Poisoned Fruit: My Life with an Evil Stepmother
By Virginia Carraway Stark
I have heard rumors and legends of people who have perfectly lovely step-parents but I have never had the pleasure of experiencing a pleasant step family.
I met my step-mother one summer afternoon in a Chinese food restaurant. I was determined not to be selfish when I met her. I was determined to put both of my parents happiness before my own sad hurt feelings after the divorce and the loneliness that comes from seeing what was once whole become broken. I knew that I was emotional and overwrought and I put all of those feelings aside in the hope that both of my parents could find the happiness that they were seeking.
I was always a romantic and I believed in love and trusted my parents fundamentally. I should have looked deeper into my romantic heart and to the stories of the wicked step-mother because it wasn’t love that drove their relationship and it was a child’s mistake to believe the best of the grown ups in the world.
I was at the restaurant before my Dad and my to-be stepmother. There was a little artificial stream that ran most of the length of the restaurant and I put my finger tips in the water and let the koi that lived in it nibble my fingers and admired their golden and opalescent scales. I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I met here, but the reality was nothing like what I thought.
They walked in, not touching each other, Judy following along behind. My first impulse was to feel badly for her. She was capering, insecure, nervous and unbelievably unattractive.
Her skin was like wrinkled leather from her compulsive sunbathing, her dull brown eyes were stained yellow from her alcoholism and her fingernails were clubbed from her self-abuse and general ill health even then. Her hair was thin and fluffy at the same time that it was curly and unruly. When she smiled it looked like it was plastered and forced on her face. She laughed nervously and loudly nearly constantly, spraying it across the nearly deserted restaurant like an incontinent house pet. She was abrupt and lacked any sort of social graces whatsoever. She was, in short, a used up party girl with an severe alcohol problem and absolutely nothing going for her except a history of working in restaurants.
She was dreadful. Instead of listening to my gut though, I pushed through with my resolve to support my Dad’s pursuit of love.
I wonder, in retrospect, what would have happened if I had told him what I thought of her then. If I could have found the words to express how distasteful and nasty she was. I think the truth of the matter is that I never would have told him that because I trusted him so deeply that I didn’t believe my own senses over what he told me to think and feel.
I was a really well behaved child. I hated getting into trouble and I loved to make people happy. My Dad told me, “I can’t express to you what a delight you were to raise. You never caused problems, you were always full of smiles and laughter. There wasn’t a moment raising you that wasn’t a pleasure.”
Perhaps his recollections of me are a little bit of high praise. When I was little I would throw temper tantrums from time to time and when I was a teenager I ran away from home to escape the abuse that would stem from this first meeting by a koi pond.
Judy was very nice to me on that first meeting. In fact, she was kind to me for the first few months I knew her. It gradually changed and I was so bewildered and so hopelessly naïve that I didn’t even understand that Judy was my worst enemy.
My Dad and Judy moved into a four-plex together. It was after they were already living together that my Dad confessed that Judy was a waitress he had met at a truck stop. He had said he was heading to Mexico and she asked if she could come. He said, “Sure, but I’m leaving right now”. She jumped into the truck with him and left whatever sort of life she had been living to hang out in my Dad’s big-rig with him and then to insert herself into my life.
At this point I was in junior high school and I was an honor student. I was a devout reader and I wrote poems and stories. I loved school and I was excellent at it even through the events that followed, the cruel punishments, the starvations, the humiliations that were about to occur. Even after I ran away from home, I kept up my grades and stayed on the honor roll until the day I graduated from high school.
My life wasn’t only this, I also spent time living with my Mom who was a pharmaceutical junky and she asked me on more than one occasion to, ‘take care of her now’ after my Dad left her. She was less there for me as she was another burden with bipolar episodes that included holding a knife to my baby brother’s throat before being taken away to the psychiatric hospital.
My older brother completely abandoned me. He went to live with some friends of his the day he found out about our parents separating and he never came home after that. I was suddenly the eldest child with my mother as one of my youngest and most troubled siblings. I did my best to take care of my little brother but I was just a kid myself and all the adults in my life had flipped the rules on me and descended into utter chaos. Making matters even more confounding was the variation between the two households.
When I was with my Mom there were no rules. I could come and go as I pleased, stay up as late as I pleased. There were no consequences but there was a big trade off. My Mom had never been a good housekeeper but now she didn’t clean at all. The house was disgusting. There were bowls and plates with food everywhere covered in mold or left in a grease laden sink half full of cold water. Her room was filthy and about once a month I would go through her room and clean it from top to bottom. She didn’t change her sheets and her bed stank. I would have to clean her nails and help her with her hair and other hygiene issues. She rarely if ever bought groceries and if we did get food it would be because she gave me a twenty and I would walk or ride my bike to the store and buy what I could.
