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The Bigger Picture
by Judy Bonicelli Sarles

I'm beginning to think God is not listening. I said I wanted a horse, not to be a stepmom. After watching "Stepmom" for the second time I realized the death of the mom forced the stepmom into a position of seeing the bigger picture that we often lose sight of in the midst of the daily travails of being step-people. Like the Stepford Wives, stepmoms have a dark side. We hate ourselves for our jealousy and pettiness. How can we be thinking of ourselves when the wee little ones need so much more than we do? "No, I want to sit next to daddy." "Yuk, what is that?!" directed at my gourmet meals I slaved over. Many is the movie I've watched with my beloved out of reach and a small body holding me at arms' length while snuggled up against husband/dad. Many nights we ate what The Princess of Quite a Lot wanted (how much macaroni & cheese can the body absorb?).

I've learned as time went on that I am not inflicting permanent damage on her fragile psyche if I tell my stepdaughter to make her own meal if she turns her nose up at what I make.

I take care of my 85-year-old mother when I return to my hometown, and she needs assistance bathing. I was lovingly sponging her off, the very way she must have bathed me as a child. I now know every inch of her body the same as she knew every inch of mine. It hit me what a full circle life makes. I am Italian, and our heritage is to take care of our family, no matter what. It occurred to me as I reached for the adult diaper that I may (probably will) be in this position someday. And who will change my Depends? It dawns on my that it may very well be my stepdaughter, if I'm lucky and we nourish and cherish the budding relationship between us.

Because after 8 years and a lot of mistakes, I'm beginning to really understand that this relationship is like a garden. Like it or not it's in my yard, and I can let the weeds grow up and neglect it or I can water and prune and lovingly care for it. I have my very own relationship with her, outside and apart from that of my husband and I or his with her.

Suddenly the picture snapped into focus and I got it. All the pain, all the jealousy, all the pettiness shifts into the background. I am no longer vying for her father's attention, I am old and I need her attention. My family is becoming my stepdaughter. A special place is already forming between us that two women can enjoy. I buy her jewellry and purple things (she loves purple). She hugs me now when she sees me, and I get goosebumps.

Suddenly it's an honor to know her, as an individual. No, I'm not in the same league as her mom and dad. I'm in a different league, a league that is becoming very important in its own way. I'm in a different compartment of her life, and that's a special place to be. It's what I make it, and therefore it has no limits. I've been given another member of family.

In our family we stuck by each other, from my beloved Uncle Guido who was a practical joker with a drinking problem to distant Aunt Rena and all the "mental" pecadilloes in between. My grandfather Severino came over to America with my grandmother Amabile and famiy. Then he went back to Italy to collect some money he had left behind with family and somehow in the process got drafted into the Italian Army and fought during World War I.

In the meantime my grandmother is in a strange country, doesn't speak the language with four kids and no source of income! She got word over a year later he was found in a hospital in Rome having had his toes amputated from frostbite. He was holed up in the Alps fighting off the enemy. Well God only knows what she went through in that year when she didn't know where he was. She must have been frantic, but she rallied, taking in sewing, laundry and selling her incredible raviolis to make money. She kept the family afloat and when Grandpa came back she welcomed him back and they lived together until he died many years later. My dad & mom moved back in with Grandma to help out when Grandpa got sick and raised us four kids there. We cared for Grandpa until he died in his own bed then loved and cared for our Grandma until she passed away.

It was the biggest privilege of my life to be with her at the end. I bathed her, fed her, sneaked her treats, fixed her hair, listened to her stories about the old country and savored her spirit. I miss her still 23 years later.

Now 23 years later I am doing all the same things for my own mother who has always been so vital and full of life. We don't always know who our favorite people are going to be, and where our help is going to come from. I am looking at my stepdaughter in a whole new light.

In college a girl I absolutely despised was my roommate. I swore I'd never like her. We struggled and fought and lived together unhappily. Then one day we had to accomplish something together and the walls came down. I've never loved anyone quite like that.

To go from enemies to soul friends is a unique experience, one to be savored and astonished by. Sometimes life and love doesn't work the way we think it should and grows in unexpected places (like those beautiful ferns in my garden that grow wild out of the side of a rock!) I'm tending my garden, my stepdaughter's heart, more carefully now (for a selfish reason?) Maybe so, but hopefully I will leave her with a precious fragrance.

We have a relationship punctuated by dissonant emotions, blood, sweat and tears, that is all our own. No one else can really share fully in it so it's special to us and I'm beginning to really treasure it and am so proud of it. I made it and I can break it, but I won't. Thank God she is resilient and overlooks, forgives me for my great gaffes.

I'm so lucky that she loves me in spite of my shortcomings, but then isn't that the definition of family?

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