When I was eight years old, a new man entered my life. He came with the title of ‘stepdad’. I’ve shared a bit about our relationship in past posts, primarily in ‘One person can make all of the difference, Parts I and II’. His name was ‘Larry’ and he died at the age of 79, after succumbing to cancer. I’ve thought a great deal about what I’ve written thus far and how I’ve only shared half the story, to be completely honest. I only told you about the ‘Larry’ I knew up until I became an adult and left home, the one that threw adult temper tantrums when things didn’t go his way and then wouldn’t speak for days. The one that lectured me for the slightest infractions and made me feel so small and insignificant that I came to believe that I was essentially worthless. The one that was never satisfied, no matter how hard I tried to please him. But there’s another ‘Larry’ I want to talk about. He’s the guy that showed up after I left home. He’s who I would like to discuss today.
Are you confused? I am a bit myself, which is not that unusual. But I promise, it’ll become clear to you very shortly. To help somewhat, I should point out that there is actually only one ‘Larry’. But he changed so much after I left home, that I put him into two categories. There is the pre-military ‘Larry’ and the post-military ‘Larry’. The pre-military ‘Larry’ wasn’t my favorite person, not by a longshot. But the post-military ‘Larry’ was almost a completely different guy! How is that even possible? The guy that I knew before I joined the Air Force was kind of a jerk. Where’d this new guy come from? This ‘new guy’ happened along after my mom got to experience what it was like having the pre-military ‘Larry’ all to herself. After all of us kids moved out and they only had each other to vent their frustrations to, my mom decided she didn’t care for him either. She quickly grew tired of his bad behavior and decided to do something about it.
Once I left for bootcamp, and my mom became more acquainted with not-so-fun ‘Larry’, she made a decision. She had finally seen and experienced everything we’d been subjected to for countless years and didn’t like it one bit. It wasn’t fun to be on the receiving end of his tirades. What did she do? She decided that he had to either change or hit the road. To drive home her point, she made a weekend reservation at a very rustic cabin near the ocean. It consisted primarily of a bed, a bathroom, a seating area and a small kitchen. The two things that it didn’t have? A TV and a radio. She wanted to make sure there would be no distractions when she laid down the law so he knew she meant business. And when I say ‘she meant business’, she meant it. There were two options, either they stay married or they get a divorce. And the only way she was going to stay married to my stepdad was if he was willing to change. This ‘change’ she demanded was no small potatoes. She expected a complete overhaul. Most guys would probably have walked away at that point. But ‘Larry’ stayed and he did in fact change.
And to his credit, he changed a lot! He still looked the same and sounded the same, but he had ‘softened’ somehow. Where I really noticed the difference was through how he treated my children. He really was a wonderful grandfather to them and was able to show them the love that he was unable to show me when I was a child. The damage was done as far as our relationship was concerned. He would never be my ‘father’. We just never were able to bond. And I always called him by his first name. But to my kids? He was ‘Grandpa’! And he was the ‘best’ grandpa!! Whenever we came out to visit, they couldn’t wait to see what their grandpa had in store! He loved to spend time with them, whether it was wrestling in the livingroom, or riding bikes, or planting flowers in the garden, or going on hikes, or talking walks along the beach. He wasn’t the kind of grandpa that just sat in his easy chair and barked at the kids if they blocked his view of the television. He was interactive and a lot of fun!
Every summer, because we lived in another state, he and my mom would send for at least one of my children. My daughter was the first to have this experience. It was an incredible opportunity for her. We lived by my husband’s parents but they never spent any time with our children, so I was so grateful that they got the chance to spend time with my mom and stepdad, even though it required a plane ride to do so. And they made it so easy! We always seemed to be strapped for cash when our kids were younger but my mom and stepdad always covered the cost of the tickets and any of the expenses. And each time they sent for one of my kids, the duration of the stay was usually a month in length. And every year, they’d send for a different child so each one got to spend quality time and get lavished in ‘love’ and ‘family’ during their stay. It was a gift that you cannot put a price on. My kids got to experience a special love and support that can only come from grandparents. And they really cherished it.
Right before my stepdad died, I told him I loved him. I probably wouldn’t have been able to say that 30 years prior, but much had changed in the interim. The hardened man that I once knew had transformed. Based on our relationship from when I was a child until I left home, I don’t have too many good things to say about him. He made a lot of mistakes. But he more than made up for them by being such a loving, doting grandfather to my children. The fact that he changed at all is pretty miraculous! That’s not to say he changed 100 percent. There were still things about him that you could count on. He still expected the house to be ‘ship-shape’ but now the responsibility of keeping it that way was his (and my mom’s). He was still able to get everyone’s attention in a hurry when he got upset. Either his voice would go up in volume or he would go silent and disappear to one of the rooms in the back of the house. And his ability to lecture was second to none. I thought when I moved out, the lectures would have stopped. I was mistaken!
The beauty of this realization is that I was able to see that it really wasn’t anything personal when he felt it necessary to ‘drive a point’ home by lecturing me and/or my brothers for two hours. As a kid, I felt singled out. But he didn’t stop after I left home, he just found new, unsuspecting ‘victims’. If you were selling things door-to-door or trying to find new folks to join your church, you’d better hope and pray you never knocked on his front door. He didn’t care who you were or what you were selling, he’d invite you in. And once you crossed that threshold from the front porch to the livingroom, you were ‘his’ for at least the next hour or two. He’d ask you to make yourself at home on the couch and then he’d ‘play with you’, meaning he would innocently inquire as to what it was you were selling or why you were trying to convince him to come to your church, and then he would launch into every possible reason and debate and/or argue with you as to why it was all utter nonsense. By the time you left, you’d barely have the energy to stand.
I have to say, I did get a kick out of that! He really gave the Jehovah’s Witnesses a run for their money! And plenty of other unsuspecting folks, too! He wasn’t all bad. And I know I probably gave you that impression when I discussed him before. What is remarkable is that he was able to redeem himself, which is something we are all capable of. I made mistakes as a parent, too, but I’ve owned those mistakes and tried to do better. That’s all you can do. The amazing thing about redemption is that it’s possible at any time. You can be in the ‘shitty parent’ category, and then one loving phone call or a letter with a heartfelt apology or a meaningful embrace can change everything. Or you can be like my stepdad. Maybe things were never ‘great’ between us, but at least he did right by my kids and came through in the end. I envy that special bond they formed. But I’m grateful for it.
And since I’m spilling my guts, I do have to admit that up until recently, I used to give my mom crap about waiting until we had all grown up and left home before she ‘set Larry straight’. She used to boast about how she lured him out to the cabin and got him to change his ways. But it used to make me mad. I’d always respond with, “That’s great, Mom. It was nice of you to go to all of that trouble once we’d all left home and the damage was already done.” I don’t do that any longer. I know she did the best she could. And what’s the point anyway? He’s long gone and she has Alzheimer’s. I just wanted to share my story with you because I want you to know change is possible, even when it seems impossible. Maybe it doesn’t happen ‘all at once’ like it did with my stepdad, but even small changes can add up over time. Just know, it’s never too late. We all need each other, now more than ever. And speaking of late, it’s time to go! I wish you well and I’ll see you tomorrow!!