A new definition for a special breed of fathers
June 19, 2007
Now that Father’s Day is over 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 that comes along with them.
The dictionary defines “stepfather” as “the husband of one’s mother by a subsequent marriage.” If ever a definition misses the mark, it’s that one.
I’ve had some experience with stepfathers. My father died when I was nearly 16 years old; this July, my stepfather will have been in my life for 33 years. Come August, my own children, now in their twenties, will have had a stepfather for 17 years. I think I’ve earned the credentials to revise the definition of stepfather.
I was 26 years old when my mother married Tom. Of English descent, he was sophisticated, well-educated, well-traveled, a successful aeronautical 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 Tom with seven grandchildren. He 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 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. Bright eyes focused on the sea before them, they yelled “Aye, Captain!” as Grandpa stood behind them calling out orders. Though the deck bucked beneath them, they weren’t afraid. He would never let them down.
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And he never let me down either. If ever a stepfather came to a daughter’s rescue, Tom came to mine. When my marriage fell apart, it was Tom who, with my mother, talked to me for hours, no matter the time, so that I would muster the strength to go on. It was Tom who jumped into the car countless times and drove all night from Southern California to Carson City when I needed him. He said he only did for us what he thought my father would have done.
Later, on a business trip to Rome, Tom lit a candle in St. Peter’s Basilica for my father, a man he never knew, but with whose family Tom felt he’d been entrusted. Such a gesture and spirit, I think, is the true measure of a man.
When I remarried, my children acquired a new stepfather, and like my own stepfather, Ron acquired three new children. He patiently waited for them to invite him into their lives, and when they did, he jumped in with both feet.
He cheered when they made good choices, and unashamedly cried when they didn’t. But he never judged them harshly, or ever – and I mean ever – said a discouraging word to them; he honestly assessed their strengths and saw no limits to their potential. He was their biggest fan – still is, and they know it.
To my amazement, Ron never complained about the financial toll of taking on three new children: shelling out allowances, prom dress money, golf tournament fees; footing bills for braces, athletic equipment, birthday parties, surgeries, and later, for new transmissions, car insurance, college educations, and a wedding. Though all three kids held down jobs from high school on, he would slip a few extra dollars to Jenny and Stephanie as they shopped for a special outfit or to John as he left to take a date to the movies.
It was Ron who sat in the waiting room with me as we prayed for John’s recovery from surgery; who patiently played catch in the back yard with the kids until – hurray! – they could actually catch the ball; who valued honesty and fair play more than winning; who attended every athletic practice and sports event, every musical and dance recital, and every church and school activity, in triplicate. He never missed one. Never.
So it was Ron who received lovingly-wrought, home-made Father’s Day cards; who proudly attended three high school graduations, three college graduations, and so far, one graduate school commencement. It was Ron who walked the course with John as he played his last Division I golf tournament; who beamed with admiration as Stephanie received her BS degree in nursing; who walked Jenny down the aisle on her wedding day.
And it is Ron whom they introduce as “My Dad.”
I never liked the official definition of stepfather, for it falls short of the reality of the station. Instead, I offer this new definition:
“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.”
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• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.