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I don’t know how to write this essay. It’s smarter than me. I’m overthinking every line, every angle. I write it, and I take it apart. I hold a broken piece and try to fit it in somewhere else and stare for a long time and take it out again. Writing about family is complicated. Reading what I write about my family is complicated. Write, delete. Hold back, unleash. Delete, delete. I’m exploring the idea of family because I have some sort of family identity struggle going on because I always have a family identity struggle going on. Is this what happens when your parents get divorced? When your parents break do you break too? Divorce or separation doesn’t equate brokenness—doesn’t have to but usually does. People don’t get divorced because their relationship is going well. Divorce means something is wrong—so wrong the animosity between my parents is still palpable after twenty-five years.

I want to tell you stories about my parents, and I want those stories to reflect me with big psychological terms. I want to contain my identity in a manageable, cohesive space. This essay. I’m starting to think this is impossible.

In my first draft, I opened with a scene from a recent family wedding. The bride had a daughter from a previous relationship, and they included her in their vows to each other. She made vows too. The groom gave his new stepdaughter a necklace. My aunt offered me a tissue before it started but I smugly waved it off, then unexpectedly wept and used my fingers to wipe away the tears. That first draft was supposed to be about family unity, using that wedding scene as my essay-inciting incident.

First draft catalyst:

We gather for pre-ceremony cocktails and mingling. A table near the front entrance displays wedding photographs of the parents of the bride and groom some 25 plus years ago. You didn’t see a photograph of my parents like that at my wedding. I have one photograph from my parents’ wedding. My grandmother—my mother’s mother—is dancing with my father. She is looking to one side, my dad the other. They are not thrilled. Let’s showcase our parents’ unending love and commitment to each other and family doesn’t quite roll off the tongue for me. When I was planning my own wedding, my soon-to-be husband and I discussed not inviting my husband’s mentally ill father at all, and I fretted about how my parents would respond to each other because they hadn’t been together in a room in 15 years. My parents are divorced from each other and are on their second spouses. Ditto for my husband’s parents. My husband and I are now divorced. Hiding behind the smile of every wedding photograph is something fucked up, something about to be fucked up, some long ago fuck up festering. Cynicism as humor is an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Though I did feel sentimental during my cousin’s wedding, and so I wanted to honor that. I’m not a sentimental weeper and there I was, sentimentally weeping when my cousin promised his love and attention not just to his bride, but her daughter. I have previously considered stepdaughter/stepfather relationships a joke. Stepfamilies. I’d explore that concept. Two fractured families coming together perfectly to form a new, blended family. Blended is a nice word and also a bullshit word.

Second attempt opening paragraph for an essay about family unity began with family divide. Harsh. Also, pictures. Cliché.

My mother and stepfather had a courthouse wedding a month after the divorce from my dad was finalized and less than a year after we’d moved across the country to “start over”. My mother did not tell my grandmother or her friends she was getting married again. She didn’t want to hear it from them, she said later. She knew what they’d say. They’d be right. No one would champion my dad, but no one would support such haste in diving into another marriage either. My mom and stepfather asked me to be the official wedding photographer. Inclusion. Good. This is what you’re supposed to do when blending families. I had a Fisher-Price 110 camera. Most of my photographs were up close shots of the ring exchange. Arty.

“I love this woman,” my stepfather said, “and I’ll put a diamond ring on every finger.”

My dad never bought my mom an engagement ring. I know this because she told me.

“Your mother told you too much too soon,” my dad said.

Of course she did. I was Team Mom all the way.

The judge at my mom and stepfather’s wedding asked if anyone in the room had an objection. No, I said. No, my stepbrothers said. This was their dad’s fourth wedding. They were probably like, whatthefuckever, let’s get on with it.  My sister said yes, she had a problem.

