A Stepmother, Losing Her Marbles

Illustration by Allison Steen
Illustration by Allison Steen

The game was simple. Two clay jars rested heavy atop our bedroom dresser, one loaded with marbles, one empty. “Every time we have sex,” I said, “I’ll move a marble to the empty jar.”

At 31, I’d arrived childless into my marriage, but my new husband had sole custody of his children—a girl fifteen and a boy nine—and we had never spent an entire day, or even an evening, alone. “Once you’re married,” my friends warned, “you’ll stop having sex.” One friend confided she and her husband were sexless for seven years. This terrified me.

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The Loud House


I grew up in a loud house. My mother and her half-dozen siblings arguing over coffee and cigarettes, picking at each other. My mother’s husband stomping his boots through our house Sunday mornings before dawn, moaning about getting us to 7 o’clock mass and, later, railing about all the neighbors he’d seen in church. My angry grandparents screaming at one another from long distances, her from the kitchen, him from a back bedroom or the basement, with KFVS Channel 12 blaring the CBS news as accompaniment from the living room.

I learned early on to keep my head down, a head up being an easy target. I learned to disappear, to find somewhere else to be, to go quiet. In a loud house, I learned, it is best to let the loudest screamer think they’d won.

I’ve been watching both the Republican and Democratic debates in their entirety, and even though it’s only January, I think I’m done. I’m no longer listening. What we used to call debates has devolved into a contest of loud non-substantive sound-bites. What are their plans for the economy, immigration, guns, healthcare, our failing prison system, keeping us out of wars, trade, foreign policy? There is no way to know. There is only, in both parties and from all candidates, a naïve reliance on volume. On winning by screaming everyone else down.

The house, it turns out, is simply loud. As interested as I am in this election, as important as I know it is, all I want to do is go quiet, read various newspapers and journals, put the pieces together myself, and find somewhere, anywhere else to be. I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

Confession: I’m loud. My voice easily projects through a crowd. Friends joke they can hear my laugh from afar. Giving a presentation to a roomful, I rarely need a microphone. Ironically (or maybe not considering the family I was born to) I can be embarrassingly loud. I do not consider this a gift.

On cue it seemed, on this morning’s CBS news, there was Donald Trump. In a clip of last night’s rally Mr. Trump was making fun of the guy who set up his microphone. He spent a good many minutes on this rant about the microphone. He got louder. The crowd laughed and cheered. This candidate, for President of these United States, kept on, joining in the laugh about the (I’m imagining humiliated) minimum wage worker who was responsible for the microphone. And then the clip was over. This. This is our political “news.”

The election may be 10 months away, but I realize I no longer need to hear any of the candidates speak. I’ve heard them so loud for so long I can hear them all too clearly in my head, yet saying nothing, each distinctive voice at maximum volume. As distinctive as my grandparents and my mother and my aunts and uncles and my mother’s husband, getting louder and louder and louder until the house is beaten down and goes limpingly silent. Because the loudest among them has finally won.


IMG_0110I sleep on my side, with one orange earplug. One, because I can’t stand the whirring sound trapped inside my head with two. A habit so ingrained that, when I toss myself over in the night, I switch the orange earplug from one ear to the other without even waking up.

I just spent an evening with old friends. Ten of us took over a sectional sofa in the corner of a loud bar and, as the hours and laughs and beers added up, we got to talking about not driving and where to crash safely for the night.

I have an extra bed in my hotel room, but I sleep with a noise machine.

That works for me, as long as it’s not a rainforest with screeching monkeys.

That’s right, no jungles! What’s that about anyway?

I need it cold.

You know how you go to the beach and sleep with the door open to hear the “relaxing” waves? Yeah, not me, I have to shut the door.

I need it warm.

I’ve got to have a fan. Doesn’t everybody use a fan? Who sleeps in total silence?

I do!

Then I’m not sleeping in your room because I want it loud. A jet airplane could fly through and I’d sleep like a baby.

And so it went until we all piled in van with a designated driver and went off to sleep alone in our designated rooms — warm, cold, loud, silent, with fans and without.  All requirements met.

A year ago, a writer friend read a story I was working on and gave this as feedback: You need to stop trying to get people to like you, it’s hurting your work.

