By Sharon Angleman

     As the leaves began to blush and dance among the trees in the fall of 1968, my life also began a similar transformation that would forever change who I was and how I viewed life and all its mysteries.  My two younger siblings and I acquired a new mommy.  We were living with our natural mother and her second husband when our father took a new bride.
     When I heard the sudden news I was shocked, of course, as I had always expected my parents to someday reunite.  After all, they had remarried each other once already.  But, I had grown to love my stepfather also, so I decided to accept nuptial as a simple endowment providing an additional set of grandparents to stay with when things at home became disrupted, as they always did.

     Modern therapy might have made things different our mother, but concerning psychological matters, these were not modern times.  Electric shock therapy was still practiced then, and this odious method of treatment had already proven futile for my mother.  She found herself unable to cope with the demands of parenting three children and a husband who trusted only heroin to quite the memories of an honorable service in Vietnam.  So she allowed my father and his new wife "temporary" custody of us.

     The reasoning behind this was to allow my mother and her husband time to reorganize their lives.  Instead, however, soon after our departure she found herself in Alaska with a new husband, and her ex-husband laid the haunting memories to rest once and for all with the aid of a .38 caliber pistol.

     I only remember meeting the new woman, Jean, twice before moving into her home, although others tell me it was more than that.  The day we were to make our big move, our mother dressed us in our Sunday best and packed our things in a large cardboard box.  I remember feeling unsettled looking at this box and thinking that all that we were was in it, packed up like the groceries delivered to my grandmotherís home.

     My mother relinquished her three children and their cardboard box to my fatherís parents.  We waited at their home for several hours before finally, with rapidly beating hearts and noses pressed against nicotine-covered windows, we saw the green 1964 Bonneville the new woman drove pulling into the driveway.

     My brother and sister ran to the front door squealing and flapping their arms in the air, almost busting through the screen door.  To them, this was just another great adventure.  I lingered behind a little, wanting to appear more grown-up, all the while wishing that I too, could race and jump into the arms of my dear Daddy.

     Almost as soon as they arrived, we were off.  The drive to the new womanís home in Houston was almost five hours from the coast of Corpus Christi, so I had plenty of time to discern my stepmother from the back seat without being observed myself.

     Her thin, mousy hair was piled on the top of her head in small finger curls held in place with a million bobby pins.  Every now and then she would absent-mindedly push an  escaping pin back into the confines of her homemade curls.   The hair style made her face appear painfully pinched and labored.  The skin was thin and drawn and held creases of cracked face powder.  Tiny lines of frosted pink lipstick were beginning to bleed into the pleats around the thin lips covering tobacco stains and silver caps.  When she smiled or laughed I was always reminded of the Cheshire cat in ĎAlice in Wonderland.í

     She wore sluggish blue eye make-up that made her already cold gray eyes appear washed out and lifeless.  Dark hollows beneath them added to the stony, callous appearance.  The eyes were not lifeless, however, they were keenly sharp and focused, like a birdís eyes, beady and searching, as if in pursuit of prey or naughty little children.  When I did collect the nerve to look into her eyes, I had to be careful not to instinctively suck my breath in.

     I could tell we were finally near the end of our odyssey when the car slowed and we began to make more turns.  I saw a huge, stylish water tower.  It was blue and sleek and lacked the guide wires and trellises I was accustomed to.  In fancy script the tower announced its location as Clear Lake City, and I knew we were almost there.

     As the car rounded its final corner, we passed through two large brick entrance walls.  They curved gently inward to welcome motorists to the modern new subdivision.  I saw before me the widest, longest and whitest concrete avenue I had ever seen.  I looked around in childish, wondrous fascination.

     All the lawns were neatly manicured.  The trees were all small and provided no shade at all, so different from the towering oaks that formed a cool canopy over the cracked asphalt streets of home.  To the left was a large, empty lot.  There were no wildflowers or bushes as one might expect, only tall clumps of tired, wounded grass and stakes with bight orange paint on them.

     "Children," Jean said, "Do you see that first home past the meadow?  Well thatís my home.  Thatís were we live."

     When she said this she pointed one long, slightly crooked finger almost through the windshield before she began to wiggle it up and down as if scolding a puppy.  I noticed how she stressed the my in Ďmy home.í  Daddy glanced timidly toward her, and I saw a strange veiled look in his eyes before he turned away.

     "Itís lovely," I said.

     I tried to sound excited and dazzled, but Jeanís cutting, beady glance told me my ambivalence and nervousness had indeed been detected.

     There was something strange about this house, this neighborhood.  Every house on the block was different.  Some were two-storied, some had small diamond shaped windows near the roofs.  They were all large and very perfect.  It seemed peculiar that so few people were outside for such a beautiful October afternoon.  It seemed strange also that no one waved or smiled as we drove by.

     We turned into a long driveway marked by smaller versions of the brick entrance walls of the subdivision.  Mitchell and Debbie sat squirming and whispering to each other in what I recognized as their "private" language.  Excitement and wonder radiated from their small round faces.

     Mitchell tugged gently on my sleeve.  "Look Sharon," he whispered, "itís so big and white, just like the ones in the stories you tell us!"

