spring evening, with the scent of rose gardens sweetening a gentle breeze, my mother, sister and I hugged on the front lawn. My grandmother stood nearby on the concrete driveway, while my grandfather kept their large black Oldsmobile running. My mom pulled us in so tightly it frightened me. Her voice sounded slurred, and her movements were unsteady. She and my sister were sobbing, so I started crying too, without knowing why. My grandparents treated it like just another visit to the psych ward, but dread hung in the air. I never saw her again. Her parents told us she died of a ‘heart attack,’ but the fact of her suicide was clear to me even then.

A few days later, I sat on a ledge off the front porch of my dad’s childhood home, fiddling with flakes of paint curling from the wood siding. I’d barely eaten since they told me my mom died; it felt like something inside me had been ripped in half. My dad walked up with Della. She towered above me, and looked down with a stiff -lipped smile that barely spread beyond her mouth. She wore a tight sleeveless top and a short skirt that my grandmother had criticized behind her back.

My dad had his arm around her waist as he spoke. “Biff, I know you feel sad without your mom. But everything will work out. We’re all going to live together: you and Jan and me and Della. We’ll be a family. Just think, now you have a new mother!” He paused, hoping to see me take the bait and smile. When I kept fussing with the paint chips, he pushed on. “She looks forward to getting to know you. You can even call her ‘Mom.’ Why don’t the two of you spend the afternoon together?”

After he walked away, Della marched inside to sit on the screened porch. I reluctantly followed, and we each sat in a cold metal chair, with a battered table between us. Without enthusiasm, she instructed me in how to scrape blood-colored seeds from the tough rind of a fruit I’d never seen before. “This is a pomegranate, Biff. They grow in California, where I’m from. Watch how I get the seeds out.” I shied away from her as she clawed the flesh of the fibrous seed-husk with a stainless steel spoon. When she handed me the utensil, I scraped up a spoonful of the crimson kernels. As I chewed them, they tasted awful and sour, and I wanted to spit them out. My mom would not have cared, but I sensed this woman’s scrutiny and judgment, so I pretended to savor the bitter morsels. During the entire strained hour Della and I spent together, I yearned for my mother to be there instead, feeding me Michigan-grown cherries with her warm and vital hands.

My father moved us back to Minneapolis. We inhabited a different house from before, and began our life with the blond stranger. My dad worked at the University of Minnesota only because the Physics Department had offered him tenure right after he finished his PhD. Teaching, research, and scheming to land a senior professorship in Los Angeles left him with little time for kids. He figured his twenty-six-year-old wife would suffice to raise his progeny. In answer her protests that she loathed children, he promised to buy her a Mustang as soon as we settled on the west coast.

Homesick, bored, and poisoned by hate for her (dead) rival’s offspring, Della worked off her frustrations by tormenting my sister and me. To punish Jan for some infraction I’ve long forgotten, she took our beagle-mix Lucky to the pound to be killed. Once, as I dressed to visit family friends, Della refused to let me wear anything under my snow pants. I ended up explaining to the kids’ mom, in tearful humiliation, why I wouldn’t remove my outer garment.

On winter mornings, as I consumed my cereal on the chrome and Formica table in January, I watched my father dig his gigantic gray Chevy out of the snow. After freeing it from the drifts, he poured boiling water over the windshield, struggled to get the car started and warmed up, and then drove off to work. Meanwhile, Della cleaned around me, the vacuum cleaner whining and banging the walls as I ate. After rushing through breakfast, I would fumble with four layers of clothing, gather my school supplies, and race out the door. Della insisted I leave shortly after my dad, and return no sooner than one quarter-hour before him.

One time I showed up early, unable to find a friend to take me into his home, and my stepmother refused to allow me indoors. I sat on the stoop in the fading light of an overcast winter afternoon, listening to the soap opera dialogue blaring on the television inside the house. Thirty minutes before my father’s scheduled return, Della unlocked the storm door and dragged me to the bathroom. When I held back from the tub because of its scalding heat, she shoved me in. She did not want me shivering during dinner. After that, if no friend could be found, I walked a long way to the library rather than return before the permitted time.

Childhood had ended. When home, we lurked about trying to avoid Della’s murderous glances, not risking any noise, hoping that if we stayed invisible she’d quit cooking up ways to hurt us. We lived like wraiths haunting a suburban tract house, skulking from room to room in a building buried to the rafters in snow, its windows blank and white. Sometimes I’d stand before the living room dormer, in a daze, and stare at the wall of ice suffocating the house. Our mother had died, our pets were gone, and the Wicked Witch of the West was raising us in an icebox.