She hoarded crap she found at garage sales and I would wait until she was out and get rid of as much of it as I humanly could, being only 12 and 13 years old. I cleaned that house with bleach and Lysol as often as I could but my mother’s slothful behavior and her bouts between mania and depression ensured that I always had a lot of work to do if I didn’t want to live in filth. I didn’t like either life with my mother or father and bounced between the two extremes of homes.
In Judy’s home, the rules of the house were new and rigidly strict. I wasn’t allowed to ever go into the fridge for any reason. I wasn’t even allowed to have a glass of milk unless Judy said I could. I wasn’t allowed to go into any of the other food cupboards. I wasn’t allowed anything except what Judy left on the counter for me for breakfast and she would leave a bag lunch for me to take to school. After school I wasn’t allowed anything to eat until dinner.
As soon as I came home I had to vacuum every room in the fourplex. I had to do the dishes and heaven forbid if I was to leave a water spot on the sink or taps. I had to polish the wood with pledge and after that, set the table for dinner. Judy always made dinner and afterward I would clean up and then do my homework.
Believe it or not, this was a light workload for what would be inflicted on me in the future.
The rules were insane and I struggled to stay a ‘good’ girl and keep up as Judy put me through my paces. If I forgot a light turned on I was made to run up and down the stairs fifty times, turning the light at the top on and off each time I did so. If Judy perceived that the floor wasn’t vacuumed well enough I had to do the whole thing all over again under her watchful eye. If I complained about any of this to my Dad he threw up his hands and told me I had better learn to be more obedient.
So, I would try to be more obedient. I would try to make my new stepmother love me, or at least see I was a good little girl and maybe like me, even just a little.
Judy wasn’t ever going to like me. Proving that I was good and obedient only made her hate me more. She soon upped her tortures of me.
It started with the bag lunches she left out for me. They weren’t very good at all, but I was starving and so I made the best of them. It would be all I would get until dinner and sometimes dinner wasn’t until eight at night depending on when my Dad would get home. Judy started to put ‘surprises’ in my lunches for me. It was usually something in my sandwiches, one rotten anchovy right in the middle of my sandwich, or a pocket of jalapenos, once it was four quarters. I stopped eating her lunches and would open up the sandwich enough to see what her ‘surprise’ was (also for the chance that she had maybe put more quarters in one) and then throw the whole bag in the garbage. My friends were what got me through that time. They fed me from their lunches or sometimes bought be lunch. They held me when I cried, completely confused by why and how anyone would be so cruel to me. I didn’t tell them all the indignities I suffered, when I was with them I wanted to escape from my failures in both homes and get back to the business of being a teenager.
It got worse and it wasn’t just Judy picking on me. Under her constant belittling of me, my Dad would join in on her tortures of me. They would both laugh at me when Judy would ask me what I thought of my lunch that day. They would both nitpick over whether I had vacuumed the stairs properly.
I got into trouble for everything I did. My Dad said I went up the stairs too loudly, that I shouldn’t sound like an elephant when I went up and down the stairs. He made me practice going up and down until I was nearly silent. He would do ‘snap inspections’ of the lintels of doorways and I would be punished if anything was ever found to be dusty. Corners were checked to make sure I had been careful enough to vacuum everywhere.
Then one day they called me into the kitchen. They wanted to talk to me about my weight. I was a scrawny little thing even though I had started to develop breasts and hips at an early age. They made be stand sideways in front of the mirror in the hutch in the kitchen and they pointed out every flaw in me. They told me that I was too fat. They made me stand facing the mirror and pointed to my thighs and told me that until they could see daylight between my legs that they would be keeping me on a strict diet.
What did I think of this? I cried in private. Tears were forbidden in front of my Dad. He said they were only used as a way to manipulate people and so crying was another thing that was punished. I cried but not because I thought it was unfair, I cried because I thought I was fat. I cried because I thought I was weak.
I told my friend Cindy that I just had to learn that my father’s love was more important that food. The worst thing was that I believed it when I said it. I believed that I had done wrong, terrible wrong in feeling hunger and in not meeting the new guidelines that had been laid out for me.
There were so many people in my life who didn’t understand the full extent of what was happening to me but nevertheless they did little things that I attribute my (relative) sanity and much of my survival at the time as well.
I had my friends, who, as I mentioned fed me and loved me. They seemed to understand me on a deep level that had no limits. We loved each other. They were mostly older than me and they also drove me places and let me stay at their houses on many occasions. Cindy’s mom in particular was amazing to me. She let me pretty much live with them and always made me feel like I was a welcome addition to their family. She was also the first person I ever watched Mr. Bean with and something that I never forgot.
