Joe, approx. 1988
When I was a very little girl, when I used to play house, I never pretended to fall in love with a man who already had children of his own. The only step-mother I ever heard of was Cinderella’s, who forced her poor step-daughter to work while her own spoiled daughters stunk up the house with their attitude. Luckily for Cinderella, her handsome prince came and rescued her away to live happily ever after.
My prince, when I finally met him, came with two boys that he shared custody of. David, 6, and Joseph, 4. I was a new mother of Vincent, barely over a year old.
David and Joe’s mother was Cathy, and she and Mario had been divorced for a year when I came into the picture, as one of Mario’s employees. When I met him, I had sized him up in no time as a jerk and a hardass. He followed the letter of the law and never made any exceptions. I saw him soften, however, when he was around his boys.
Something in him showed me the same thing I felt about my own son. We would do anything for these….
Sometimes he would come in on his days off, dressed in civilian clothes and picking up his mail. David and Joe would come by my desk and greet me, waiting for me to come up with a fun activity for them. I thought they were the cutest, most agreeable kids I had ever met, and they hung around me, I guess because they could tell how I felt about them.
David, Joe and Me - 1986
David and Joe were only a year and a half apart, but were nearly polar opposites. David was a tanned, brown haired confident first-born, leading the way wherever they went. He resembled Mario, even as a boy. Joe had blonde hair, blue eyes and seemed dreamier, prone to be a deep thinker, who unintentionally followed David and then resented him for it.
“You’re not the boss of me, David!” he would say when he was frustrated with David bossing him around. As soon as he cooled off, things went back to David directing again. By his physical appearance and playful personality, I thought “This one must be all mom”.
“Dad, can Janet come over for dinner?” they would ask as Mario would get ready to leave.
“No,” he’d reply, distracted by picking up his mail. “She has to work.”
“Can she come over after work?” David would ask.
“No,” he would say, this time smiling. “Janet has her own baby at home.”
I didn’t want to say, but I was sure Mario’s other girlfriends would object to me coming over for dinner. He didn’t seem to be very set on one more than the other, and I was sure I couldn’t ever get involved with him.
As I got to know him better, though, I admired him and loved him. In a perfect world, I thought, Mario would realize that I was the perfect woman for him, we would combine our children and we would have a family that would live happily ever after.
Sometimes the world is perfect.
When Mario eventually hugged me, there was an electrical storm that ran through me, and he backed away, as if I had caused the same reaction through him. The hug changed everything and we began to date.
We all know that even in our fantasy worlds, we realize that the world is not perfect.
Blended families have all kinds of challenges, and ours was no different. Mario took a large part of the responsibility for the marriage not working, and credited Cathy with being an exceptional mother. They both were determined to make the boys’ life as normal as possible …even after Cathy moved from California to Missouri. When you share custody with an ex-spouse, no matter how sainted of a woman she is, your heart feels lonely for them constantly, and you feel incomplete until you are together.
With Vince with us full-time and David and Joe with us half-time, we tried to find an acceptable happiness in our reality. We saw a family therapist regularly and eventually decided to say “I do”.
Our wedding was perfect, and David and Joe were in it as ring bearers. We took our families and dove into the world of combining our lives.
Mario holding Joe at Disneyland after he passed out!
“I have to tell you something,” Joe told me one evening. His blue eyes were steady and serious, and I feared that the news he was about to deliver was not good.
“What is it, honey?”
“Do you remember that you told me to tell you if I wanted to make this place more like my home?” he said.
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well…” he sighed, putting his hands on the edge of my chair. “I need flossil”
“Flossil?” I asked, then smiled. “Do you mean dental floss?”
Joe smiled and nodded. I went into our bathroom and uncovered a roll of floss and came out with it. As soon as he saw it, he smiled. “That’s it.”
And then he took the floss from me and walked away. The memory is so solid in my mind because I was able to do something right. My step-son was able to ask for something from me and I was able to deliver it. It’s not all that easy.
When he was with us, our tender hearted Joe missed his mom, especially right after she called. I felt almost rejected as his “other mom” because there was no way I could comfort that pain. Soon, I learned how to talk to him.
“Do you ever wish that your mom and dad would re-marry?” I foolishly asked him one day. He looked into my eyes, and shrugged.
“That’s okay,” I said, lying.
“I like you,” he said. “But I love my mom and dad.” My heart broke into several thousand pieces, and I smiled anyway.
“It’s okay honey,” I said, and I wondered how to make the whole thing better for both of us. “I want you to be able to talk to me about this.”
“No thanks,” he said. “I don’t like talking about this.” Even as a young boy, he was in touch with his heart.
In real life, Joe was a jokester and a clown. He loved making funny faces in family pictures we paid a fortune for, and was always making me laugh with some strange stunt. Once during lunch, he showed me the classic boy trick, making fart noises under your arm with your hand. He even went one better, making fart noises under his knee. It was too much…and I ran off to the bathroom, where I lost my lunch from laughing too hard.
Cathy soon had a new boyfriend, Ted (not his real name) who insisted that the boys call him “sir”. Mario took instant offense to this, and said so. The disagreement shook Joe up, and he didn’t know how to answer us when we asked if this bothered him.
“Well, it’s good manners,” he said, sounding more like Ted than Joe.
Once, we went to pick the boys up at the airport and found them not there. Ted had decided not to put them on the plane. It shocked us, and was another reason for us to dislike him. Little things and big things piled up, and soon we decided to file for custody.
The papers served on Cathy shook her to the core, and she called us one day, in tears, asking what was going on. It began a strange and terrible season where we all pretended to like each other, and really, we were in an intense battle for the kids.
When we did have David and Joe, they seemed to enjoy themselves and our family. They even took delight in Vince and Alicia. Joe learned how to swim one summer when we had him. We shared holidays and vacations, and the kids grew together. In the winter, they tobogganed together in the snow; in the summer, we visited vacation spots together
I think David and Joe felt the friction of the custody battle because they lived in both homes. Soon, Mario realized a great and terrible truth: we would resolve the whole situation without court and lawyers, giving up a lot of our “rights” in exchange for family peace and long-term happiness.
It was a miraculous move when the whole thing was laid down, and we all started getting along together. Still, as teens, David and Joe decided not to come and visit as often as they were. We missed them, but trusted that their decision would be redeemed one day, when they would decide to have relationship with us.
By the time Joe graduated from High school, Ted was out of the picture and things were much more relaxed. Both David and Joe were so free to express love and allegiance to their dad that things were much more relaxed. Joe decided to come back home to California with us after we celebrated his graduation.
Vince and David always joked with him, calling him the “hot” brother and I have to admit that he bore a striking resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio at the time of the Titanic release. We once stayed in a hotel, where every girl in a mile radius came to watch him swim, and did everything in their power to get his attention. It was pathetic.
As Joe grew, I realized that he was, more than any of the other kids, the most like his father. They both were slow to speak and were well-known for being tough as nails on the outside, but a teddy-bear on the inside. He was full of love and compassion and cared deeply for his friends and family.
Once, when I called him on his birthday, I broke down into tears, telling him that it was my priveledge to be part of his life and that I had so much love for him.
“You have been a real son to me, and I thank you for that. You are amazing and wonderful and I love you.”
“Thanks, Janet.” He answered, that day on the phone. “I love you, too.”
He is so easy to love, and I am happy to have had a share in raising him.