My sister:  life-long special education goer, diagnosed mildly mentally retarded (MMR is a real medical diagnosis, I’m not just being an ass about it) still at age 10 unable to at a clock and tell time, unexpected voice of reason. Her earlier tactic, shitting in the community pool at my stepfather’s townhouse, didn’t work. My mom, as embarrassed then as she was now, took my sister aside and asked why she was doing what she was doing.

We don’t know anyone in his family aside from his kids who, quite honestly, seem a little fucked up. Look at that one. His knuckles are white from how intently he is clenching his fists and how he’s staring down at the floor. We didn’t know this asshole, didn’t know how he was going to lose his shit, like honestly lose ability to function, and call us fuck-ups because the canned green beans were on the same side of the cupboard as the dog treats or the bottom row of soda in the fridge wasn’t rotated.

My sister said she shit in his pool because she didn’t like his pool. She said she objected to their wedding because she didn’t like him. Simple.

When the photographs came back, and it appeared as though I’d cut everyone’s heads off (see artful ring photographing above), my stepfather insisted I hated him just like my sister hated him. And the way we hated him was disrespectful to our mother. And look at how we made our mother cry when he was forced to punish us for putting too much Pledge on the end tables, no, not enough Pledge, no, too much fucking Pledge, no, not enough Pledge, you fucking girls don’t even know how to fucking clean anything, and you hug your mother too much. Stop hugging your mother so fucking much. My stepfather was the lion stepping into a supposed directionless pride; he separated the children from their mother to complete emotional death.

Over the next 13 years, my stepfather upheld his vow and bought my mother diamond rings until she had no more fingers for rings and until his credit cards were maxed, and he had to open them under my mother’s name to put her own rings on every finger. After their divorce, she pawned every single one and walked away with a 90% financial loss. She was starting over, again.

So, that essay was about family breaking and family coming together again, and also about assholes. And more pictures. It was about how the family you start with is gone, and your parents try to make second families with someone else because they too are desperate to define family, but it’s not quite the same, maybe it’s worse, which in the long term super fucks with your mind about the stability of family. Second family is not first family. Yes, people find stability in second families and maybe first family was the horror, but my second family sucked.

Insert important psychological term therapist explains to me: Family of Origin.

So after I got to the topic of Family of Origin, I thought, this, this is what I’m writing about. I started the essay all over again.

“Family of Origin” refers to the people who raised you or influenced you. Your Family of Origin is your mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, grandparents, and siblings and stepsiblings. Our family of origin is an unconscious emotional pattern we follow because it’s comfortable, and it feels good going down. Family of origin doesn’t blame, but it helps you understand.

The emotional patterns of my second family bubbled, so in the next draft of this essay, I wrote a new scene.

My second family never sat for any sort of professional photograph. Not even at JC Penney’s. My mother, sister, and I were in snapshots together, and sometimes my mom and stepdad were photographed together. My mom on one side of my stepfather, my stepfather taking up an absurd amount of space and not smiling because smiling might have made him a decent human being, my stepbrother behind the recliner petting both the dog and my mom and my sister and I off camera. My stepbrother didn’t like his picture taken because maybe he was a vampire. The puppy on my stepfather’s lap was a Christmas gift—our first Christmas as a new family—from my mom. My stepfather, among a multitude of hidden personality flaws, turned out to be a dog hoarder and by the end of our run as “family,” we had six dogs. Three had to be re-homed, one was put down when she was five because she couldn’t get up from the floor by herself. My stepfather insisted most of the leftovers (Hamburger Helper, Chicken Fried Steak, etc.) went to the dogs. The dogs were fat. We were fat. Besides our lab we’d brought from Illinois, who was old and not involved much anyway, the Shar-Pei was the only other dog in the house at the time. A few months later, while my stepdad was playing with her, she nipped his nose. She nipped his nose because she was a puppy and that’s what puppies do. He hit her in the face with his fist. She cried out and escaped under one of the kitchen chairs. We were all in the room and not allowed to comfort her. My stepfather got up from the floor and went for a soda. She whimpered alone for a long time. Then the Shar-Pei got bigger and more aggressive. I was afraid of her. The only human in the house she liked was my mom, and she’d often sit in front of her or near her and growl when my stepdad came around.