I lost track of many of the people who I knew in that dark and confusing time but Cindy and I would always reconnect. She was as much of a bookworm as I was. Most of our time together was spent in her bedroom reading books together and occasionally stopping to run to the story for a candy or soda fix. We played role playing games when we got a bit older and fed each other on creativity and unconditional acceptance. She was a pillar of stability of my life but she wasn’t the only good influence on me at the time.
A huge influence on me at the time was a brand new teacher named Ms. Watts. Ms. Watts was a brand new teacher fresh out of college and she wore long skirts and witch boots and she was the first person I ever met who was a vegetarian. She had a pointy long nose and sparkling eyes and she believed in me. With my friends all older than me they were soon on to high school while I languished in grade 8. It was with these ideas in mind that I talked to Ms. Watts about skipping a grade of school. She was inspired by the idea and proceeded with a battery of tests to see if I was ready to be bumped into grade 10 the following year.
I aced all the tests (after polishing up my math skills, especially geometry) and was zoomed through into grade 10.
Meanwhile, back at my other home, Judy was only getting started with me.
At this point, I didn’t know that she was an alcoholic. I just knew that sometimes my Dad would get a phone call when Judy wasn’t there and he would curse and swear and order me to go to my room and not come out until the morning. One time when he did this I disobeyed him and I crept to the top of the stairs when they came through the front door. Judy was wearing a tight leather skirt, stiletto heels and a halter top. My Dad had thrown her over his shoulder and carried her into the house while she gibbered and laughed to herself.
I ran back to my room and sat on my mattress on the floor. I couldn’t figure out what I had just seen. Why was Judy acting like that? Was she insane? My parents had never drank my entire life. I had never knowingly seen anyone drunk before and the tableau that I saw at the bottom of the stair was a mystery to me.
It was shortly after that that it was announced that Judy was pregnant.
I was told that I was going to have a sister or a brother and that this was certainly cause for celebration. Judy barely showed during her pregnancy. She had always been emaciated, but now she had the slightest little bump of a belly. She didn’t buy maternity clothing, she just undid the top button of her skinny jeans and wore a baggy t-shirt.
I continued to do my best to be a good daughter not just to my Dad but to my stepmother as well. I made a stain glass piece of art of a stork with a baby hanging down in a fold of cloth to be delivered to its new family. Judy got rid of it, I never saw it again after I gave it to her.
Unsurprisingly with Judy’s lifestyle, the baby was born early- she was only four pounds. It was soon discovered that the baby also had cancer. Judy exploded with ‘grief’ and demanded that my Dad marry her so that her poor darling baby wouldn’t be a bastard. The fact that the baby was born already and it was too late to technically legitimize Katy was overlooked as Judy fussed over her houseboat wedding.
My Dad agreed to all this and Judy made sure that I was nowhere to be seen for the entire wedding ceremony. I was dressed in one of her cast-off dresses while she bought new dresses and shoes and even gifts of jewelry for everyone in her entourage, including the ‘flower baby’, my half-sister, Katy.
The baby was cured of her cancer and life went on. For Judy, life meant drinking.
Judy and my Dad moved to the Okanagan. They never said why, but later I learned that Judy’s drunken ways had embarrassed them both so much in Dawson Creek that they had tried to get a clean start somewhere completely different.
Judy started a restaurant at this point and my life of chores now extended to not only keeping the house clean and taking care of the baby, but also to working in the restaurant everyday after school until after close. I was no longer given anything for lunch and if I foolishly came back home for lunch I would be forced to do dishes over the lunch hour. They fired the dishwasher and left all the dishes for me to do after I was done school. I was exhausted and struggled to stay on the honor roll. Sometimes I wouldn’t get all the dishes done until 2 or 3 in the morning. If people came to the restaurant just before closing Judy and Dad would go to the house and leave me to serve drinks and waitress as well as finishing the dishes.
At fifteen I was told that I pulled the best beer they had ever had. Apparently I had a knack for it.
Pulling beer in the wee hours of the morning by edict of my Judy and my Dad took precedence over my homework. They never once gave me a break to study for a test or do a report. I soldiered through but I was reaching my breaking point.
I was falling asleep in class and my math scores were suffering. One day I looked at a math test and I didn’t write a thing on it except my name and the date and then I walked out of the class and to the counselor’s office. I told her how tired I was and about the work and about how I was sleeping in the unfinished basement of the restaurant and working morning to night. She took me to the nurse’s station and let me sleep on the cot in there. I dropped a peer tutoring advanced placement course and French and used the two periods to sleep. I kept my advanced placement English and Social Studies courses that counted as first year university level courses and I still got A’s.
I was never paid a penny for any of this work. The only thing I ever got for it was that unfinished room in the basement of the restaurant and a second hand computer.
Something was changing in me. I was growing rebellious and angry. I had begun to wake up to the realization that I deserved a lot more in life than what I was getting.
To Be Continued…