Imagine a meteorite hurtling blindly through space toward planet Earth, unintentionally about to wreak havoc upon it. Earth sits spinning serenely on its axis as the meteorite continues along its path, each oblivious to any discord one meeting the other might bring about. This scenario is not far removed from how events unraveled following my mother falling in love with and marrying a man who would have a lasting and deep impact on my life.
At the time of my mother’s marriage to her husband, I was your garden variety teenage girl blossoming into womanhood, more in a physical sense than an intellectual or emotional one. I was self-absorbed, ostentatious, manipulative, lacking in etiquette and quite content to ignore proper use of the English language forever. I will not go so far as to say my mother was a push-over, primarily because I learned it is impolite, but I will venture to say that say that I was accustomed to getting away with quite a bit of trickery and used to getting my way almost all of the time.
Enter retired Major Peter J. Richards of the United States Air Force as well as former member of the C.I.A. My stepfather was an older gentleman, born from a different generation than even my mother. He was disciplined, articulate, tidy, polished, and had seemingly high expectations of me. I found this tedious and honestly, intimidating. The thought of spending years with this man having the ability to exert any control over my life caused me incessant worry.
Time marched on and as it does, our new family fell into what became somewhat familiar routines, and we even managed to develop some family traditions. As feared, Peter and I also engaged in continual battles of will. He proved to be a worthy adversary, and part of me hoped that, at the very least, I showed that I was also one in his mind.
One fine summer’s afternoon Peter came home from work engulfed in a furious and fiery rage. Unbeknownst to me, the monthly telephone bill was lying in wait in the shade of the mailbox with evidence of all of my clandestine long distance phone calls to the current love of my life contained within. Mind you, this was during a time when long distance calls were most often made on landlines, not cell phones, at a rate of about 15 to 25 cents per minute. I was a chatty young lady, out to impress, and readily dialed whoever, whenever and for however long I deemed necessary. Peter was appalled, outraged, and looking for pay back at the sheer volume of minutes that I had so deviously accumulated.
After an evening of caustic comments, lengthy lectures, searing stares, and scathingly snide retorts in response to my hand-clenched, foot-stomping, adamant protests regarding what was fair and how I was free to do as I pleased, it was decided that I would chop thistles for the exact number of minutes that I had so artfully accumulated.
Though I shrieked in outrage about child slavery, the next afternoon found me standing beneath the scorching Texas sun, hoe in hand, furiously chopping thistles. At first I attempted to make sport of this mundane task by imagining the smug look of authoritative superiority on Peter's face on the head of each thistle. However, after an hour or more, I was exhausted, drenched in sweat, angry white blisters stood in stark contrast to my bright-red, chapped hands, and I was warily picking tiny splinters of wood out of my palms and fingertips and doing a delightful yet mumbled recitation of every profane word in my vocabulary. My disposition was not one of idyllic serenity. I certainly did not feel ‘at one with nature and all its majesty.’
To add insult to injury, the head of the hoe kept sliding out of its handle and falling to the ground with an unimpressive thump where it laid there, staring back up at me, mocking me. Each time this occurred, I would sigh wearily, bend down, pick it up, replace it, and tamp it firmly against the hard ground to reseat it only to watch in utter disbelief a few moments later as it fell out again after only a few good whacks.
I came upon a particularly thick and deeply-rooted patch of them near the garden fence. Unsurprisingly, the wretched hoe came apart again. It was at that moment, I came apart as well. The cheese slid off of my cracker, I dropped my basket; I grabbed what remained of the headless hoe and began brutally assaulting the garden fence while hysterically sobbing, tears mixing with sweat on my sunburned cheeks, screaming obscenities at the hoe, the air-conditioned house hunched in the distance, and the sizzling hot, cloudless blue sky with its cruel and obnoxious orange sun.. Obscene language was a major offense in our household; one that I believed could lead to torture and possible dismemberment.
Out of the corner of my steadily leaking eye, I saw Peter emerge from the comfortable confines of the air-conditioned house. He came toward me at a brisk, severe pace, and I knew then that I was facing a punishment far worse than merely chopping thistles. It was possible I might die right there in the blistering heat of my fourteenth summer, drenched in angry sweat, headless hoe handle in hand, my head would most assuredly wind up side-by-side with the hateful hoe’s, our sightless eyes both peering up into the face that fierce and loathsome face.
What happened next astonished me. He took the hoe handle from my aching hand, turned me to him, and hugged me. I did not even know he knew how to perform such a simple gesture of kindness, let alone show any form of emotion other than outright hostility. This was the Man who once actually exclaimed, "We're going to war," at me for some offense or another, all while doing a genuine fist-pump skyward? I stood rigidly, frozen, unable to return the hug out of pure shock. It seemed my sentence for committing the act of uncontrolled long distance calling was reduced and I was pardoned.
I am now a forty-five year old woman and have raised three children of my own and I consider Major Peter J. Richards of the United States Air Force as well as former member of the C.I.A. one of my very best friends and I’m a better human for it.