There was a lot of drama surrounding this relationship when he died, so much so that we had to take special precautions to make sure Jane and Charlene would not encounter each other at the service, and to make sure Charlene would not see the effusive, sappy posts Jane left on various newspaper editions of Dad’s obituary. We believed Charlene did not know about Jane, and we wanted to keep it that way.
I still think of Charlene as my step-mom. I call her to check in every few months, and we have discussed our mutual desire to stay in touch. I’d really like to see her. I’ve mentioned a few times that I’d love to come up and visit (she lives three hours north of me), and she’s agreed pretty vaguely, not suggesting any specifics. We have never scheduled anything, other than when I came up to retrieve some of my dad’s belongings a month after he died.
I’d like to invite myself up to see her – she’s a homebody, and she wouldn’t make the drive down here to see me. But I don’t know if that’s welcome. She seems happy to talk on the phone – we usually talk for over an hour, but she’s never solidified a time to visit. Part of me feels like maybe I just need to take the initiative, as Charlene has always seemed quite reserved, but the other part of me argues that she can invite me if she wants to. Part of my awkwardness in dealing with this stems from the fact that I’m not exactly sure how much she knows about the affair. She’s never mentioned it, but I can’t believe she doesn’t know. I’m not sure, though – the last time I talked to her, she was referring to my dad in a diminutive of his name, like Bobby for Bob, that she’s never used before. I read some sentimentality into that.
I want to see Charlene because I love and miss her, and even though I’m in my late twenties, their divorce and my dad’s death back-to-back was a lot to process. My family just doesn’t feel the same at all with both of them absent. But I also want to respect her space and her right to decide how much of her life from her marriage to my dad she holds onto – which I know might change with time. I’m confused, though, because I am always the one who calls her, and I just learned she had heart surgery almost a year ago and never told me until now. I feel like if I got these signals from a man or a friend, I’d be crazy not to MOA, although this isn’t the same thing, really. How should I proceed? — Still her Stepdaughter?
First of all, I’m sorry for the loss of your father. I’m sure your stepmother, like you, has been processing his death, their divorce, and his affair over these last couple of years. She probably has moments of feeling very angry, and probably has moments of feeling sad. It’s also pretty likely she’s had her share of lonely days, too. I bet what she hasn’t had, though, are any days where she blames YOU for anything or resents you for your father’s behavior. It’s also quite possible that, like you, in the months since your father’s death she has wished that her relationship to you were better defined.
I can tell by reading your letter that you are a thoughtful, compassionate person, and I can imagine what a source of comfort it might be for a woman grieving a man she once loved to have a stepdaughter like you to lean on and grieve with. But I can also appreciate how temping it may be for her to draw some boundaries between herself and the world she shared with your father while she sorts through the mixed emotions of having lost someone with whom she had a complicated relationship.
But it’s been a year and a half and it’s a good bet to think her fondness for you is stronger than any bitter memories your presence might stir. It’s also a good bet to think she’d welcome a visit from you. It’s certainly a good enough bet to take the risk and invite yourself to see her. The worst that will happen is she’ll turn you down, in which case at least you’ll know where things currently stand.
But I doubt that will happen. My hunch is she’ll be pleased that you WANT to see her — that you genuinely welcome a relationship, not out of a sense of obligation, but because she means something to you. And even if she isn’t ready to see you yet, at least she’ll know where things stand. She’ll know that she is important to you — important enough that you’d take the time to drive all the way to see her.
Don’t let whatever complicated issues she and your dad had stand in the way of what could be a mutually fulfilling relationship between the two of you. You had nothing to do with your dad’s affair. Charlene knows that. You may represent your dad in her eyes, and I suspect that’s what your fear is, but you represent the goodness she loved in him. You represent the happy memories. You represent the positive side of his legacy. And it’s true she may not want to embrace any of his legacy yet — negative or positive — but on the chance that she does, you really don’t have much to lose by inviting yourself to visit. And you potentially have a lot to gain.