They’ve been dancing the whole time
The first time I met my stepfather I threatened to beat him up. My brother and I were both in on it. I was looking for reasons not to like him, and as most people know, when ye seek, ye shall find.
For one thing, I did not like his personality. He had the temerity to be nice and respectful, which I naturally interpreted as embarrassingly obsequious, so cloying that even shaking hands with him felt like putting my hand in a basin filled with warm maple syrup.
Even though I am nobody’s idea of a fashion plate myself, I managed to find fault with his wardrobe, a sort of faux woodsy ensemble: a flannel shirt, jeans that looked like they had been worn twice maybe, and a belt with a big brass buckle.
But it was his beard that truly ignited the tinderbox of my paranoia. Combined with his thick tortoise-shell glasses, I thought the beard gave him the look of a man on the run from something or someone, a small-time grifter, traveling incognito, two steps ahead of his creditors, a court subpoena, and an angry wife.
These were the excuses I manufactured for not giving him a chance, but the real reason my brother and I were sitting in the living room we grew up in grilling him like a five-dollar steak was his “story,” which involved being high school sweethearts with my mother several spouses ago, a recent class reunion where they magically reunited, a whirlwind courtship consisting primarily of long distance phone calls, and now this sudden engagement.
It wasn’t as if we had a problem with our mother pursuing a relationship in the wake of our parents’ divorce. We were grown and wanted the best for them both, and by “best” I mean a nice, polite, uncomplicated courtship that might go on for several years and include a lot of covered dish dinners at each other’s churches, picnics on assorted overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and snapping beans on the porch swing.
News of this sudden engagement rattled our china cabinet, but good, sparking a frenzy of phone calls among family members centering exclusively on our mother having tragically fallen under the sway of this feckless Floridian phony, who we imagined had his beady eyes fixed on our brick ranch homeplace, our family-owned restaurant, our recently built cabin by the river, our whole damned inheritance. The whole thing was so transparent, so obvious, so desperate.
We accused him of everything but kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, and though we are not ordinarily violent men, we drew vivid portraits of the torture he would endure if he broke our mother’s heart or refused to sign an ironclad prenuptial agreement drafted by the finest lawyer in town.
He agreed to everything, told us he “understood our concerns,” promised to treat our mother like a princess and be by her side for the rest of his days or the rest of hers and to take her dancing and to all the places she wanted to go and to see all the things she wanted to see.
It was a good speech, maybe a little too good, a little too pat. We drew more portraits for him. Broken, crumpled, and bloodied, his body left for stray cats to ponder in the back lot of the bowling alley.
Our mother wasn’t in the room, but she had the gist of it and wept when our interrogation finally ended. We didn’t want her to cry, but we didn’t want her new life wrecked either.
That was 26 years ago. For most of the years since, they worked side-by-side in the restaurant. If anything, Carroll worked longer hours, sending my mother home to rest whenever they weren’t slammed. Over the years, he got to know every customer by name and they all knew him.
After he moved in, it wasn’t long before he planted fruit trees all over our property. Every time I went home for a visit, there was some new project he was working on, something he wanted to show us. He fashioned a little knick-knack shelf out of wood taken from our grandparents’ old barn, and had a little brass plate with the place and date inscribed on it. Another time, he gave me a very nice walking stick he had carved himself.
Eventually, he and my mother joined the church just up the road, and he has been about as active and faithful a member as a body can be, arriving early every Sunday morning in order to prepare food for church members and visitors alike as they stream in before the service for sausage biscuits, eggs, coffee, and fellowship. A lot of Saturdays, he would go and help cut and haul wood for people who were having a hard time keeping their homes warm in the winter. Until my grandmother passed away a few years ago, he mowed her big yard whenever it needed mowing and ran errands to get whatever she needed.
As for the dancing and the travel, well, let’s just say that we all have an idea of how our life will be and for one reason or another it is not exactly what we had planned. He bought an RV about 15 years ago or so, and they made a short trip or two, but the long trips to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite never came to pass before he ended up selling it and using the proceeds to buy a bandsaw. The dancing, as it is for so many, is better in theory than practice.
The cancer first appeared several years ago in the form of a few growths in his bladder. He had them removed and in no time at all was back on his feet, serving biscuits, chopping wood, or working in the garden. Then the growths would come back, get removed again, and the process would repeat itself.
We’ve been through this a few times now, so when we got news that the cancer had spread and was now in several places in his body, we were all pretty stunned. He’s in treatment now, and though he has always handled the news of cancer’s return and the ensuing treatment with admirable stoicism, this time the pain and the potential implications are more difficult to bear.
Just a few weeks ago, he was thinking of getting a dog. Now, well, I guess we have to see about these treatments and lean hard on faith, perhaps the most important of all of the things he has spent the past few years building and working on.
If I could take back those things I said 26 years ago, I would. I could not have been more wrong about him. It is obvious that I would have found fault with any man who dared to love my mother. Carroll loved her, and loves her still. The man came through. He has been there right by her side, steady and true, year after year.
I was wrong about the dancing, too. It turns out, they’ve been dancing all along.