One day, Jan decided we should reveal the truth to our father. The risk of inviting our stepmother’s worst punishments loomed like death, but life had become hellish. We soon realized our stepmother had nothing to fear from us, while we risked everything by angering her.

My dad simmered with wrath after we told him what Della was doing to us. He marched her into their bedroom. Wrapped in a terry cloth robe the color of an eggplant, she eyed me with suspicion as she passed, looming above me like a blond sovereign. Her skin was so pale I could see blue veins below her neck. Once the door closed, my dad’s voice boomed. Jan and I moved close to eavesdrop outside. After his shouting played out, we heard Della sobbing. “Those kids don’t like me; I never wanted you to bring them here, and now they hate me. They’re lying to turn you against me. You see that, don’t you? I’m doing the best I can. Why won’t they just leave me alone?” Her voice cracked, and she started weeping.

To our horror, we heard our father retreat from his anger with soothing tones. Their voices became softer, until we could not hear any more of the conversation. We moved out of the hall so they would not catch us spying. After a few minutes, Della stepped out of the room, sniffing loudly. She rubbed her eyes, and her cheeks shone with tears. For a second I felt worried about her, but then she shot me an assassin’s glance that sucked the air out of my chest.

My father called us into the bedroom, and sat us down on their bed, which seemed to fill the whole room. The cover was brown and plush, like fur. I ran my hands through it, drying my palms. He looked stern. “You know, Della tells me a different story than what I heard from you two. She says she never struck you with anything, Billy, and I really can’t believe she beats you with Lucky’s wire brush.”

“But Dad, she does, she really does! She hits me, and she uses the brush. Just like I said!” My father’s hair was ink black, combed sideways across his high forehead. His walnut brown eyes appraised me with scant warmth, like we were strangers. I looked down at the carpet.

“Well, that would have left bruises, right? Can you show me any?” He took me into the master bathroom and instructed me to strip down. I pulled my shirt over my head, and dropped my pajama pants to my feet. He sat on the closed toilet while I turned around in front of him, halfway tripping over my trousers. We inspected my body, but there were no marks at that moment. His examination, or the cold room, or both, made me shiver.

“It’s been a few days since the last time, Dad. Maybe a week, but she hits me with it! Please!” My voice shook; I felt so desperate for him to believe me. He seemed to think it was a sign of lying. He told me to dress, and headed back out to Jan.

I heard him speak to her in his professor’s voice, serious and uncompromising. “Billy doesn’t have any injuries. And Jan, I can’t see why she’d call your friend’s parents. Why would she want to spread stories about you? It makes no sense.” I slipped out of the bathroom and slid next to her. I leaned against her knees at the edge of the mattress.

Jan noted my dejection, appraised my dad’s suspicious face, and voiced her disgust. She stood up off the bed, looking prim in her school clothes. She held herself erect, as I clung to her navy blue skirt. Jan’s voice became defiant. “She doesn’t make sense. She’s just mean. She called Laurie’s parents, and now I can’t go to her house anymore. Why don’t you call them? If you don’t believe me, call them!”

My father’s gravity increased, and he stared hard at my sister. She glared back. After a long moment, he spoke slowly, word by word. “Janice…I…don’t… think…I…need…to.” He seemed to be holding back an oceanic anger. After several tense moments, she dropped her gaze. “You are imaginative children, and I understand you’re unhappy without Barbara. But Della’s trying her best. We need to think of her feelings in all this. It’s a tough situation for each of us, and we have to make the most of it. Some day you’ll understand how hard it is to be a parent.”

Stunned, we shuffled out of their bedroom, sharing a sense of approaching doom. We looked at each other for comfort, but we both felt terribly alone.

That night, Della tiptoed into my bedroom and awoke me by squeezing my neck with both hands. I could feel her fingernails dig into my skin as she bore her body weight down on me, collapsing my windpipe. I knew struggling would only anger her, but my body took over and squirmed under her grasp. I battled with all my strength to break free, to inhale, but she was far stronger than me. “I thought we were going to be friends”, she hissed, “but the next time you try something like that I will choke you to death, you little shit!” She held tight for another ten seconds, and then let go.

It seemed like the world had died. I heard nothing but blood roaring in my ears. My chest heaved; I was panting like I’d just sprinted ten blocks. I knew I was not dreaming, but I wished I could start. I tried to imagine a place far away: I pictured myself in a spaceship, and when I couldn’t hold that image I tried an underwater city. But the present moment was insistent; it kept calling me back. Light from a nearby streetlamp filtered into my little bedroom through gauzy curtains. Della’s face hovered above me like a monstrous full moon, glistening with homicidal exhilaration. I watched as she brought her breathing under control. She smiled broadly with her mouth, but her eyes remained narrow and cruel. “Wouldn’t you rather be my friend?”