It stung. It continued to sting. She hit a nerve with a hard truth. Something I know about myself, dislike in myself, want to change, need to change, and yet … stubbornly remains.

My husband says I sleep in the bat cave.  Darkness so dark I even throw a towel or sock over the alarm clock; Silence so silent I will yank the batteries out of a ticking clock and shake my husband awake if he’s breathing too loud (though of course I tell him he’s snoring because I can’t say hey, cut out that breathing); I never, ever open a window for outside air or noise or the sound of wind in the trees; a room so cold I often fall asleep, even in summer, in a gray wool sweater that’s so worn out, so thin and tired of me that one elbow pokes completely through.

Back in 2009, I spent a week with 20 military colonels who had all been deployed numerous times to Iraq and Afghanistan.  They talked about their sleep habits.  I was sitting at a picnic table with Colonel A. when he told me he could sleep like a baby in the belly of a rolling tank so long as nobody was firing.  Colonel T. had been deployed 6 times and worked nights in the control center; he could also sleep through anything, because if he didn’t sleep between noon and 4 pm, his “day” began again and he would have to wait until noon tomorrow.

I brought my own special pillow that week I spent with the colonels.  Did I forget to mention the pillow?  I have the earplug, a sweater, darkness, quiet, cold, and a pillow.  Habits I’ve wrapped myself in like body armor. I sleep in the bat cave.  I worry if people will like me and it hurts my work: another form of armor, you can’t hurt me if you like me.

When did my predilection for orange ear plugs and smiling pats-on-the-back begin?  How do we change a behavior, a pattern, once we’ve augured ourselves so deep into the mud it’s like our very own fingerprint?

The Appointment

When you’re of baby-making age but not making a baby, trips to the OBGYN are hammer-blow reminders of who you are not.

OBGYN office

Waiting rooms full of pink chairs and women with round, expectant bellies.  A bulletin board plastered with photos of your smiling doctor holding newborns, though you’ve never actually met the doctor; your annual pap is only worthy of the nurse practitioner.  The questionnaire on a clipboard, “How many children do you have?  How many live births?”  Heels pressed into cold, stainless steel stirrups with accompanying lecture — while lying there, legs splayed, staring at the ceiling — about how women who do not give birth are more prone to breast, uterine and cervical cancers.

The blast of energy it takes to happy-talk your way through the appointment and get the hell out of there.


Then there was my first appointment after I became a mom — with a big twist.  You can find the whole story at Brain, Child – The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. (click here)


I’ve barely been at this stepmother thing six months, but I’ve already learned an important lesson: there is always someone to remind me who I am not.

Sometimes it’s the mom across the street or at the bus stop; sometimes it’s my son’s teacher at back-to-school night; and sometimes it’s just me staring into a mirror.

Today that someone appeared in the form of an OBGYN nurse behind the receptionist’s window.


The Hotel That Built Me

decent-quiet-place-toWhen I go home, I do not drive my rental car to my parents’ house or my grandparents’ house. Those places no longer, and in some cases never did, exist.

For three decades this Missouri girl has been going home from Arizona and Minnesota and Washington and Iowa and California, and I drive straight from the airport to 104 South Vantage Drive. To the one place I’ve learned I can count on. To my home on the hill.  To the one place that’s always had a room for me. I go home to the Drury Lodge.

You see, the Lodge and me, we have a history.

The two-story hotel opened in 1969, the year I turned four. I discovered it as a teenager. I’ve never known my father; my two half-brothers lived with their dad; and when I turned 16 my single mother remarried and moved us to her new husband’s farm. How do you define home? Feeling in-the-way of the newlyweds, I stayed gone as much as possible. I slept at the homes of friends, and I spent time at the Lodge, a neutral zone that lacked the tension I felt at the farm. Summers felt free there, and as teenagers wanting the darkest possible tans, good friends Tammy and Tracy and I laid out (illegally?) at the hotel pool, rubbing our bikinied bodies with baby oil and iodine. In a flash of memory, we are girls again, tossing Tammy’s baby sister Lindsay off the side of the pool and into our waiting arms. One-Two-Three Jump!

“Our baby,” we all called her. Baby Lindsay, now in her 30s, with a baby of her own.

