WORDS THAT DIMINISH
My telephone rang Friday morning and the voice at the other end was a stranger’s. A social worker from Wisconsin was calling to inform me that my stepmother, Marie Miller, had been moved into a hospice program. Years ago, when Marie had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I’d attempted to bring her to Oregon, but the Wisconsin courts barred my effort, arguing I was not a blood relation and she was no longer competent to express her wishes. Instead, they made her a ward of their court and placed her in a guardianship program. That decision has been my on-going heartache. So, to hear a perfect stranger describe my stepmother’s condition as “an active state of dying,” struck me as ludicrous not only because it conjured images of the infirm leaping from their sick beds to dig their own graves, but also because only an indifferent bureaucrat could invent such a stupid phrase.
Marie Miller has been in my life since I was 6. She hailed from the Wisconsin farm belt before, at age 33, she met and married my father in California. She and I took to each other at once, but she never allowed me to call her mother. A childless woman, she insisted, “You only get one of those.” I called her Marie, instead.
To others I referred to her as my stepmother, out of respect for her admonition, but I always knew she was wrong. I had two mothers: one who was Latin and loved to dance; the other, the eldest daughter of a large Scandinavian family, who knew the meaning of hard work. The former gave me a sense of play; the later taught me to strive for the best and that education was important. Without both mothers, I’d be half a person.
Now that I’ve grown old, I can be honest. I don’t care much for the word stepmother. Each time I say it, I feel as if I’m putting a minus sign in front of the word mother. Marie doesn’t deserve a minus sign. And though the State of Wisconsin may think it, I’m not a minus daughter either.