Ruth isn’t my mother. She’s my stepmother. She’s nothing like my mother. Opposite, in fact. My mother died over 20 years ago. She once wept when she lost the rainbow acrylic scarf I crocheted for her. “It’s all right, Ma. I’ll make you another one,” I assured her at the time. But I never did. Ruth and my father have been married for 17 years.
It was one day, when my father had been dating Ruth for a couple of months that I visited my parents’ home on Clara Street in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. I climbed up the stairs of our landlord’s house (he and his family occupied the first floor), past the chalk drawing of a horse I’d done at the base of the steps, up to the second floor landing, entering the bright yellow ”L” of my parents’ kitchen. My mother used to hear my mounting footsteps and meet me in the doorway with the warmest hello in her voice, her eyes brimming with welcome.
Now my father and Ruth were sitting at the kitchen table, which was covered with the usual orange tablecloth. I entered the room and started to talk about my train trip and the trivia of my morning.
From where I stood, I could see my flushed face reflected in the sun shaped mirror with the Indian silver frame on the wall beside the doorway. I stood facing my Dad and Ruth, next to the wall on which hung four of my pastel drawings (my mother had framed them all). Miniature landscapes, arranged in two rows, side by side, forming a square of orange, chartreuse, ochre—earth colors. I could see into the two living rooms—the “green room” leading into the “blue room,” as we called them, after the color of their carpets—with a glimpse of my mother’s black, wrought-iron plant stand with trailing leaves of philodendron at the far window. I could almost see my mother’s delicate, lopsided back, as she bent over the stove, frying scrambled eggs and onions with mushrooms, because it was one of my favorite dishes.
Nothing was cooking on the stove while my father, Ruth, and I were talking. But I twirled around in the open space of the kitchen, breathing in the coffee and food smells that still hung in the air of my parents’ home that had also been my home till just a year ago, when I moved to my own apartment in Manhattan.
It was the second time I was meeting Ruth. The first time had been at a family gathering—it was almost an extension of the “sitting shiva” for my mother we had done three months earlier. I saw Ruth, my father’s girlfriend, across the room, and at first glance, she looked like Ava Gardner. (My father has taken up with a much younger woman. . . . ) When she came closer, singling me out, extending her hand, calling me by name, knowing I had just lost my mother, I saw the sagging cheeks and wrinkles, but there was still a certain Je ne sais quoi that animated her. Yes, she had sex appeal at seventy-something years. Je ne sais quoi was probably the one thing Ruth had in common with my mother.
Now, in my mother’s kitchen, she was smiling at me in a forced way. “Sit down,” she finally said in the manner of a gracious hostess.
I cannot tell you what I felt. Can you understand that I was shocked? This was my home, and she, who had been dating my father for two months, was telling me to sit down in it. I didn’t let my emotions show. I kept the conversation civil. I don’t remember whether I sat down or not.
Later, I used to want to write about it, changing the dialogue, jumping off into a fantasy of what might have been.
“I should be telling you to sit down!” I might have said. Or “Don’t tell me to sit down. I live here. I’ll sit or stand as I please.” Or “How dare you? Who do you think you are?”
But she already knew. She was the next Mrs. Ehrhardt, and she would soon be telling me to sit down in her own kitchen in her Sheepshead Bay apartment, after my father would move in with her.
But for now, I only knew a tremendous sense of dislocation, of inappropriateness, of her assumed proprietorship of my father and my home. (Yes, I could write about it and elevate and dramatize the dialogue and exorcise my rage and helplessness.)
But I never did. And you know, many years have passed since then. And Ruth has mellowed a bit. And I have gotten older–and used to her. My father and Ruth, as I mentioned before, have now been married for 17 years.
In all this time, I’ve never sent Ruth a Mother’s Day card, but this year, I regretted not doing so. This year, Ruth had a gallbladder attack and had to have her unhealthy organ removed. My mother had once had a gallbladder attack, too. Another thing they had in common. A condition that affects older women. Ruth became more vulnerable after that, more responsive to my attention, my phone calls, the cards I sent, more appreciative, or at least showed that side of her nature more. That is to say, we now have more of a relationship, though she still dominates the conversation.
In her Sheepshead Bay apartment, Ruth has a tiny, hygienic kitchen with a refrigerator magnet which flaunts the words: “Ruth’s kitchen.” She doesn’t want anybody else to go in there. She doesn’t even let my father near the stove, though he did the cooking all the time I was growing up.
Just outside her kitchen, there’s a circular table with a white plastic cloth. It is a mini-dining area, set off from the living room by a brass railing. And that’s where I park myself during my appointed visits, when she asks me if I want orange juice or coffee. Above the table dangles a giant, crystal chandelier. And two steps down, beyond the brass railing, stretches the small but immaculate living room.
Near the window, I can see my mother’s plant stand, which my father brought over from the old house. Ruth’s spider plants, as well as the longstanding philodendron, are shown to full advantage on the many levels of its winding stair. The plant stand fits right in with the red velvet sofa, the sentimental painting on the wall of a woman holding a basket of fruit, the floral patterned wall-to-wall carpet, the many photographs of Ruth’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the one unframed photo of me that has been stuck into a corner of one of the larger frames.
When I first come in, my father usually greets me at the door with a peck on the cheek, his one good eye flickering with affection. Ruth is next in line for a kiss, her black eyes sparkling with animation and renewed health. We make small talk for a few seconds. When Ruth tells me, “Sit down,” I sit. So does my father. After all, this is her house.