From Chicken Soup for the Mother & Daughter Soul

An Angel in Disguise

First keep the peace within yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.

Thomas à Kempis

“I wouldn’t be your daughter if you paid me!” I vehemently declared to my new stepmother, in response to her introducing me as her daughter to a man fixing our windows. That was one of the many conflicts we had throughout my high school years. In my rebellious youth, my insecurity compelled me to lash out, to hurt people before they hurt me.

Imagine a divorced woman, living in Colorado with two small children, ages three and five, who meets, falls in love with, and decides to marry a man who lives in New Mexico. To do so, she must sell her home, give up the teaching job that she loves, and go to court against her ex-husband, in order to be allowed to move her children out of the state. After all this, she is confronted with two unruly teenagers, my brother and me, who are convinced she is the enemy and the source of all their problems. When she secures a job as a history teacher at their high school, they inform friends and students that she is a “witch.” They pick on her children with a relentless cruelty. They embarrass her, insult her and ignore her. How does she respond?

With pure, unconditional love. Out of instinct, Mary Jo exercised tough love long before the term was mainstream. She laid down the rules. Dinner was at 6:30 P.M. I had to call by 6:00 if I wouldn’t be there. In addition to family dinners, there would be family nights and family vacations.

I was used to being independent, basically coming and going as I pleased. Mary Jo wanted to know what my schedule was and who my friends were. The minimal rule was to say “Hello” when I came home and “Good-bye” before going anywhere. I tried to avoid even this, sneaking in the house, up to my room with friends. She would appear instantly, “Hi, I’m Mary Jo, Alice’s stepmother. What’s your name?”

When she tried to talk to me, I yelled and walked away. When she tried to hug me, I pushed her away. She said, “I know you don’t like it, but I’m going to hug you anyway.” She wrote me letters and signed them, “I love you! Mary Jo.” I tore them up and threw them in the garbage where she could see them. The next letter said, “I know you’re going to tear this up. I love you, anyway! Mary Jo.”

On my sixteenth birthday Mary Jo and I got into an argument because I was picking on her daughter. I was sent to my room. I called my friends to meet me on the corner and climbed out the window. I got home around 6:00 that evening, afraid to go in the house. As I pushed the door open and stepped in, I heard, “Surprise!” Six of my girlfriends were sitting around the table, which was full of food and presents. Mary Jo had planned the party and cooked for me. She treated me like a princess in front of my friends. I felt so special, yet so guilty. When the party was over, Mary Jo said, “Happy birthday. I love you. You’re grounded.”

One day I was walking past my dad and Mary Jo’s bedroom. I heard her crying. I don’t remember what she was saying, but it was about me and how she never knew how tough it all would be. To say I stopped acting out or that we never fought again would be an exaggeration, but listening to her pain invited me one step closer to her.

Most of my anger and hurt was about my father, his past actions and the walls we had built between us over the years. Mary Jo was often caught in the middle. Over time, I came to love and respect her. Since the day my father had introduced her, I thought she was beautiful. I used to sincerely question, “What do you see in him?” She would tell me all the good things about my father I was desperately trying to forget in an effort to hate him. I asked that question and heard the answer so much that I began to see the good that she saw in him. I began to take the love and acceptance that Mary Jo had poured into me and practice it on my father. After a while, there was a bridge where there used to be a wall.

When I was in trouble, Mary Jo dealt with my behavior directly. She told me what I had done wrong and what the punishment was. She didn’t make a big production. She made it clear what she would and would not tolerate. In the midst of it all, she built my self-esteem by saying things like, “You’re better than that” and “I expect more from someone like you.” After hearing, “You’re always doing things like this” and “Are you going to be a permanent problem?” for years, I walked away from Mary Jo’s lectures feeling two inches taller.

More important than how she dealt with my unruly behavior was that she taught me positive alternatives and introduced me to things I could feel good about. To an outsider, playing cards, cooking and family dinners may be casual events, but these events were like shots of joy and self-worth to me. They were medicine for a sickness that could have lasted a lifetime.

One of the strongest medicines I have ever tasted is running. That, too, was a gift from Mary Jo. She ran a ten-mile race the day she married my father. I had never run before, but I figured if she could do it so could I. I walked almost as much as I ran. However, I have run, and won, many races since that day. Mary Jo and I have run through mountains and neighborhoods together. In high school, I ran track and cross-country. I acted as if I didn’t care if Mary Jo came to my races or not, as well as ignoring her when she did. Sometimes I wouldn’t even tell her if I had one, but she’d find out through the school. Before I’d start, I’d scan the crowd. When I saw her face, though I told no one, comfort surged through my body.

To say Mary Jo made a positive difference in my life is an understatement. She made a pivotal difference in my life. She served as a role model, a mother and a friend. She taught me what it means to be a family and created events that make up some of my most cherished memories. She made every holiday a celebration. She passed down the gift of running, which has given me strength, peace, privacy, a place to cry, to pray, to evolve. She taught me the manners that have allowed me to excel in business and in life.

Above it all, Mary Jo taught me about love. She showed me that love cures; love softens; love sees beneath the tough exterior; love changes people; love is the creator of metamorphosis. Today, I am proud for Mary Jo to call me her daughter, and I am privileged to call her my friend.

Alice Lundy Blum

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