I haven’t talked to either of my stepbrothers in 15 years because one of them was a douchebag who once masturbated in my room and left jizz on my wall and often left jizz on the back of the toilet seat. He seemed to do it only when it was my turn to clean the bathroom. My other stepbrother was nice to me, but he was older and lived his own life, and I don’t know what happened to him. My stepfather is dead.

So this third attempt at this essay was going to be about my stepfather 100%. Scratch wedding. Scratch unity. Keep going with pictures. I could write forever about my stepfather. His medical problems. His heavy smoking. His rage. How the tactic I used to get in his good favor was throw my dad under the bus. What a good man you are, Stepfather, to raise us and feed us and pay for things we need, when our own father will not do that. Thank you for putting in a pool. Thank you for game nights. Embracing my stepfather made my mother happy, and I wanted my mother to be happy. “I wanted you girls to have a father,” my mom said once, “because I didn’t.”

Ah shit. But now I was wading into dirty water. Writing about my feelings about my parents. Saying things about them I would never say to them. This is uncomfortable. But I can’t tell the story about my stepfather without telling the story about my mother, and I can’t tell the story about my mother without telling the story of my father and neither one of their stories are my stories to tell. My story is where I come from, my sense of place, and that was important to me, and is still important to me. I grew up in rural Illinois. Played in the old, open fields and found bones. Dinosaurs. No, my mom said. Cow femur. The broken, old runway where we rode bikes. Grass growing through cracks. But you had to take the runway to get to the crick.  The crick. Fishing for crawdads with the older neighbor girls. What did I want to be when I grew up? The older neighbor girls. They played sports. They tanned and curled their hair using curling irons. They wore bikinis. Hayrack rides. Block parties. Sleepovers. Jem. Play rooms in the basement. Field days at school. Birthday parties at the beach. The woods. Outside all the time. Ice-cream in downtown Elwood. The restaurant downtown with the good pancakes. Catholic church. Mass and CCD. First Communion. Grandma’s condo. The ducks at the pond near the condo. Ice-cream trucks. Unfenced backyards. The climbing tree. Slip ‘n Slide. Girl Scouts. Horseback riding lessons. We cut down our own Christmas trees. Imaginary friend Julia who rang the doorbell but never got in. Wisconsin lake house. My new pink bike. That fucking amazing grown-up pink and white dream that didn’t fit in the moving van, and we left it behind when we moved to Arizona.

Spiral. My essay was in freefall because I don’t know what the fuck it’s supposed to be about. Family unity? No. Divides. No. Maybe. My parents. Yes. No. I feel guilty about that because we’re all really good now and why cough all that crap up? It’s about me. Show your own ass, Cheryl Strayed said in an AWP panel of yesteryear. Of course it’s about me. Everything is.

Thus: this essay is about the wedding I went to and cried about because it was beautiful, and I cried because it was beautiful because I want to feel something beautiful too. I don’t walk around with this chip. I was shocked when I went to the bathroom so I could have a little cry before I went back to the party. Shocked when this nagging feeling attached itself to me the rest of the night. What the fuck? Where did that even come from? I don’t feel sorry for myself because I never went to a daddy-daughter dance or because my parents will never celebrate another wedding anniversary or because I still have to split holidays and birthdays and my time in general and now my daughter’s time too. Like, fuck all that. I spent years and thousands of dollars in therapy coping with my anger, and my grief. I’m more than fucking cool about it. Broken families yield inherent brokenness. No, they don’t. (Right?) You look back and say shit, that was fucked up and my parents fucked up but that’s ok. Parents are human beings before they are parents. I accept my parent’s divorce. In present day, I accept my parents overall. I accept them separately. I accept the separateness. Even as a kid, I didn’t think they belonged together. I didn’t like how they were after the divorce. Nothing got better. They took their resentment for each out of hiding and exchanged it through my sister and I with underhanded comments about each other, and sad stories about their sadness. For example, my dad and I had an ongoing debate over the Phil Collins song “Another Day in Paradise.”

