Creative Nonfiction

The following story is a true story. It probably will be rejected as non-complaint because it is reversing the #5 proposal. I wrote about what I said to a person as a child, which was too little; and then what I am always thinking I should have said now that I am an adult of nearly 78 years. Still, it is cathartic for me to express this if only one person reads it.

What I Wish I Had Said

When my mother was pregnant, expecting me, it was the height of the Second World War. My father had been drafted into the Army during and was shipping out from New York to North Africa on November 28, 1943, the day I was born. When his wife, my mother, died six months later, he was too far away to come back for the funeral. His tour of duty took him from North Africa to Italy and, eventually, to Austria before finally being returned home several months after the war in Europe had ended. 

All this time, I was being cared for by my grandmother. He came straight down to the little town of Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee where she lived to meet his son as quickly as he could, and we finally came face to face. Finally, I got to  hug my daddy for real when I was two years old instead of hugging and kissing his portrait.

He took me to Nashville for a visit with all his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles who had been so kind to visit me and bring presents such as clothes, toys, and a tiny, child-sized rocking chair which I just recently passed down to one of my grandchildren. But, the visit was, of necessity, brief because he had to get a job and go back to work in the post-war recovery period. In those days, there were very few daycare centers for toddlers or preschoolers.  Here he was . . . a widower who needed a job and had no way to look after his son when he was on a job. He did the thing that was best for me. He gave me back into the care of my grandmother who was “Mama” to me . . . the only mother I had really ever known. 

I stayed with my grandmother until I was 8, almost 9, years old. My father would come down from Nashville to visit and play with me and take me back for brief visits to the big city. But, it wasn’t until I had just completed third grade in Mt. Pleasant when my father finally remarried and came to get me for good. It’s about that day that I want to tell you, dear reader.

In retrospect, I imagine both he and his new bride were anxious about my reactions to the adjustment of moving from the only caregiver (the grandmother I called Mama), the only home, the only school, the hometown I loved so well. My mother’s sister, my aunt Joan, was there, too, and she had been like a second mother to me.  I recently asked Aunt Joan what was I like as I anticipated the big change. She said I was not apprehensive, but rather looked forward to living with my father.  

At last they arrived. Daddy introduced me to his new wife. It was the first time we had ever met . . . the day he came to get me. I don’t know how long they had been married, a week perhaps, maybe a month. They had rented a house in a nice area of Nashville. It was a very modest house, in fact, it was like a guest house behind a larger one. Even its address was humble, 3205 ½ Acklen Avenue. 

They told me about it as we drove back up to it. I was to have my own bedroom! I was excited about that! I had never had that before. There was only one bedroom in my grandmother’s upstairs apartment and only one bed, an old double bed that my grandmother shared with me. Remember, I was still only 8 years old.

I can’t remember much of the conversation as we rode the approximately two-hour trip. I suppose they told me about the school I would be attending. My father probably set some ground rules about addressing my elders, including them of course, with Sir and Ma’am as was the custom in those days among many southern families, though my grandmother had not taught me such formalities.

Finally, the conversation turned to the thing that had probably caused the most anxiety both with them and with me. What was I going to call my new stepmother? 

I was at least as inhibited as the average eight-year-old and probably more so. I think I would rather have just been told what to call her, but they could not have known this. It is to their credit that they left that decision up to me. It is to my now aging dismay that I said, “Is it OK if I call her Betty?” After all, that was her name. Not the one I wish now I had chosen, but the one a reserved, loyal-to-Mama, not-yet-fourth grader, chose. They were both gracious and gave no indication that this was anything but a perfectly acceptable answer. 

Now, with the wisdom of an additional almost 70 years added to the eight I had accumulated at that time, I can tell you what I wish I had said. I will say it now, not as an eight-year-old would say it because an eight-year-old would never have the maturity or language skills to say it, but as a 78-year-old would say it if he could somehow be transported back in time to that moment and yet retain the old man’s knowledge and experience. To the question, “What do you want to call her?” I would direct my attention to her and answer:

Well, I’ve been thinking about that. I know I don’t want to call you “Stepmother.” Ever since Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, that name has been too sinister! “Mrs. Ward” is too formal and awkward for the relationship. To call you by your first name, “Betty” seems too informal for a little kid like me, in fact, it seems almost rude to address any adult by their first name unless some title like Aunt or Uncle or something is included. I guess “Miss Betty” would be respectful, but still sort of strange sounding under the circumstances. 

No. I want to call you something that reflects what I hope our relationship will be. I realize that you married my father and I was just part of the deal. You must love him a great deal to take on a young child having no idea what he’s like. You had to know that marrying a man with extra baggage would mean there would be less money, less time, less privacy for each other. And yet, you committed to this with no trial period or anything. 

And what am I hoping for in you? I’m just a kid. I need someone to sew my buttons back on, take me to ball practice, see that I have clean clothes to wear, see that I’m dressed properly for the occasion, take me to a doctor’s appointment, meet my teacher, help me with homework I don’t understand, cook for me, make me take a bath when I should, or go to bed when I should. I need someone that I can talk to when it’s sympathy I seek. I need someone who has that natural instinct to wrap their arms around me when I’m scared or scolded, and say, “Everything’s going to be OK.”

In short, I want you to do all the things a person does for her child. And, if I am going to ask so much of you, then you deserve to be called by the name that defines those qualities, the sweetest name in the world . . . Mother! 

That is what I wish I had said. That is what I wish I had done even if I could not have expressed it in such terms. Instead, I called her Betty, and though she did those things, I was ignorantly oblivious. Three and a half years later, my father and Betty divorced. Only recently, in the last year or two, did I come to the conclusion that I could have made the difference. I am so sorry I was too shy or self-conscious to open up to her and treat her like the mother I think she was trying and wanted to be. Had that relationship developed, I believe the relationship between her and my father would have had more of a chance. 

About four years after their divorce, Betty died of cancer, like my mother. I regret that I was as oblivious to her suffering as the infant I had been was to the one that gave me life. I did not know of Betty’s sickness and death until some time later. I can only hope that someday, Heaven will give me the opportunity to say to her what I wish I had said.

January 08, 2021 19:44

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Lenox Ndeda
13:21 Jan 28, 2021

Much Intricacies enunciated thereof, it absolutely focuses on the trivial storms of life that toss this generation to and fro.


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Cookie Carla🍪
21:06 Jan 20, 2021

I think this story was very inventive of you. I wouldn't have thought to go about this prompt this way. Good work!!


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