“Yes!” I pleaded in a rapid voice, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it. Jan made me do it. It was her idea! I won’t say anything ever again. I promise! I’m really sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” The bruising and weeping made my voice hoarse; it hurt to say anything. Under the covers my legs shook like saplings in a strong wind.

“I’m glad you agree,” Della answered. “I’ll make sure Jan doesn’t force you to hurt my feelings again. I bet we’ll be good friends.” The smile reappeared on her lower face, while her eyes displayed no more affection than a hungry wolf staring down a cornered rabbit.

After she left, I felt like a crushed egg. I explored the tender spots on my neck with my fingers, while my conscience writhed with shame. The guilt I felt from betraying my sister taunted me, calling me a coward and a tattletale. In the abysmal depths of my stomach, I felt spasms of unspeakable horror as I worried that Della was going to murder Jan because of me.

The next morning, my father sat at the breakfast table with his cornflakes, reading the paper. Della was putting away dishes. Without glancing up from the news, my dad grunted ‘good morning’ at me. I set up my own bowl of cereal, and poured from the glass milk bottle he’d left on the table. I hoped he would notice the red marks on my neck. I tried to will him to look up, to actually see me. My heart jumped as I imagined, for two seconds, blurting out what happened, and forcing him to inspect my throat. But my stepmother had turned around, and she was staring at me with her arms crossed. She wore a beige dress with a deep v-neck, which showed more of her chest than I’d ever seen on a Minnesota mom, or on any woman. She’d made her hair up in its bun, and had put on lipstick the color of fresh blood, which sharply outlined her frown. She was watching my every move. I was too afraid to speak, too afraid to eat, but my dad noticed neither my silence nor my lack of appetite. Della stood in the room until my father pushed his chair back and got up. She followed him as he walked to the front closet and donned his coat. She trailed him back into the kitchen as he headed out the side door to the car in the driveway. She pulled him into a long, wet kiss goodbye. He never looked at me as he disappeared into the chill spring air. Before long, a stack of new-car brochures appeared on the dining room table.

You might think I hated her. There were two reasons I did not, or did not always, or not completely. First, a little boy needs mothering, and I wanted Della to act the part. Even though she could never replace my real mom, I picked her a bouquet of pumpkin-colored marigolds on Mother’s Day. And when we made heart-shaped cards out of red construction paper in second grade crafts, I made mine for her. Nor was Della immune to these gestures. If she felt generous, she would pat me on the head and grant me a real smile.

She also kept me off balance by occasional acts of kindness. One day she took me to the circus, just the two of us. Sitting high in the bleachers, we ate caramel popcorn until our hands were sticky. We cheered the acrobatic poodles, and chuckled in unison at the goofy clowns.

A fantasy that she loved me kept me happy all day, but that night over dinner Della glared at me as always. Nothing had changed in that cold, dark house.

After a winter buried in snow, we moved to California, where my father found his dream of a full professorship at U.C.L.A. To reward my stepmother for her good job taking care of his kids, my dad fulfilled his promise and bought her the lovely lavender Mustang, loaded with every available option.

Della returned home in triumph. She showed off her new car to jealous and broke relatives. She bragged about her ‘brilliant’ spouse, a university professor with a lucrative consulting firm on the side. She downplayed the flaw in her new life of affluence, and acted happy about the two ghost-like children she now had to raise.

On a typical day after school, I listened with gathering dread to the sound of her automobile rumbling toward the house. Although I knew she would want me to unload the trunk, I spied for a minute from the window next to the front door. I watched her step out of her new car, which glistened like wet candy. The gold-nugget afternoon sun made it shimmer with the colors of a perfect sunset. Della stood proudly in a white summer dress, holding the leash to her blond Pekingese, the door of the factory-fresh vehicle open behind her. She had a diamond on her ring finger that glinted multicolored light around the neighborhood. I hated that ring and I hated that car. I wanted to hate the dog, too, but Tony always acted happy to see me. After I forced myself out the front door to get the groceries, I could feel Della eyeing me with distaste. My slacks ended two inches above canvas tennis shoes that bulged in odd places, distorted by feet that had outgrown them months ago. I wore a cheap white undershirt as if it were an actual Tee shirt, and not Fruit-of-the-Loom. To say I was skinny would have been an understatement; when naked I looked skeletal. I tried to please Della by working fast, hoping she would grant me a molecule of a smile.

