“Me and Mommy are marrying Tom,” announced my 4-year-old daughter to everyone she met. And then she invited each one to our wedding.
Statistics show in the United States about 50% of married couples divorce. That means a lot of stepparents enter the picture. Unfortunately, divorce is not the only cause of broken homes, which leaves an array of titles for fathers who have stepped in to mend the breach. Besides stepdads, there are foster dads, adoptive dads, and mentors who are like a dad.
June has been the month to recognize fathers ever since the first Father’s Day was celebrated on June 19, 1910 in Washington State. A woman from Spokane named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, tried to establish an official equivalent to Mother’s Day for male parents. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers, and government officials to drum up support for her idea. She was successful, and we have been honoring fathers on the third Sunday of June ever since. But today, I want to celebrate men who are sometimes overlooked or taken for granted — stepdads.
The classic movie Cinderella cast stepparents in a bad light, as have horrific news stories of abuse and neglect. There is, however, another narrative often left untold. It chronicles the positive influence a stepdad’s love and support imparts to a child. Since I was an eyewitness to just such a story for 25 years, I will now share it with you.
Christy was 20 months old when her father and I divorced. She expressed through tears the pain she couldn’t comprehend. She cried when her father picked her up for visitation because I didn’t go with them, and she cried when he brought her home because he didn’t stay. Her little heart was breaking. Then we met Tom.
Christy was as anxious for Tom to come over as I was, but then he did court us both. In fact, he’d hold Christy on his lap and read her a story before turning his attention to me. Our date night at the drive-in movie found three of us sleeping in the car, Tom and I in the front seat and Christy in the back. Times when I couldn’t depend on my ex-husband to pick Christy up from daycare, Tom was there. He’d watch her until I got off work. We loved Tom and decided to become a family. Mom made my wedding dress and a matching one for Christy.
By then Christy had fully realized the aftermath of divorce, which evidently weighed heavily on her mind because out of the blue one day she told me, “If you ever leave Tom, I’m going with him and get an apartment.” Pretty heavy stuff for a preschooler. I quickly reassured her that I was crazy about Tom and would never leave him. Those two had a special bond. Christy even asked me if I was sure Tom was not her real daddy.
From the start Tom was Christy’s confident. She’d tell him secrets and make him promise not to tell me, which he never did. Once, she broke one of my Precious Moments figurines and by the time I noticed it missing they had already ordered a replacement.
Tom was a fun dad. He made up “Pink Puppy” stories about Christy’s stuffed animal, amused her with a candle trick, and quoted silly Confucius sayings. They played together in the snow and Tom always pulled her sled back up the hill. When I worked the 7 a.m. shift at a factory, he got Christy ready for school and made it fun by playing “shoe man.”
When Christy won a gigantic pumpkin in a Halloween coloring contest, Tom managed to haul it home in his truck and display it in the front yard. Tom was a morning person and could be annoying for slow movers like Christy and me. He’d start the day off singing the “Dixie Stampede” theme song just to get it stuck in our heads.
Tom donned his suit to drop Christy off at her 8th grade prom. When she was a senior in high school participating in multiple state business competitions within the same week, he drove to Nashville to shuttle her between venues. Then when she was ready to move out on her own, he taught her car maintenance and how to unclog a sink.
“Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.” — Anne Geddes
Father and daughter they were for sure, although not related by blood. It worried Tom to think that he would have no legal claim on Christy if something should happen to me.
So, was Tom Christy’s “real” daddy? You betcha!
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads. We honor you!
Cathy Ownby Wilhelm has lived in Sevier County all of her life and grew up in Pigeon Forge in the 1960s. Her stories are a collage of memories and ponderings of her life experiences and musings.