My adult sons would disagree with me on many points but I think the one issue they wouldn’t dispute is that the best thing that ever happened to the three of us was my second husband, Olof. This is not to discredit their dad who has been a hugely active and loving participant in their lives (and with whom Olof has miraculously managed not to compete). As for Mom, parenthood fortunately seems to be dissipating the kids’ litany of complaints regarding my performance. (For their complete list, email me specifying alphabetical or chronological.) In my defense, I was a single working parent for twelve years from the time they were three and five. Let me tell you: it’s a tough gig.
This might suggest that the stepparents were pushovers. Not so. In fact, neither of them tolerated any grief from the kids and yet were adored. It was a lesson that Mom and Dad, too busy competing with each other for children’s time and affection during those years, should have learned from.
Olof (who commuted down from the Bay area for eight years before we married when the when the kids were in high school) would step off the plane on Friday nights carrying a single red rose for me. On the way home one night, eight-year-old Henri’s voice piped up from the back seat. “Mom, why does Olof only bring you one rose? Why doesn’t he bring you a whole bunch?” I turned to Henri and said, “Because sometimes less is more.” Years later, at sixteen, when Henri first had a girlfriend, I happened to talk to her mother who said, “You have raised the most romantic young man! Every time he comes to pick up my daughter, he brings her a single red rose.” “Wow!” I said. “What a great idea!”
Olof always managed to cut to the core of any issue with the kids. I remember him clarifying the definition of manners to them as grade schoolers by explaining that “anything you do that feels natural is unmannerly.” This they could understand.
He introduced a lexicon of Air Force and engineering jargon to the household, from “Tango Uniform” (it’s seriously broken), Z.B. (zero balance, meaning we were out of something), and the acquisition of new skills in terms of “capability.” (One became “times table-capable,” “laundry-capable,” “left turn-capable” etc.) Every time we pulled into the driveway, Olof lead a chorus of “Cheated death again!”
When the kids were in college, Olof explained that our investment in their education meant that they needed to be prepared to support themselves when they were done, even if it meant double shifts flipping burgers. (Having spent college summers cleaning toilets at the US Steel plant in Pittsburg, CA (union wages) and roofing in the East Bay’s brutal 100-degree heat, Olof was fairly impervious to complaints about labor.) But as always, he gave financial emancipation a positive spin: “Gentlemen,” he said (he always referred to them as gentlemen even when they were ten), “pay your own way and you’re free! You’re out from under our thumbs forever!” It was a concept greatly appealing to young men of their ages. Neither of them has ever asked for a dime since the day they graduated. Both now support families.
Mom and Dad were hardly crooks but Olof is truly the most honest and ethical man I have ever known. Not a religious man, he just always does what he feels in his heart to be right, down to obeying traffic laws (annoyingly, he’s never had a single citation), pointing out errors in our favor on restaurant checks, and not so much as taking a pencil from the office. (After I had to go to traffic school for a rolling stop, he affectionately referred to me as “the felon.”) When Henri applied to MBA programs, he answered an essay question about how he’d handle ethical situations in his future business life by citing the incomparable benefit of Olof as a role model.
In an era when stepparents get such bad press, I think it’s important to call out one who for twenty-five years has been revered by the stepees. Olof, of course, would demur, insisting he simply treats them with respect (and love) and is treated with respect (and love) back. What I still can’t figure out is how he makes it look so easy.