Della and my dad ate out most nights, while Jan and I subsisted on TV dinners, without snacks or dessert to supplement the meager calories. My lunch bags contained one item: a peanut butter sandwich without jelly. Della found a deal on a sixty-pound tub of peanut butter that she kept in the garage next to the pool chemicals. She bought me only the cheapest and squishiest breads. I got so sick of that sandwich that I crushed it into a ball every day, and threw it across the lunch yard. Hunger plagued me, but rather than eat that sandwich I begged my classmates for tidbits of better food.

To keep me out of the house, Della ordered me to weed an 8-foot by 15-foot patch of junipers each afternoon until my dad came home. Since weeds were scarce, I spent most of the time daydreaming. Neighborhood boys played in the street, and often teased me: a kid their age crawling amidst bushes picking seedlings the size of paper clips. I was glad we attended different schools. Della tired of that punishment after a few months, and let me do whatever I wanted as long as I stayed away after school. Without Minnesota’s blizzards and wind chill, I simply wandered the streets if I couldn’t find a friend to take me home with him. My relief was short-lived. To my dismay, and for unclear reasons, Della started hunting me down in her Mustang. I’d be lost in a reverie, and without warning she would pull up next to me. She’d stare straight ahead until I climbed in. I’d look at her with a pleading grin; if she smiled back, I might be safe. Most often, she’d only frown and roll away from the curb. As she drove she would smack my face with the back of her hand, shrieking insults and threats.

Like the erosion of a mountain through geologic ages, my childhood crept by, and time dragged its claws over Della’s car. At first the changes were slight, barely noticeable. The engine developed a subtle clicking sound at certain RPMs. The mirror-like paint job became just a little less shiny. Here and there a pinprick of corrosion marred the chrome bumpers. She kept her treasured vehicle in the garage, but marine air crept in anyway.

At the same time, Della gained weight over the years. Where once her figure had been curvy and voluptuous, she gradually thickened at the waist, while spider veins showed up on her thighs. I felt bad for her, seeing how hard she worked to keep looking young and sexy. Her clothing became more revealing, her jewelry flashier, and her hair more blond.

One Sunday morning I took Tony out for a walk and there it was: a dent the size of a football in the right rear fender. I found out later she had backed the car into a street sign, too drunk to notice that her wheel had jumped the curb. My dad paid a biker they met in a bar to pound out the dent, but he refused to shell out for a paint job. So the contour returned to something like its original elegance, while the fender remained the color of Bondo putty. I wondered if she had creased the car deliberately, hoping for a new ride. If so, she learned my dad’s cheapness trumped his love.

Looking back, I realize that my stepmother’s pattern of feeding and clothing Jan and me as if we were penniless reflected my father’s way of doling out money to Della for her home and her car. We lived in a posh oceanside neighborhood, in a sprawling house with panoramic views, but he spent almost nothing on upkeep of the building and vehicles. I would have commiserated with Della’s false impoverishment, except that my dad spared no expense on her clothes, their meals out, their entertainment, or their travels. It was just his cars, home, and kids he let go to hell.

I don’t understand how my dad selected his priorities. He wanted Della to look fabulous when they entered casinos in Vegas, but did not care if they arrived in a jalopy. He had his values, and honored them, but cared little about what mattered to others. At his memorial, one of his colleagues called him a ‘brilliant theorist,’ but my dad never turned his intelligence toward keeping his family happy. He overlooked countless signs of abuse and neglect. More than once, as an adult, I told him some of the worst stories, and he appeared outraged. But a short time later he acted like he had never heard any of it. A master of denial, he refused to see what kind of woman he had forced to raise his children.

At age fifteen, aware that I had grown stronger and more muscular than her, I confronted my stepmother. We stood halfway down the narrow corridor that led from the foyer to the bedrooms. As usual, she was angry about something, and I watched her draw her right arm back, winding up to slap me soundly across the face. For the first time, I did not cringe. The fear I normally felt in front of Della evaporated. I grabbed her wrist and blocked her from striking me. She looked at my fist squeezing her forearm as if it were a leech on her skin. She swung even harder with her left hand. I grabbed that one, too, then pinned both her wrists against the wall behind her. Staring into her eyes, we shared an odd moment of poisonous intimacy. I had a lurching sensation of the world inverting; we both knew that our relationship was about to change. Then the spell broke, and I shouted into her face with a decade of resentment distilled into nine blunt words, like viper strikes. “YOU GODDAM BITCH! DON’T YOU EVER HIT ME AGAIN!!!”

I shoved her aside and headed toward the front door. By the time I reached the exit she had ducked into the kitchen and grabbed a 10-inch carving knife. I turned in time to see her lunging toward me with the weapon overhead. My body reacted before my mind fully grasped the scene. I sprinted down the driveway into the street, yelling incoherent curses without looking back. I did not doubt she would stab me if she caught me. I pictured her hacking me with the silvery blade, desperate to retaliate against my sudden impudence, and the hundreds of times my father thwarted her desires.

