Now that Father’s Day has passed and fathers have received their due, let’s hear it for stepfathers — those special men who embrace children not their own, biologically speaking, and everything which comes along with them.
The dictionary defines “stepfather” as “the husband of one’s mother by a subsequent marriage.” In my experience, if ever a definition misses the mark, it’s that one.
When I was 15 years old, my father died; I was 26 when my mother married Tom. Of English descent, Tom was sophisticated, well-educated, well-traveled, a successful engineer and businessman with two children of his own. What courage he had to take on a new wife, three new daughters, and an extended Italian family with enough drama for a daytime soap opera.
Before long, my sisters and I presented my mother and Tom with seven grandchildren. Tom didn’t miss a stride. He held the babies tenderly, as if they might break; he lifted the toddlers up to the old wall clocks for the coveted daily winding ritual. He pulled quarters from behind their ears; played baseball in the backyard with a fat plastic bat; instilled in them a love of inquiry and scientific investigation. He even learned to be silly — once he kicked a football over the house, a feat they still remember with awe.
He shared his love of the ocean and sailing, giving the children turns at Vagrant’s helm. Eyes focused on the sea before them, encircled in Grandpa’s arms, they weren’t afraid. He would never let them down.
And he never let me down, either. When my marriage fell apart, it was Tom who comforted me on the phone for hours, who drove many times all night from Southern California when I needed him. He said he only did for me what he thought my father would have done. He’s been in my life for 40 years.
When I remarried, my children acquired a stepfather, and like my own stepfather, Ron acquired three new children. He waited for them to invite him into their lives, and when they did, he jumped in with both feet. That was 24 years ago.
It was Ron who patiently played catch in the back yard with the kids until — hurray! — they could actually catch the ball; who sat in the waiting room with me as we prayed for my son’s recovery from surgery; who attended every athletic practice, sports event, musical and dance recital, church and school activity — in triplicate. He never missed one. Never.
So it was Ron who received home-made Father’s Day cards; who attended high school and university graduations; who walked daughters down the aisle; who held new-born grandchildren. And it’s Ron whom they introduce as “My Dad.”
For me, the official definition of stepfather falls short. Instead, I offer this: “Stepfather: the honorable man who steps up to the plate and accepts the responsibility, heartbreak, and joy of loving the fragile human beings with whose hearts and souls he has been entrusted.”
Marilee Swirczek is professor emeritus at Western Nevada College and lives in Carson City.