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The Mothers Who Step In and Step Up

Posted on Sunday, May 7, 2023
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by David P. Deavel
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AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel

Stepmothers in the great fairy tales are often villains. Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel. None of them were beneficiaries of a positive stepmaternal instinct. There is no doubt that such stories are based in truths. Biologically, human beings have a tendency to favor their own offspring. Stepmothers, just like stepfathers, can see the children of somebody else as competitors to their own children or even the affections of the children’s father. They can be cruel.

Many, however, are not. This Sunday is Mother’s Day, and I will definitely be thinking of my mother, Karen Deavel. She died of cancer twenty years ago. Her loss was and still is very painful. But I will also think of my stepmother, Anne Swank Deavel. Like many stepmothers, she stepped into a family that was already there and hurting—a tough task. The furthest thing from a fairy tale villain, she was a kind and gentle woman who loved and cared for my dad in his last years, treated my brother and me as her own sons, loved our children as her own grandchildren.

When my mom died in July of 2003, it was my father’s second time as a widower. Almost thirty-three years before his first wife and two daughters (8 years old and eighteen months) were killed by a drunk driver who came over a hill behind them at 100 miles per hour and crashed into the family car. Apart from the drunk driver, who suffered minor injuries, my father was the lone survivor. He awoke in a hospital to discover that his family were dead and the funerals were over. The next year he had married my mother and had two sons.

When my mom died, it was very different. He had been retired for several years. My brother and I were both married and fathers ourselves. My mother’s death had followed a five-year-long battle with cancer. By the time it happened, my father had been grieving for some time.

But there were similarities in this second widower-hood. Though he always loved to eat, he had never learned to cook. As in the fall of 1970, his culinary options generally ran from the pack of hot dogs to the can of soup. Haute cuisine was ordering pizza from our hometown favorite, the Wooden Peel. His social life, without my mom, was a chore to keep up. As the Lord said of our ultimate great grandfather, Adam, it was not good for the man to be alone.

Of course my brother and I could see this. Because my parents’ plan before my mom’s cancer had taken a turn for the worse was to move from Bremen, Indiana, up to Minnesota where we both were living at the time, our reasoning was that Dad should just come up by himself and get an apartment close to one of us. He had other plans, however.

Before even his first marriage, my dad had served in the Korean War and then attended Moody Bible Institute on the G.I. Bill. While there he had dated Anne Swank, a nurse from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at Moody because she believed she had a call to foreign missions. They had talked of marriage, but my dad did not believe that God was calling him to the same thing. So, they broke it off.

Now, forty-five years later, my dad was thinking of Anne. Through Moody’s alumni organization, he got her address. She was in Lancaster now, though she had spent fifteen years as a nurse-midwife in Morocco and then nearly thirty years working in Philadelphia at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania before retiring to her own hometown.

My dad’s initial letter to her was apparently not too direct but conveyed its message well enough. He had written to her, telling of his life since 1958 and ending with my mother’s death. She responded that she was glad to hear from him but that if he had any ideas of marriage, he should forget them because she was, she wrote, “old and fat” and entirely uninterested.

Undeterred, my dad kept writing and then calling. Pretty soon he was traveling to Pennsylvania to see her. And then, he said, they were getting married. Knowing both my father’s history and his stubbornness, I didn’t entertain a lot of hope that he could be deterred from this decision. But I worried about this woman, Anne, whom I had not yet met. She had never been married and now she was going to marry my dad at age 69?  Did she have any clue what she was getting into?

I knew how lonely he was, and I did not think his marrying was a betrayal of Mom. I was a bit hurt, however, that he had chosen to get married on Valentine’s Day. His first date with Mom had been on Valentine’s Day. And the fact that he announced that he was moving to Lancaster was hard, too.

We flew out for the wedding, and we found Anne to be a delightful woman who only partially matched up to her own self-description. Old? Maybe her hair was gray but her heart was young. Fat? Perhaps she could have lost a few pounds. Who in America could not? She was a beautiful soul who had fallen in love late in life. Here was a bride who wanted to give of herself to her groom and her groom’s children. So she did.

As a retired nurse she enjoyed taking care of my father, with his multiple medications for heart problems, mental health, and who knows what else. She also provided Dad an opportunity to care for her. If he was getting close to deaf, she suffered from macular degeneration, a loss of central vision. They helped each other get along from day to day. When they visited us or we traveled to Pennsylvania to see them, I was pleased to see how well they got along.

Anne also enjoyed taking care of Dad’s social life and helping him communicate with his own children. She made sure there were birthday cards for the grandchildren and calls to his children. She herself loved to talk to the grandchildren on the phone. She loved to send them little gifts. And she loved to receive their drawings (though it took her magnifying glass to figure out what they were). But most of all, she loved to love them and pray for them.

It was and is hard for me to know that none of my children have any memories of my mom. But I am glad that many of them have memories of Nana Anne. It took a while for the older ones to understand that she was not my mother. To them she was fully their grandmother, who did what grandmothers do and was what a grandmother should be.

The pain I suffered at her death five years ago was not the same as that at my mother’s passing twenty years ago. She was not my mother. And unlike my mother, she lived into her eighties. She lived her three score and ten years with a baker’s dozen more.

The gratitude I bear for her, however, grows every year. There was no wickedness in this stepmother. There wasn’t even any distance. She loved us and we loved her, both for the love she showed to my father and the love she showed us. There was no biological imperative in it—we were not her flesh, after all. But we were in her heart all the same. She did not replace my mother, but what she did was exactly what my mother wanted for her children and grandchildren.

Not all women become biological mothers. But all have the possibility and the calling of becoming spiritual mothers—of nourishing and giving life to others. Stepmothers have that opportunity, but their calling is a tough one even in the best of situations. Anne stepped up to this task of love and made it seem easy. As we prepare to honor our mothers next week, we should count as great blessings the mothers, like Nana Anne, who step in and step up.  

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and serves as a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.

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June T
June T
1 year ago

What a beautiful tribute. Love comes to us in many ways. Cherish and reciprocate it.

Tears are shared with you.

Eva
Eva
1 year ago

Blessings on Them All! Those that gave and those that so graciously accepted! Amen.

Mari In SC
Mari In SC
1 year ago

That was so lovely and heartfelt. Thank you.

Brian Crawford
Brian Crawford
1 year ago

excellent

Ernie
Ernie
1 year ago

Mothers

Ernie
Ernie
1 year ago

Whether we realize it or not. All Mother’s are Special and Precious. My Mother always told us.You will never know how much Your Mother Loves You until You have Children of Your Own.A Parent is Always a Parent and Hopefully our Best Friend. If Your Mother is still with You, Regardless of the situation. Please tell Her how much You Love and Appreciate Her Often. GOD BLESS EVERY MOTHER.

Larry
Larry
1 year ago

Great story!

Diane
Diane
1 year ago

This is such a great story. I met my stepmom in very bad circumstances because my biological mother was not willing to care for her six daughters. My parents divorced and my dad was granted custody of us girls. He met the most loving generous woman and married her. A year later we gained another sister. Dixie never treated us as if we were not her own children and I was blessed to be taught how to be a good mom through her example. She passed away several years ago and is sorely missed. She will always be the woman I see as my mom.

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