At 19 I got a job in the Lodge’s restaurant. Cedar Street. For 3 years I manned the hostess stand for breakfast and dinner as well as Easter, Mother’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Holidays spent with my work family. The cooks taught me how grill steaks and serve proper portions and make eggs to order; David Poe and Rhonda Owens made me laugh at 5 am and 11 pm and all the long hours in between; and I can still feel how cold and hard the winter wind blew down that hostess hallway to announce a customer. The calm dark eyes of Pete Poe, the ever-lurking manager, the night he gave me a stern, dad-like talk for kissing my college boyfriend at my station.

Funny, the places we find fathers.

Our high school class held reunions here. There was the 6 year because we forgot to have a 5 year. There was the year Rick’s wife Mary had cancer and chemo and we danced all night while belting out 80s tunes and trying on Mary’s wig. Our 20th when I played quarters at Cedar Street with Shockley and spilled so much beer on my dress the dry cleaners could not save it. The year we hired the wrong sound system and they did not know our songs. The year Class President Chris showed up with a deep tan and bleached blonde. Malibu Chris.

I left Missouri for good at 27, and when I flew home to visit I quickly learned it was best to stay at the Lodge. My grandmother lived in a one-bedroom.  My half-brothers did not have a space.  Friends had scattered.  My mother’s farm never felt like home, and, as I look back now, I see how childishly her husband and I fought over the only bathroom and clawed at each other to get my mother’s attention.

Though my mother was openly hurt when I started staying at the Lodge—a good 20-minute drive away—she was also relieved. And so was I. For the next years we enjoyed our limited mother/daughter time so much more when I could be alone with her during the day (while her husband worked in the field) and if I left before supper.  Your mother’s home, it turns out, is not always your home.  And that can be okay.

Out here in my real life, I’ve moved more than 30 times. But the Lodge? The Lodge stands still. Martha and Joan like familiar den mothers at the front desk. “Welcome back!” they say when I check in. “Welcome home!” Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, this place remains, all these years, exactly the same and worn in the way a home should be the same and worn.  I request an inside room, close to the lobby, so I can pad down for an early cup of coffee in my pajamas or grab a candy bar and a bottle of water from behind the desk before bed.

A few years ago, when my friend Evy emailed me the video of Miranda Lambert’s song The House That Built Me, I could not stop replaying it, imagining my 30 homes and wondering what house that could be for someone like me.

I know they say you can’t go home again

Well, I just had to come back one last time

And Ma’am, I know you don’t know me from Adam

But these handprints on the front porch are mine.

I remembered the night I had a huge fight with my brothers and came home (see what I mean?) to my room at the Lodge to calm down and run a hot bath. My daughter called and, thankful for the happy distraction, I forgot the bath water and looked up some minutes later to see water flowing as over a dam into my bedroom.

I dialed zero and Joan sent some young boys to help, my fight with my brothers briefly forgotten.

I was 36 when my mother died.  The first person I told was Martha. March 2002. I had been at the Lodge for more than a week settling my mother into hospice, spending long days with her at Chateau Girardeau Nursing Home and sleepless nights alone in my off-the-lobby-room. I’d checked out early that day, planning to fly home to Minnesota, but my mother took her last breath at noon, and it wasn’t an hour later when I dragged my bags back to the Lodge and to the front desk and told Martha I needed my room back. “Oh honey,” she said. “You’ll be okay. We’ll take good care of you.”

If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave

Won’t take nothin’ but a memory

From the the house that

Built me.

Come January, the Drury Lodge will be torn down, replaced by a fancy 8-story hotel with adjoining restaurant and conference center.

So this December, before the walls come down, I’ll go home to the Lodge one more time. I’ll have breakfast at what-used-to-be Cedar Street and spend the evening there with old friends.  I’ll ask for an inside room with a view of the pool right off the lobby so I can pad down and get coffee in my pajamas.  I’ll hug Martha and Joan and miss my mother. And when I check out for the last time, I’ll be spectacularly and devastatingly greedy.  I’ll take every last one of my memories. From the hotel that, built me.