After hours spent thinking about whether to return home, I ended up eating dinner with my dad and Della. She acted as if nothing had happened. We passed the margarine, picked at our food, and made small talk in the usual desultory way. I had been prepared for a blowout between my father, Della, and me, but all we had was another sad supper in the breakfast nook.

The primary influence Della had over me had been based on her ability to overpower me, to strangle me in my bed when necessary. After I stood up to her, she lost all control. Of course, from then on I slept with a razor-sharp fishing knife under my pillow. But besides taking that precaution, I had no fear of her; I did as I pleased. To my surprise, she acted more kindly toward me. When I was sixteen the two of them went to Europe for six weeks, and Della handed me the keys to her car. The gesture shocked me, since I already had use of the battered jeep they took to Mexico every year. The jeep had a hole in its muffler and drove like a corroded tank, but it got me around. For Della to lend me her Ford, knowing that I had just found my high school sweetheart, struck me as a miraculous generosity. The Mustang was a far more girl-friendly vehicle.

Although the car was a boon to a teenager with an empty house and a new girlfriend, it was an embarrassment to Della. The chrome had lost half of its luster, and the paintjob was about as shiny as dust. The vinyl upholstery had small tears along the seams, where foam the color of dried egg yolk protruded. At the start of my senior year my dad gave in and bought Della a used Fiat convertible. It looked nice, but she felt frightened driving a car so small. When she figured out the vehicle required repairs almost every month, she changed her plan of giving me the Mustang to take to college, and let me have the Fiat instead. I would have preferred the Ford, with its V-8 engine. Even so, I loved to zip the little green convertible along the winding roads of the coastal mountains. Sadly for Della, it would be another twenty years before my dad broke down and bought her a brand new car. Even then, her fantasy of automotive luxury was destroyed when he insisted she settle for a Geo Prism instead of a Lexus or even a Camry.

She gave the Mustang to my sister when it was thirty years old and had logged at least 400,000 miles. The engine had been rebuilt three times, the transmission twice. The suspension creaked, and the car seemed to tilt a bit to the right. Jan was thrilled to have any ride at all, but the automobile soon died. Unable to afford even minimal repairs, my sister left it parked in her rented garage, where mice moved into the seat cushions, and generations of spiders built webs on the steering wheel and instrument panel.

Della died in February of 2007. The last time I saw her she could hardly be recognized; she was suffering in the final stages of breast cancer. Hairless and bloated, her jaundiced skin looked like beeswax. She appeared worn out and vulnerable, like a discarded doll. I had driven seven hours to visit her in her deathbed, in the house where I grew up. I yearned for a final reconciliation.

Why did I bother? Partly, I thought myself over the abuse and ready to forgive; I seldom woke up screaming anymore. I also remembered the circus, the cowboy movies, the pastries, and her occasional generosity. My wife worried that my desire to reach out sprang from the same loyalty a prisoner feels toward his overbearing guard. I hoped Della would depart with a mother’s affection for me, as the only son she ever had. Childhood dreams can be tenacious.

On the first day, we both worked at sharing a good visit. We avoided talk of the past, and spent quiet time together. Her brother, who had come down from Oregon to assist Della in her final days, kept his distance. I appreciated that he let me have time with her. That night, I held Della’s hand as we watched television side by side. Before tucking in I called my wife to tell her how well things were going. She cautioned me to not expect too much.

The next morning, I awoke after sleeping in the old house for the first time in years. My heart ached with a complex mixture of grief and hope. The ten-foot ceiling in my childhood bedroom seemed to press down with a freight of unhappy memories. Yet the warmth and sunshine of Southern California streamed in the open windows, chasing away the ghosts. I headed across the hall to visit Della in the bedroom she and my father had shared for almost forty years. I passed my stepmother’s brother leaving her chamber. He avoided my gaze.

“Good morning, Della!” When as a child I once called her by name, she slapped me so hard I saw stars. But since age fifteen, when I finally stopped her from hitting me, I’d greeted her as one adult to another.

“Shut the door.” She ignored my greeting. In an instant we reverted to the old game: I flashed her a smile, and when she failed to return it, I knew I was in trouble.

“Sure. What’s up?” In two seconds I went from anticipating a peaceful day with this woman who raised me, to feeling like a dying cat had jumped into my stomach.

“Why did you come here?” On the first day I’d detected tenderness in Della’s heart, but now a block of dry ice sat there instead.