“It’s about people in love, in paradise,” he said at his kitchen table in his empty apartment on one of the early weekends my sister and I began splitting time.

“I think it’s about homelessness,” I countered.

He paused. “It doesn’t matter. It’s the word paradise. It makes me sad I’m not in love.”

No one loves me, he said. No one loves my dad.

I told my mom about this conversation, and she told him not to say things like that to me, and he told me he guessed he couldn’t trust me and that I’ll tell on him, and I didn’t know how to take any of that. Later, in high school, when my sister and I lived full-time with my dad, I resorted to boozing to relate to him, and that worked for awhile. Push it all down. Don’t talk about the sadness out loud because it leads to nothing good.

I’m divorced, like they are. I’m on my second major relationship. We have a daughter we’re raising together, and my partner has a son from a previous relationship. I am a parent. Now, I am what I have judged them for the last twenty-five years.

I am a mother. I have a mother who I judged. I judged her choice to stay with my stepdad even after I begged her to leave. I wrote notes and put them in her lunchbox pleading with her to let him go. She wouldn’t. She enabled. My dad’s drinking and absence, my stepdad’s rage and constant presence. Everything she thought she was doing to make it better made it worse. She let my stepfather into our lives and didn’t take him out.

This is an essay about how when I wrote all that about my mother, I cried. Hard, awful, pitiful, sad tears that made me to want to scrap this whole stupid thing. Tears that would have made me want to turn to my mother so she could hug me, but we don’t speak about my stepfather. I don’t speak to her about him or how I felt about him because I know she’d cry, and she’d say she was sorry again and again and again, and that’s pain neither of us need anymore. We have moved forward.

Here is what this essay is about now that I’ve pieced together its stories: parents divorced when I was 10. They made my sister and I turn off Duck Tales to tell us. My dad was moving out, but it wasn’t like he was in anyway. When he was home, he was there, but not there. Walked in the door, but then asleep on the toilet. Finished dinner then went out in his garage and drank Old Milwaukee. My mom laid out the terms of their divorce. Where we’d live, who kept the dog, who kept which car. My sister and I wanted the suburban. We liked how big it was and how we could pretend we were riding in a bus. I see now it was all practice. Rough drafts.


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STEPHANIE AUSTIN's short stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, the South Dakota Review, Eclectica, fwriction: review, and Extract(s), among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New England Review,'s Digital Series "Secret Americas" and at Used Furniture Review. She is a Community of Writers at Squaw Valley alum and has an M.F.A. from the University of Nebraska.

4 responses to “Stories We Tell Ourselves”

  1. Liz Edgar says:

    That was so beautiful and honest. Damn. You can write.

  2. Simone says:

    I can’t tell you how much this struck a chord with me. It seems as if you and I lived pretty much the same life. Broken home, divorce, step-parents, half-siblings, drinking, arguing and the like. The only difference is that I’ve never been married and have no kids.

    Thank you for sharing this piece. I love reading stories I can relate to.

    • Stephanie says:

      I’m glad. I’d processed (read: spent lots of time in therapy) as an adult and felt ok. I first became a stepparent, then had my daughter and everything opened up again. I didn’t, maybe still don’t, always know how to approach my stepson. Hang back? Let him come to me on his terms? Yes, that’s more or less the approach I’ve taken. He’s from a broken home too, so I can relate to him. But he doesn’t get it all yet, so I can’t relate to him. I will make sense of this for you. I can’t do that. I’ve tried. I stop trying. It’s all over the place. It gets better? Then it kind of gets worse again? Then it’s ok again? I say all these things to him and he’s like not interested for the time being. Anyway, life comes in waves, I guess.

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