This essay can also be found here:



The Diversion Channel

For Chris


You used to call me on your way home from work. Five o’clock in Missouri, three o’clock in California. If I didn’t answer, you would leave this message. “Hey friend!” you’d say and you’d say it like you just spotted me after a thousand years away and wanted to make sure I saw you, “I’m inching along in traffic at the Diversion Channel. Again! Call me! I miss you! When are you coming home to drink a beer with me!”

I miss the way you left messages with exclamation points.

By the time I heard you’d left us it was tomorrow already and Laura had left me too many messages with no information. “Hi Teri, it’s Laura, call me.” As if I didn’t know who Laura was. Then “Teri, it’s Laura, call me back as soon as you get this,” then “Teri, you really need to call me.” By the second message I knew. We didn’t talk like this, you and me, Laura and me, using our names like that, with pretend-calm, like actors on stage in a play.

I think of you when I hear the songs from West Side Story. When we were 17 you played Bernardo and you trusted marginal me with my zero play/musical experience to do your makeup. I can still feel the triangle sponge in my hand as I leaned in, our faces, our laughs, inches close. “Thanks for making me look so good,” you wrote in my yearbook. You drew your heart. You signed it ‘Nardo. Forever-friends don’t need real names.

How can you be gone 2 whole years already.

I woke the other night thinking about you on I-55, heading south. Heading home. You with your, “I’m stuck here at the Diversion Channel!” Your great big mighty love as wide and as powerful as the Mississippi River. Your exclamation points.

When I was little I thought the Diversion Channel was a TV station, a special place to turn to other than the basic 3 channels we got. I figured there must be something better there, something original. I never knew until I grew up and left home how important the Diversion Channel was, how that one waterway served as the path for the fringe creeks and the marginal rivers to—no matter their difficult and ornery ways, their waywardness, their lesser selves—find their way home.

Hey friend. (Exclamation Point) It’s me. It’s five o’clock in Missouri, and I’m still here.

What I Think About When I Think About Conceal and Carry On A College Campus


  1. I think about the staggering number of people on a college campus—15,000, 30,000, 50,000.
    1. Who are the good guys?
    2. Who are the bad guys?
    3. How can you tell the difference?
  2. I think about rape, already rampant on campuses (read Jon Krakauer’s MISSOULA), with the added bonus of a perfectly acceptable firearm to intimidate the victim.
  3. I think about questions to ask teachers:
    1. Do you want to carry a gun? Do your peers?
    2. Where would you keep your gun in the day-to-day—office, desk drawer, briefcase, purse, suit pocket, under the dais?
    3. How do you feel about standing exposed before a roomful of students carrying concealed firearms?
    4. How will you feel when meeting alone with a student in your office, with the door closed, if you think he/she is carrying?
  4. I think about skill and ability with weapons.
    1. How do I know you’ve had enough training?
    2. How do I know you’ve had any training?
  5. I think about those huge dimly-lit freshman lecture halls with their skinny desks stacked tight like dominoes—200 or 300 or 400 kids, panicking and shooting each other in the dark.
  6. I think about mental stability.
    1. How do I know if you are on meds, legal or otherwise?
    2. How do I know if you are off your meds?
  7. I think about the big scary guy in my British Lit class who openly despised us, his classmates, and the professor and how terrified we all would have been if he’d been encouraged to carry a firearm.
  8. I think about sitting around waiting for class to start and watching students pass around and compare their guns.
  9. I think if you have proven yourself to be skilled under stress with a weapon (ex-military, law enforcement), carrying a gun is absolutely reasonable. The way an air marshal is licensed to carry a gun on the plane.
  10. I think about drunk young boys, pissed off.
  11. I think about drunk young boys, spouting off.
  12. I think about drunk young boys, showing off.
  13. I think about the brilliant sweet depressed kid in my class one winter semester who told us he’d considered jumping like John Berryman off the river bridge but changed his mind after the long bitter-cold walk. I think about how glad I am he did not have a firearm.
  14. I think about heated class discussions. About who will and won’t feel free to voice dissent.
  15. I think about carrying a gun becoming “cool,” like having the latest cell phone.
  16. I think about a dorm-full of insecure, stressed-out, broke, exhausted, homesick, lonely 19 year olds. With guns laying around.
  17. I wonder how many of the people demanding conceal and carry on college campuses have spent any time recently on a college campus.


What Do You Think About When You Think About Conceal and Carry On A College Campus?