“You asked me to. It was Friday night, actually yesterday morning. Remember? You called me at 2:00 am. I drove all night. You said you wanted me to be with you.”

“But all you’re interested in is the will! You only came here for that. Charlie says you took it out to your car and talked to your wife about it.” She stabs me with the frigid and hate-filled stare familiar from long ago.

“You showed me the will; I didn’t even know about it until I got here. And I never took it out of the house. I’m sorry if my looking at it upset you.” I began to feel dizzy, and the room seemed to be drifting away from me. Before now I had not noticed how warm she kept it.

“All you care about is the money!”

“That’s not true! I drove here because I love you!” My eyes filled with tears, and my cheeks burned like they’d been splashed with scalding water. My chest felt tight, and my breaths shortened to shallow gasps. I was six-years-old again, and Della was hitting me.

“What is wrong with you? Why are you crying?” She eyed me as if I was a puzzle she would rather toss out than solve.

“I’m sorry! I came down here to be with you. I didn’t come here to get your money.” It didn’t occur to me to point out that the will, which she and her brother planned to file the next day, gave my sister and me far less than half the estate my father built.

“Well, Charlie doesn’t want to share a bathroom with you. And I don’t know why you came here. I think you should go.” Her voice sounded solid and cold, like refrigerated steel.

“That’s fine. I’m sorry. I’ll go.” In just moments I shifted from dreaming of a sweet goodbye, to working strenuously to avoid emotional collapse. Seven years earlier severe arthritis had ended my career as a surgeon. In the aftermath, I spent three weeks on a psychiatric ward. The hospital therapists encouraged me to talk about my feelings toward Della. They believed childhood trauma played a key role in my breakdown. Therapy was supposed to shore me up and help me find confidence and self-esteem. As I stood before Della’s deathbed, none of that was helping. I felt like a child again. My stepmother’s hostile and paranoid face ridiculed my fading hope that deep within her heart, she loved me. I was hyperventilating. Tears streamed down my cheeks. In an evanescence of clarity I recognized this as a ‘flashback.’ But my next panicked gasp blew that clinical observation away. I was just a little boy with a broken heart. I turned toward the door.

“Wait.” Hesitance crept into her voice. “Did I make you like this? This weak?”

“No! It wasn’t your fault.” Even as I said this, I could not understand why. Of course she made me this fragile and sensitive. Of course she inflicted wounds I’d been healing my whole life. But I let Della off the hook. I even repeated the words, betraying myself a second time. “It wasn’t your fault. Good bye.”

After I rushed out, she called Charlie, who helped her out of bed. By the time I’d packed my suitcase, Della had ambled with her walker into the living room. She convinced me to stay for a cup of coffee before leaving. She made it clear she was trying to get along. Maybe she felt regret for how she acted, but she did not say so, and I no longer cared. We made small talk, but I felt dead inside. When I departed, she even said she loved me, but her words carried no more weight than falling leaves. I never saw or spoke with my stepmother again.

Today the Mustang rests under a mildewed tarp, its tires long since flat. My sister’s boyfriend talks of restoring it to classic glory. In a way, I’d like to see that. Although I deplored Della showing off that car when it was new, it saddens me to realize how time mocked her dreams. For both our sakes, I wish my stepmother could have gotten what she wanted from life.

I imagine her cruising the Pacific Coast Highway as the gorgeous young wife of a prominent scientist, unencumbered by someone else’s children, smiling as her blond hair gets tousled by the ocean air flowing over a slightly rolled-down window. The Mustang’s windows are as clear as pure water, and they are edged with chrome. I can see her face framed by one as she glances toward the surf, her blue eyes catching the light of the sunset, her lips curved into a contented grin.

(Note: you might want to now read this final epilogue to my relationship with my stepmother.)


Iron Maidens: My Stepmother and Her Mustang — 24 Comments

  1. Pingback: A memoir fragment. « WillSpirit

  2. Beautifully written. I love the imagery in this line:

    “We lived like wraiths haunting a suburban tract house, skulking from room to room in a building buried to the rafters in snow, its windows blank and white, sometimes stopping to stare wistfully at the peaceful drifts suffocating the house. “

  3. Hi Alison–

    Thank you for stopping by and reading my essay. And for the positive feedback. It’s very much appreciated.


  4. I really enjoy your style of writing. Your attention to detail pulls me into the story.
    It intrigues me that you can look at her now and wished that she could have lived her dream. Something I will be thinking about.

  5. lostinamaze–

    It took a long time, a lot of therapy, and the realization that in death my stepmother can no longer hurt me, for me to get to a place of forgiveness. It would have been far more noble to forgive her before she died, but I did not have that in me. But at least afterwards I realized that harboring hate for the deceased hurts only me and my chances for happiness. That was probably true even before she succumbed to cancer, but it was harder to see.

