I used to wonder when the world would end. I hoped that it would.
I'm referring to my father's remarriage to my stepmother. It was a nightmare for the entire time between the beginning of the marriage until his death, eight years later.
I've written of my father's life, his death. I've written of my mother's illness, of my stepmother's life. Those were all loving tributes.
I've not told yet of the horrors of living the life after the divorce.
Mental health professionals will tell you that divorce is not as harmful as the effects of a badly structured remarriage. By that, I mean divorce has its own demons for the family, and remarriage has additional demons.
My stepmother was, and is, a Polish woman and a medical doctor, who came from Poland in 1960 specifically to work with my father.
My father was a young scientist at the time, and had an international reputation in his field of pharmacology, the study of drugs and their effects upon the central nervous system – in other words, the brain.
My stepmother was a general practitioner in Poland; she had grown up and lived through the Holocaust, a horrible, nearly unspeakable event in her life.
She had one son, a boy one year my senior.
She desired to switch professions and applied for a position as a post-doctoral student, to work for my father.
This, the then-Communist Poland granted her. For one year, she would study neuropharmacology, under my father's tutelage.
From the start, it was a match made in heaven. A 35-year old, vivacious redhead with a body that wouldn't quit, she had a strong personality that drew people to it like flies to flypaper.
This analogy is apt. She knew well that you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.
My father had grown up a cowboy, on a ranch in southern Utah, during the depression. Sheep cut the grass during this time. My grandfather's business, a seed and feed store for the sheep industry, failed.
My father was a misfit in this tight-knit Mormon community. As a child, he was wayward. Like many during his time, he started driving when he was 11. He helped drive the truck on the ranch.
He helped in his father's store; my grandfather had survived mustard gas during World War I in France and could not sweep the fine corn dust off the floor of the store.
So, that became my father's job growing up. How he hated the smell of corn meal and corn bread, that the rest of us so loved.
My father smoked cigarettes from 11 years of age. As I said, this was a small, tight-knit community of Mormons in southern Utah.
You were either part of the religion, or you were outcast. You were either part of the solution, or part of the problem.
No middle ground existed. You could not see beyond the horizon of red mountains in this color country.
He was sheltered, in spite of this somewhat rough living. He wanted to be a scientist from the age of 10. Going to college was frowned upon, that was for 'rich folk', my grandfather had admonished.
After high school, my father joined the U.S. Navy, as World War II was still in progress. The year in training was rough on him, as he was as sensitive as he was sheltered.
It was a lucky moment that he had been born in 1927 and was not called to the military until the end of the war. The war ended just before his training period was over.
He was 19 when he married my mother, his high-school sweetheart. She was 20.
Their wedding photo is of him in his Naval uniform, his dress blues, in San Francisco, where he was stationed.
During this beginning period of his15-year marriage to my mother, they were at the University of Utah, each getting their bachelor's degree. My father found his métier. Science was his 'thing.'
He had a natural brilliance, a creative force unmatched by many of his contemporaries.
He had scored top in the state in some sort of test that was a pre-cursor to the National Merit Scholarship.
His grades were awful; they ranged the gamut. He did not care. He was at the university, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.
He smoked cigarettes; he drank beer and hard liquor. Not to excess, but still, he drank.
To make a point, his booze was the ooze of his soul – it was his obscene gesture to the world he grew up in – the LDS church, which prohibited drinking.
He drank only as much as did his academic contemporaries of the time. Which is to say, a fair bit. Still, he never missed a day.
He was rarely out of control. Science was his life, and he would not let anything stand in the way of his muse.
So, in 1960, after a marriage nearly 15 years' going and three young daughters, my stepmother-to-be arrived on the scene.
She was this vivacious woman from Eastern Europe, a far cry from the sheltered world of Mormonism in which he'd grown up.
He was this maverick scientist, a far cry from the strictures of her established European priorities.
It was a match made in heaven. Their love affair, that is.
During the time they were dating, my father still lived at home. Each was swept off their feet by the other. They fell in love with the illusion they thought the other was.
My father left my mother during this time. When I was born, the eldest of the three girls, my mother told my father she no longer wanted to be a scientist, but to stay home and raise babies.
He was shocked. This was the 1950s, mind you.
She was a lab technician at this time, and would later become a nurse. She worked part time during my childhood. Yet, my father ached for a woman who would be a helpmeet.
He found that in my stepmother to be.
I enjoyed being around my father and stepmother; I could tell they were in love.
This, I did not begrudge him, as he was happy. I was distraught at my mother's unhappiness.
So, when my father announced what I expected – that he and my stepmother to be would marry, I was overjoyed. I looked forward to being an intact family again.
What I did not expect was that my stepmother was someone much more complex than I had so far seen.
Within a month after the marriage, the fights started. She had her ideas, and she was headstrong. I don't remember the substance of the fights, just the tenor. She wanted her way--it was what she was accustomed to.
My father's world was rocked again, but in an entirely new way. He took to drinking to excess, for the first time. This was during the binges that would characterize his marriage to my stepmother.
He was crushed. The woman with the personality he admired and the body he loved was trying to cope with life as a green-card resident in the state of Utah, a place she called 'the ends of the earth.'
A psychologist friend of my father said the remarriage was a bad idea.
My stepmother barely spoke English, her son spoke even less. Four people lived in one house, none of whom could communicate effectively with the others.
Still, there was a lot of love. Clearly, they loved each other. Their love affair was one of the great passions of their time. The tumult they also lived was remarkable, too.
The fights were at night, not every night, not every week. But when they occurred, they were long and loud, howling coming from doors down the hall, into my room. My stepbrother interceded.
Too much alcohol and too many sleeping pills invaded their world, a world in which they were in way over their heads.
My parents were busy, no denying that. My father wanted my stepmother as his wife, first and foremost. The welfare of his daughters came second.
As the first-born, I was responsible for cooking and a fair bit of the cleaning. We did have a woman once a week to clean the entire house; it was my job to clean specific rooms in the meantime.
I loved my father; I loved my stepmother. I loved being in a family again. But I did not love the stress that the dysfunction of this blended family played out for the eight years of the remarriage.
In marrying my father, my stepmother had to defect. She had to defect from then-Communist Poland, just to stay in the U.S.
It would be a decade before she was allowed to return to Poland; it was nearly a decade before the Polish government allowed her own mother to visit.
In marrying my father, she had to divorce her own husband, a high-ranking economist with the Polish government.
This she did, by proxy. He created a scandal that echoed throughout Poland.
All this stress scarred my stepmother. She found me difficult, willful.
In reality, I was at the wrong age for her to be my stepmother. I loved my father, and we were close. I looked up to him; largely, I ignored her.
She found my younger sisters more malleable. To be certain, they were. They were not 12 when my father remarried.
To look at this from my stepmother's perspective, I was in her way. My father's relationship with me stood in her way. It is not much more complex than that.
She is a loving woman, she is a selfish woman. She is kind, she is cruel. She is beautiful, she is an old woman with a mean soul.
She will give you everything, she will give you nothing. She is a mass of contradictions. She is human. I love her, I hate her.
I used to wonder when the world would end. I used to hope that it would.
When my father died, eight years after he remarried, that world did end.
My stepmother still teaches at the University. We do not speak.