Father’s Day Weekend: Stepfather Edition

I’ve decided to devote this weekend’s three Montaigne Project posts to reflections on fatherhood. Tomorrow I’ll focus on my own experiences as a father and Sunday I’ll try to take that huge, baffling story of relationship with my dad. But today, I thought it would be worthwhile to write about someone who I rarely write or talk about, my stepfather Frank.

My parents began the process of breaking apart when I was 10, and Frank was a fixture in my life from then until he died in 2003. He was my mother’s boss at a truck stop he owned in New Jersey. Around the time that my parents separated, Frank bought another truck stop in Catoosa, Oklahoma, right outside of Tulsa. That truck stop, by the way, was destroyed in a tornado several years after he sold it in the late 1980s. A Native American casino sits on the property now.

It’s hard for me to emotionally separate my stepfather from the experience of being uprooted from New Jersey, where my father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, 35 cousins and all my friends lived, and suddenly find myself in a strange new place where it was blistering hot every summer day and tornado watches were a near daily occurrence. I had no relationship with him before this dramatic move, and suddenly we were in this new place with this new person.

I was soon also in a new school. People often assume that the experience of moving from New Jersey to Oklahoma meant going from urban to rural, but it was actually a move from urban to suburban. I liked to call Tulsa a big suburb of nothing. There wasn’t anything like a traditional urban core, but the suburb like neighborhoods spread far and wide. When we first moved to Tulsa, we ended up in the Union School District, an odd carve out in south Tulsa that wasn’t part of the Tulsa Public Schools. Instead of being in a tiny elementary school like mine in New Jersey — with just 23 students in my grade, all in one room — I had to adjust to changing rooms for every class and having more than 200 kids in my grade.

The adjustment was tough, I had no friends and Frank was a remote Chairman of the Board figure in the house. And then suddenly in early November 1976, we picked up and went back to New Jersey, little over two months into the school year. My dad actually helped us drive back to New Jersey, leading us to believe that my parents were reconciling. I think he believed it as well.

But what was actually happening — without our knowledge— is that my mother needed to get her ducks in order for her divorce to be finalized and she had to return to New Jersey to do it. So, my sister, brother and I played out this charade over eight months or so where we thought our parents were back together and we were home in New Jersey for good, only to find out after school was over that their marriage was in fact over and we were moving back to Oklahoma.

And this would set up the defining moment in my relationship with my soon to be stepfather. But before I go there, I need to point out that my feelings on this matter aren’t entirely fair. Frank was very good to my mom and my brother, who has special needs, over many years. He was also very financially generous to me. He paid for much of my education, bought me cars (he was obsessive about cars and had a long string of really fancy luxury and sports cars in the garage) and was never abusive or harsh towards me. Later in life, I came to enjoy spending time with him one to one. So if some of this comes off as the carried-too-long adolescent gripes of a spoiled brat, I own that assessment and admit that a more balanced personal view of him is overdue.

But back to that moment. We’re at home in Asbury, New Jersey in June 1977. School ended a week ago and my father, who did not live with us but saw us often, was coming that day for a visit. My mother sits us down and tells us that we will be moving back to Tulsa in three days and, when my father comes over later that day, we can’t tell him about it. Looking back, I have no idea why I complied with this obviously irrational request from my mom. Maybe having lived through 300 fights between them over the years, I wanted to avoid seeing and hearing one more.

So my dad came over and I had to pretend like it was just a normal visit and the plans he was talking about for the summer would eventually come to pass. I felt like an utterly deflated, defeated person incapable of expressing anything — I feeling that I never felt again until a day in March this year. And when he finally left, I completely fell apart and lashed out at my mom in sorrow, saying I refused to go back to Oklahoma, that I hated it there, and I should be allowed to stay and live with my dad.

My mom didn’t know what to do. She called Frank hoping to get some kind of answer. She was in a worse emotional state than me at this point, and after a few minutes, she hands the phone to me and says Frank wants to tell me something. I get on the phone and I never say a word, I just hear him tell me “you need to be strong for your mother.” He may have added some other words, I don’t know, but they’ve been long forgotten. But those words spoken to the 11 year old me have stuck for life.

It took me years to figure out that the line he used — which I now see as having the effect of a curse — had a double meaning. The obvious one was, you can’t fall apart. You’re a man (albeit and 11 year old one at that time) and you have to endure it because men do that while women fall apart. But later I came to realize that he was also making a statement about himself. Frank was saying, I’m not emotionally equipped to handle your mother. That’s officially your job. And in a lot of different contexts over many years, I did take on that role and carried the trait into adulthood and into other relationships.

In a way, I’m grateful for that, because I can sit with difficult emotions from other people and not ask for an 11 year old to take over for me. I’ve had to learn how to give my feelings weight and validity in those moments over many years, but may still have work to do in that regard. In some ways I’m still not letting myself place equal importance on my own emotional needs, I see my role as soothing whatever situation I have in front of me.

In that moment, Frank revealed who he was to me. And I accepted the good and bad of it all. The events of 1976-1977 weren’t exactly fun, but I can now view it as an overdue period of change that I eventually adjusted to and grew from — I wouldn’t be the person I am without having gone through it. And I wouldn’t be the man I am now without Frank.

But before I end this story, I want to add a later, better memory. One of my first jobs in Washington was working for a high tech think tank. Along the way, I acquired a decent knowledge of new technologies and some of the first wave dot com companies. By the late 90s, I was working in politics, but Frank remembered my work in tech and reached out to me for investment advice after he sold one of his businesses.

I pulled together a list of 10 stocks taken mostly from a monthly feature run in Wired on tech investment opportunities. Frank ran it by his broker, who was skeptical of it all, but Frank ended up investing in a few, including Adobe, and made a nice return. But he never let me forget about the tip from me he chose to ignore. The number one stock on my list was Amazon. And for the handful of years left in life, he’d tell anyone who’d listen that I recommended the stock and if only he’d listened. I’m glad I have that memory and the bit of pride attached to it.

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