    Also, if Della had been my ‘real mother’, I might still resent her. But she did not ask to raise me, did not want to raise me. The unselfish thing would have been for her to leave my father rather than raise us unwillingly, as she did. But Della was selfish above all, and it was not in her nature to give up something she fought for and won. So she felt forced to take care of Jan and me, and feeling forced made her very, very angry. A stepmother is not obligated to love her stepchildren in the same way a mother is supposed to love her own brood.

    Finally, Della’s aunt and uncle raised her after the death of both her parents. Her aunt was the one that insisted, and the one connected by blood. Her uncle did so unwillingly, and was cruel and abusive. So it was ironic, as well as tragic, that Della grew up to face a similar circumstance. Once again, the virtuous path would have been to break the cycle, and treat my sister and me with kindness. But that, apparently, was not in Della’s nature either.

    Thank you for reading the essay, and for your thoughtful comment. Answering it has highlighted something for me: in the end, Della left me with some valuable insights.

    Take care.


  6. Will, Your account of your childhood and Della is a reminder of the reality that even the smallest children have feelings, memories and shows the extent of the damage inflicted. It restores my sense of outrage to have you articulate the experiences so descriptively and gives hope to the eventual justice of stripping away the facade. I understand that loneliness you describe, but I am also sorry for the father that you had, who was also extremely selfish and selectively oblivious. I wish he loved you more and for that to happen, he would have had to love himself more. I am always astounded by the level of unconciousness that people function in. Your comment of wanting a mother’s heart…if only we could all have that. A toast to you that you are able to re-envision a different version of Della.

  7. Mary LG–

    Thank you for the comment.

    Della, on some level, was sick. Sociopathic, sadistic, tormented. But my dad was just narcissistic, so I hold him more responsible. Della made clear she did not want to raise us; she knew her limits. She was wrong to vent her frustrations so viciously on defenseless children, of course, and she is far from blameless. But my dad set up the situation that led to the awful outcome. He forced us on Della, and then refused to see what he had wrought. I know he was tormented in his own right, but even so it’s a challenge for me to forgive his selfishness.


  8. Hi, Will,
    I commented on your text about Yin and Yang of Growth a few days ago.
    Now I am looking here and there at the texts you published – and I find they resonate with my thoughts on certain subjects to a fairly good extent; so, probably, I will post other comments, as well.
    Now, when I read the scene on your final meeting with Della, I couldn’t help thinking about a former boyfriend of mine. We appreciated each other very much and we had a great plans for the future – when he suddenly started demonstrating hostility to me – he betrayed me and my love. It was very painful for me and little by little I could decipher that this strange and unexpected behavior was due to pressure and manipulations by HIS OWN MOTHER. When I read your description of that scene, I felt he might have felt in a similar way – trying to be good and humane but being submerged by an her immense aggressive pressure to do as she told him, e.g. to give up his love and his hopes for the future which equals denying his personality.
    What I wanted to say – not only stepmothers can turn grown-up men into scared little boys – own mothers can also do it in an unimaginably cruel way.

  9. Anna–

    The final scene with my stepmother left me pretty shaken, but I’m not sure Della was pressuring me to do anything. Of course, families frequently push their members, and if there is an insular, paranoid flavor to the dynamic, outsiders may get excluded. Ultimately, however, each person needs to accept responsibility for his or her own actions, regardless of external pressures. If nothing else, this has been clearly established in the case of war crimes, where ‘following orders’ is not a valid defense. My own family usually treated my romantic partners harshly. I don’t think their attitudes ever pushed me out of a partnership, but they caused a lot of discord nevertheless. Still, in my opinion, anyone who gives up a satisfying relationship because of family influence needs to grow up, big time. It sounds like you were badly hurt, and I endorse your instinct that the mother-son relationship had an unhealthy, manipulating aspect. Might you be better off without someone so strongly controlled by his mother? Something only you can decide, of course…


  10. Hi, Will,
    Actually, I am not making a full parallel between the two situations. What I tried to point out is the moment when the “mother”-abuser throws on her son the cloak of the character she wants him to be (in your case the cloak of someone interested just in money; in “my” case the cloak of a traitor. I felt this moment is very well conveyed by your description – it’s like a moment when one feels hypnotized under the ruthless eyes of the cobra – and, at the moment, acting as the cobra wants him to.
    Actually, what she does is activating reactions that were conditioned by herself in the years of childhood. The moment of the fully conscious and real decision (“what to do” and how to behave) comes later and then one can make his/her choice.
    As for me, I got out of this relationship a long time ago by my own decision. Actually, I felt she/they wanted me to stay in it and, by creating permanent discord, to enjoy my confusion and my suffering.
    I refused her/them this pleasure :))
    In the long term, this encounter provoked an intense process of getting knowledge and awareness that, a few years later, has made my life easier in many respects. It’s been a fearful but rewarding experience for me, after all.