     "Yes, so B-I-IG!" Debbie mimicked in chant.

     "Yes, it is beautiful," I said.  "And Iíll bet itís even better inside."

     I said this more to convince myself and ease my own extreme apprehension.  The newness and suddenness of events had left me in a dull sort of shock.  But Mother had promised she would visit often, and I had missed my father so much since the second divorce.

     Our father stopped the car and got out to open the double garage door.  Mitchell and Debbie scrambled and tripped over each other to get out and to the door as well.  I followed behind then unhurried.  I was, after all, not two or three as they were, but seven, and I should behavior like the grown-up girl that I was.

     By the time they escaped the confines of the smoke-filled  Bonneville, Daddy was unlocking the smaller door that lead into the house.  The children sprinted past him in get inside, almost causing him to lose his balance.  With a feeble smile, a weak, craven laugh passed through his lips.

     "Children!" Jean bellowed as she came up behind us.  "Do not run through this house, and never, ever enter with your shoes on, only with your stockinged feet."

     "Oh," I said.  "They didnít mean to Jeannie, weíre sorry."

     "And how do you know what they meant to do and how they feel, young lady?"

     I turned and looked at my father, still fumbling to get the keys out of the lock.  He busied himself with the task as if it were his lifeís work.

     "Well," Jean said, "itís all right this time."

     Her tightly pinched face softened somewhat as she looked down at me.  "And call me Mommy from now on, not Jeannie," she said with her tightlipped Cheshire grin.  "I am your mommy now.  Kindly remember that."

      I turned once again toward my father, who had removed the keys and was entering the house.  I thought for a moment that this new womanís brutish barking at rendered him temporarily deaf, as he in no way acknowledged the events that had just occurred.

     "Daddy," I said, "Mother told us before we left that she would always be our real mommy, but that now we had a stepmommy too.  Thatís right, isnít it?  Daddy?"

     My fatherís eyes were fixated on some unseen object on the floor that traveled just in front of his slow and shuffled stride.  As he walked toward the kitchen counter to deposit his keys and wallet, I appraised his walk and his body.  He seemed somehow shorter and smaller than I remembered him being last week.  The shoulders that I had so loved to rest my head on looked abjectly burdened.  The legs that had bounced me in the air when I sat on his ankles toiled stiffly across the white kitchen tiles.  And his eyes, which were now dully glazed and heavy, continued to stare at the unseen object that was always just inches in front of his feet.

     "Well, yes," he said in a barely audible voice and then cleared his throat.  "Yes, you do have a new mommy now."

     "Thatís right, Sharon," Jean said.  "And it would be best for everyone that you remember that.  We will not mention Ďreal mommiesí or that poor excuse named Liz in this household ever again.  Is that clear, young lady?"

     My head began to feel flushed and hot.  Even though Jean was only three feet from me, my senses slowly started to perceive her as yards away.  The entire room seemed to be moving away from me and growing smaller.  She said something else that I did not quite understand.  Her voice sounded as if it had traveled through a large metal tunnel, resounding until it was engulfed and muffled out by its own creation.  The tiles below me felt as if they were starting to slip away.  My eyes reached again for my father, my ears strained to hear the comfort of his voice annulling the blasphemy Jean had just spoken, but his only concern was the consent audit of his unseen object.

     "Iím waiting," Jean said impatiently.

     "Oh, uh, yes," I said, not certain what I was answering to.

     "Yes, what?"  Jean said.

     "Um, I, yes...," I stuttered.

     "Yes, maíam," she said.

     "Yes maíam," I said as I too discovered the fascinating unseen object, just inches in front of my own feet now.

     The thick and suffocating atmosphere was broken when Mitchell and Debbie ran back into the kitchen from the formal dining room.  Jean raised her hand high above her head as if in salute.  The children ran carelessly into her and tumbled to the floor at her feet, giggling as they did.

     My father began to slowly follow his object through the living room toward the back of the house were I assumed the bedrooms were.

     Jean grasped both small children by the shoulders of their clothing and pulled them to their feet.  Their eyes widened and their tiny mouths began to form little "oís" as they tried to wiggle free from their new mommy.

     "I will not repeat myself again," the new mommy said.  "You, all three of you, will obey me,  and you will respect me.  This is my home, and I have been kind enough to let you live here.  You will follow my rules, is that understood?"

     The yes and yes maíam parley repeated itself before we were sent to unpack our belongings.  Because the decision for us to change residences was made so quickly, Jean had not had time to furnish the bedroom the three of us would occupy.  Three canvas cots had been set up as temporary beds, and a bookshelf had been moved in to serve as a makeshift dresser.

     As I laid down that night with my doll Betsy, who I would never see again come morning, I told her that things would be all right.  The tears I shed, however, revealed that even I did not believe this.  The strange house I lay in emanated pulsing, ominous puffs of air from vents near the ceiling.  Jean had not allowed my "dirty quilt" on the cot without a proper washing, so I pulled up the thin sheet to prevent the drafts from saturating my already chilled body.  The musty smell of the cot and the steady sound of my siblingsí slumbering breath provided a small sense of comfort, but as I closed my eyes, I had the queer feeling that when I woke, the child that I was would somehow be gone.

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