Skiing with Snowphia


We had a big weekend, you and I. We went skiing in Tahoe, where hopefully we will continue to own a cabin by the time you are old enough to want to  read this.

Your dad is an expert and has always had high hopes that his joy and passion for this sport are something you have inherited from him. He has never pushed you, not once, not even a little..but the hope was there.

From age four through six you were interested, but not exactly excited. Now at age seven, on this trip that all changed.  A few feet of fluffy, forgiving powder was apparently all it took to unlock the daredevil in you.

Where before, you were ready for a hot chocolate after two runs, this trip you were irritated when we stopped for lunch, and were anxious that we ski right up until the end, catching the last chair of the day.

“Watch me!” you shouted gleefully, and all around us heads swiveled, the skiers grinning at you whooshing past in your little pink pants and pink puffy coat, your goggled and helmeted head looking huge and wobbly on your tiny frame.

“Way to go, Snow!” I shout, because on this weekend, you have been re-dubbed from Sophia to Snowphia (sometimes Slowphia, when you are too pokey getting your gear together).

“Are you her mom?” the laughing skiers ask, and I tell them “Im her step mom.”  For some reason this is a conversation ender, though it’s totally possible the same silence would ensue if I simply answered “Yes.”  It seems that my correction is interpreted as an assertion of not just biological but emotional fact as well. Which gets me thinking.

Stepmom is such a strange term.   Hearing it always evokes the image of the small green step stool of my childhood, ever-present in the bathroom behind the door, the one that we kids used to stand on so we could reach the tap to brush our teeth and wash our hands.

My grandfather – my dad’s dad,  a man I never met –  made that step stool.  He died of a heart attack before I was born, so all I ever knew of him was my dad’s description of him (“a gentle man”) and this stool I used each day to boost myself up.

You declared I was your best ski partner, and when I handed you your ski poles and said “Here you go missy!” you smartly responded, “Thanks, missy!”

“Look how fast I am!” you bellowed, and then got in a tuck position so that you were about two feet tall as you barreled head first down the slope, leaving a dozen skiers cracking up in your  snowy wake.

“Let’s show our daddy how fast we can go!” you shouted, confirming the Man’s suspicion that to you, I am neither fish nor fowl, adult nor child, but a combination of both: a friend like all the other second graders, only taller.

All weekend, we did the same drill: I would let you get a head start, then enjoy a hundred yards of decently speedy skiing to catch up. The consistency of this ploy convinced you that you are a much faster skier than I.

“But I’m letting you stay in front of me, in case you fall!”  I protested, which you clearly  found dubious.  I’ve always liked that about you: “Lying back in the tall grass” I called it, when you stared at me, unsmiling, at first meeting.  You were too small for words then, but your expression was clear: I’ll have to watch you for awhile before I decide if I like you.  Maybe a long while.

In the end, a two hour game of peek-a-boo in the car, complete with a red rubber ducky stamped all over with “love hearts” (your term, now mine too) won you over.

Back at the cabin, you would not go into the hot tub without me; once in, you would not stop piling snow on my head.  Back inside, you wanted to shower together and copy my routine: shampoo, conditioner (both apple scented), face lotion, baby oil on the legs, tie the hair up in a turban until time to dry. Your turban looked more like a squashed fedora, but you were proud to have done it yourself.

It is these times together when I sometimes muse on the word step, and how like that green bench I am in your life. I’m the little boost you need to help you to the next level: to see yourself in the mirror when you put lotion on, to reach the faucet, to learn how to wash your hair in the shower, to lift you and set you down when you fall on the slopes, making sure that you are steady and won’t go sliding away at speed before I can tell you the things  you need to know about falling, and getting back up.

“She’s such a good girl,” your daddy says often, and he is right, you are truly, amazingly good.  Never whiny, you have your own methods for cleaning your room, get ready for  bed without being asked a second time, eat what’s in front of you and actually enjoy foods other kids hate at your age: olives, a sip of red wine, onions, guacamole.

You virtually potty trained yourself, one morning pushing away the pull up pants and marching, bare bottomed, to the toilet to demonstrate your understanding.

When the visiting little boys said “We don’t like chicken” your reply was equal parts incredulity and certainty: “Everyone likes chicken, and anyway my daddy makes the best barbeque chicken.”

Just wait, everyone tells us. Wait til she’s two, wait til she starts school.  But there was nothing to wait for but more of the same: your sweet requests to play, your joy in games that required inventing vs. established rules (me crawling around pretending to be your kitty being a recent favorite), our long interludes of drawing and coloring together in companionable silence on your bedroom floor.

When friends heard of my new step mom status their next question was predictable. I suppose  “Do you get along with her” is a reasonable thing to ask, but it always makes me bark with startled laughter.  Yes, I say, picking at my elbows where the scabs have formed from propping myself on your bedroom rug as we diligently color  Strawberry Shortcake. We get along famously.

One of your favorite things in the morning is to have a ‘latte’ – steamed and frothed milk with a sprinkle of chocolate served in an espresso demitasse.  We drink with our pinkies sticking out stiff as bony bird wings and speak in elegant tones, why yes, thank you, and of course.

The word stepmom sometimes evokes a mental picture of you walking, flanked by your parents, me a smiling step behind.  I wasn’t there for your first words or first step; I didn’t love you from the moment you were born.  I was a step behind in getting to know you and learn your ways.  Our first couple of years together were full of mutual examination – you liked to play with my long hair, and eventually demanded to grow out your cute pixie crop.  I would get unduly excited when you obligingly ate something I prepared.

For a couple of years now you’ve liked girly things like the color pink, my collection of hats and rabbit fur scarves, anything sparkly or gaudy; your little tops are decorated with rhinestone lady bugs and glittery cupcakes. But recently your tastes have taken a more avante garde turn – our matching ski beanies feature a spider picked out in rhinestones, an item you were drawn to based on the many eight legged denizens of our back garden.  You put your face right up to their webs, their hairy legs inches from your nose, without the slightest squeamishness. 

At night I sing to you from a motley selection: Groovy Kind of Love, The Onion Song (a long-forgotten gem by performance artist Laurie Anderson), Somewhere Out There, Edelweiss  and The Goodnight Song from The Sound of Music, songs from The Eagles, Beatles, Elton John.  I often wonder what your reaction will be when you hear these songs on a radio somewhere, or see them on “Behind the Music” on VH1 which perhaps you will watch religiously throughout college, your dorm room filled with the sound of your squeals “My step mom used to sing this to me, listen, I know every word!”

Your dad and I sometimes wonder aloud about what’s in store: the first sex talk about where babies come from, the discovery of boys, maybe (but maybe not) the encounters with mean girls, the other sex talks, the ones that have to do with exposing all of the unseen bits, not least of these your heart.

We smile at your bobble-headed ski-helmeted head buzzing confidently past us, your embrace of the speed that is already invading our time together, showing us how quickly and easily you will be whisked forward into your future, a place we are likely to be seen as cute old relics (who are sometimes still fun to ski with).

I don’t know how we’ll handle your passages from each phase of your life to the next, I only know I’ll be here and I’m glad of it, glad to give you a step up here, a boost there, whatever you need from me.  We’re partners, missy!

About Sandra Stephens

I never thought I'd arrive in my 40s just in time to acquire a ready made family, but there we were: my husband, and his two daughters (who are now also mine): one who lived with him and one who lived all the way across the country from us, in Miami. They are 10 years apart, both beautiful girls, sweet and considerate and independent and interesting. This blog is the story of our journey to get to know one another, among the best adventures of my life.

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