  11. Anna–

    Thanks for the further thoughts and for your honesty. Sorry for assuming male gender with regard to the story you related. I’ll have to admit to expecting such behavior of men more than women. Not sure why I expect better of women besides cultural conditioning; my own life story should have been enough to teach me that both sexes are equally capable of weakness and selfishness.


  12. Pingback: My Perfect Childhood « WillSpirit!

  13. Pingback: My Perfect Childhood | Guideposts to Happiness

  14. Wow. Sounds like you could have lived with my family. My single hard working mom looked wonderful to other people. How lucky we were. When she came home from work and shut the door. That nice person was gone. We became very close after I became an adult. I miss my adult friend . My sister and I have put it all behind us. We are kind gentle moms.Thank-you

  15. Cindy–

    Good for you for putting the past behind. I’m a believer in facing up, but the time comes when we also need to let go. One can’t find freedom while hanging on to pain.


  16. Thank you, Will, for sharing your experiences. It’s helped me deal with my childhood demons.

    P.S. You’re a great writer, BTW.

  17. Pingback: How Much Can We Endure? - The Healthy Life Tips

  18. ‘Tis no doubt you not only have the heart of a writer that pulls on the chords of our own hearts, because of your beautiful and brutal honesty, but a heart that reveals itself to be deeper than your underwater dives. What beautiful insight that you have, even as a very young boy to be as perceptive as you were. I hear you about the acceptance you came to with your stepmother, which is an incredibly mature place to land, given the experience you had with her growing up, which to my way of thinking, smacks of the creativity abundant within us all, in a way that allows us to transcend the moment.

    The one thing that bothers me and has left a niggley space in my heart, is that I cannot seem to find any connection on any kind of emotional level with your father. Granted, it is often the mother child relationship we need to address first in our lives, but I do wonder how you perceived your father/son relationship. You acknowledge the fact that he was narcissistic, and in that alone, I can fully understand any in depth analysis of that relationship. But it still leaves me wondering how you came to resolve this aspect of your life. Frankly, I am coming to believe that men have so very few role models of what it means to be a man in a healthy context, and I am also coming very much to believe that I don’t think that one exists. I’d dearly love to hear you write about such kinds of relationships and the kinds of role models you think would have merit. Maybe you have done so already, and I may not know about it.

    I happened to stumble upon your blog when coming to the sour realisation that my mother was a narcissist, but her veneer would have had you believe otherwise. On the other hand, my father was totally absent emotionally from any kind of relationship with us, and it was him that I used to blame for so many years for the kinds of dysfunctions in our family that have only been really surfacing in recent years, moreso since his death, 10 years ago. Both parents suffered trauma in their years growing up, and I find it immensely interesting how each individual comes to deal with it in their lives as they grow.

    But thank you again for a very moving story, you certainly have a wonderful gift to share with the world.

  19. Hi Lily–

    Thank you for the comment and the compliments. I appreciate your taking the time to read my memoir pieces. The one about my stepmother was indeed opaque with regard to my father. That may have been due to my confused feelings about him at the time of writing, but it also reflects the focus of the essay, which was primarily about my relationship with Della.

    Here’s a piece I wrote earlier this year that began the process of tackling my relationship with my dad. It’s not polished like the ‘Stepmother’ piece, but it moves in the direction of unpacking my complicated feelings about him:

    I think there may be more healthy male role models today than there used to be. It is becoming common for ambitious men to pursue a career but also take genuine interest in their kids. This was rare, to say the least, when I grew up. Just last night I read a bit about Johnny Depp, who makes a big point of saying that his kids are more important to him than his film work.

    So there is hope. Always.



  20. Hey,
    Thanks for your reply, and I hope I wasn’t out of place in asking about your father, my apologies anyway. I’m just all too curious about this subject matter, just needing to understand men a little more I suppose.

  21. Lily–

    No apology necessary. Really. One doesn’t write a blog like this and then expect readers not to ask questions. Anyway, with regard to learning about men, have you read: The Male Brain by psychiatrist Louann Brizendine? Looking at the nervous system is only one of many approaches to the topic, but it’s not a bad start. A brief summary of her book can be found in this essay at LiveScience. Brizendine wrote an earlier and equally useful book called The Female Brain. I think both go a long way toward answering some age-old questions. In particular, they can help men and women understand one another.



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