LOS OSO, CALIF. — When Marvin, a British expatriate and widower announced to his five children, ages 10 to 20, that he and I would marry, they accepted the news politely, the youngest paying me something of a compliment by saying, "I hope the food will be better." Marvin had been doing weekly shopping and the children cooperated in "putting the potatoes on to boil."
Joining this family was an adventure for me, the mother of three grown children, but I loved Marvin and was convinced that our partnership could survive all storms. The three boys and two girls were bright and respectful. They did their homework and assigned chores with little prompting.
Very shortly I recognized that it would be easier for me to adapt to British mores than to try to California-ize my new family. Economy, however, was important. In taking over shopping and meal preparation, I dared to present a few meals that did not include potatoes. I introduced them to a parade of "mishmash" main dishes that soon had me dubbed the "casserole queen."
The eldest boy, George, in college, had remained at home "to help dad with the kids," he explained. An incessant reader, and fond of bananas, he never remembered to carry the skins to the trash basket. I'd find them hanging over chair arms and backs, lying atop magazines and newspapers. Once I plucked one from a doorknob. Reminders always brought apologies, but the habit wasn't broken until I began carrying the banana peels to his room where I arranged them, as artistically as possible, on his bed pillow.
The "wicked" stepmother's solution to this problem was a source of much laughter and a relief to his sister who had consistently harangued him for "banana peel pollution."
Harder to deal with was 14-year-old James's insistence on dining bare-chested. It wasn't that meals were formal occasions, but the dinner table was a happy gathering place for sharing and, however innocent, the bare chest of James was out of sync with the general decor. Marvin repeatedly sent the boy from the table to put on a shirt.
One evening his patience exhausted, Marvin mumbled to me that he'd "had enough." He was about to snatch James by the scruff of the neck to enforce compliance with the shirt ordinance. I put my hand on his arm and shook my head. He settled back, astonished that I would counter him.
I was wearing a button-front blouse and began to undo it. All eyes fastened on me. Four buttons down, my bra was revealed. I turned to Marvin. "Help me off with this please." I knew by the sparkle in his eye that he saw my ploy. As my bare shoulder came into view, James bolted from the table. He returned wearing a T-shirt, and his torso was covered at dinner time from then on.
The children and I have grown in love and friendship through the years and the dinner-table striptease remains their favorite "wicked" stepmother story.
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