In Praise of Stepfathers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in the wild, animals sometimes kill offspring not their own.
Eddie Fisher — Princess Leia’s dad for those not in the know — sang his heart out when he reworked the old German song “O Mein Papa” into a 1953 hit “Oh! My Papa.” The lyric as it runs, some doggerel about “Oh, my pa-pa, to me he was so wonderful … and with a smile he’d change my tears to laughter,” gave voice to a deep generational longing that maybe your post-WW2 dad could be that way.
But in terms of pop culture? Post all the divorces — including Fisher’s fairly famous one from America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds — a nation of folks raised by stepfathers could claim what?
A 1987 psychological horror film called … The Stepfather. The title character? An identity-assuming serial killer who longs for the perfect family. Good enough that it generated one remake. That was it.
…[I]n places and ways that he did take me head-on? It was merciless and life-changing.
Sure, there have been plenty of evil stepmother tales, tributes to not-at-all-evil mothers, but stepfathers? Not much and not much that was good.
But when I was 5 years old, my mother and I moved into an apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and I suddenly had a stepfather. When the rest of the world asked after our relationship, he’d describe me as his stepson, and I’d describe him as my stepfather. But I only ever called him Dougal when talking to him, and he only ever called me Gene (something I still only let close family members do).
Whereas my relationship with my father had been (and later continued to be) fraught, hinged as it was on some barely understood (by me) power dynamic, my relationship with Dougal was complex and curious.
He rarely took me head-on, instead shrugging at inadvisable courses of action with an attitude that suggested that while this was something that he certainly wouldn’t do, maybe it would work out for me. A ploy that always gave me pause. A pause for a rethink.
However, in places and ways that he did take me head-on? It was merciless and life-changing.
“You want to race?”
We were in Prospect Park: Dougal, his son from a previous relationship and me.
“Sure!” And at about 7 years old, my stepbrother and I took OFF like a shot. Dougal, probably 31 at the time, flew by us 30 seconds later. We couldn’t believe it. Call it the arrogance of youth. Which is boundless.
“Let me teach you guys how to play Scrabble.”
We should have seen it coming. But we didn’t. The results? Similar. He was an award-winning journalist from a family of journalists. Fluent in Spanish. We stood no chance. We stood so little chance that we had no idea how little chance we stood.
“Ken?!?! That’s not even a word!!!” I screamed.
He smiled. “Oh, yes it is. Look it up.” I looked it up. It was much more than a name for Barbie’s boyfriend. I excused myself, went into the bathroom and cried.
I later found out what my mother had said to him on my exit: “Hey, maybe you could let him win every now and then?”
And I loved Dougal’s response almost as much as I loved him. “What kind of message would that send?”
You see, the fact that I’m an insanely competitive sore loser and worse winner type of Type A? Yeah: Dougal. And despite my kids’ advice that I should spend just a little bit of time in analysis, I say now as I said then: “Why would I do that? I love who I am!”
Not at all a lie. Though I didn’t replay the take-no-prisoners kind of parenting with my kids, I know it worked perfectly with and for me. And on top of that, I saw him apply the same standards to the outside world. Our dog had gotten into a street fight with another dog when we moved to Crown Heights. In trying to break the dogs up, the larger and tougher owner of the larger, tougher dog called my mother a “bitch.”
And everything just stopped. “Don’t talk to my wife like that.”
“What? You going to do something about it?”
“Go put your dog away. I’ll meet you back here in 10 minutes.”
The guy grumbled and walked off to the projects at the end of the block, but I watched through the window 10 minutes later when Dougal went out and waited. The guy was a no-show, but Dougal stood out there for about 20 minutes total. Catnip for a wannabe tough kid like me.
Ultimately, the best part, though, is one that I had imagined coming but couldn’t have imagined how great it would be when it did. I had had more than my share of wins over the years. Desktop toy basketball games where I could crush him, and did. Checkers games I could win.
But nothing had prepared me for what would happen when I started lifting weights. Dutifully. Regularly.
“Hey, Doog? Want to arm wrestle?” I was 14. Hadn’t started to be the competitive teenage bodybuilder I became, but had some muscle. Just enough.
We posted up on the kitchen table and it was on. And on and on. He was sweating and struggling, and slowly, but most certainly surely, my hand moved to the losing side of the table where it finally came to a rest.
I started laughing. Real mirth. More real joy. Because we both knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that that would be the last time he beat me.
And to his credit? He just as readily and easily swapped modalities and all was right with the world.
He and my mother eventually divorced when I was 18, but he and I stay in touch still. Never father and son, always stepfather and stepson. And the first call I make on Father’s Day, every Father’s Day.