My Turn: Making Room for Dad's New Girlfriend

When I read in the newspaper that the majority of widowers remarry within three years of their wives' deaths, I panicked. Surely the statistic wouldn't include my dad. He fell in love with my stylish, graceful mom, Linda, in college and cherished her until she died of cancer just before their 25th wedding anniversary.

More than three years have now passed. My dad did defy the statistic—he isn't remarried, but he has resumed dating after a quarter-century break. His mom called me to give me a report after meeting his new girlfriend. "We-ell, she's no Linda," she offered. Then, at Thanksgiving, I got the chance to judge for myself.

It turned out Pam and I already knew each other. She was the mother of two acquaintances of mine from high school, and I remembered her as seeming nice enough during orchestra rehearsals and class field trips. But now, meeting her as Dad's new girlfriend, I turned my full attention on her with an exacting eye.

Comparing people with my mom is easy and unfair—I know, because I'm often the victim of such comparisons, at least in my own mind. Terror of these contrasts drove me into a cleaning and cooking frenzy in preparation for the family Thanksgiving celebration at our house. I beat myself up over forgetting to dry-clean my mom's embroidered table runner and placemat set after the last family get-together. Hoping to hide the traces of leftover food, I flipped and reflipped each place mat numerous times. I tried to replicate my mom's famed cranberry bread, which calls for so much zested orange peel that I always end up zesting my knuckles in the process. My bread was passable, but noticeably inferior.

Even though I sympathized with Pam's plight as a newcomer, I became territorial and judgmental in her presence. I had thoughts so obviously ridiculous that my brain wouldn't permit them to pass without producing concurrent thoughts about how absurd and unfair it was for me to be thinking such things. And of someone my dad cared about, whom I hardly knew.

Still, I found myself tallying all the ways Pam didn't measure up against my mom. I judged her for ordering in a prepared turkey for her family's Thanksgiving. I judged her for referring to Strom Thurmond as "that Stom person" and not being able to quite remember who he or other prominent political figures were. I judged her for her taste in clothing and decorating—heavy on white, pastels, floral patterns and lace.

During a family expedition to find the perfect Christmas tree, I mentally criticized Pam for the elevator-friendly Christmas music she brought along. My mom adored both Christmas and singing; she used to blare classic carols through our house from Thanksgiving until well after New Year's, belting them out with more enthusiasm than skill in red and green outfits that only she could pull off. We drove to the tree farm in uncharacteristic silence.

One evening during Thanksgiving break, Pam cuddled with my dad on the beige leather couch I had helped my mom pick out. A matted Japanese print overhead served as a souvenir of both her trips and her life. I walked in and offered Pam and my dad a piece of the freshly baked cranberry bread. Like it or not, Pam was going to be a part of our lives.

My dad sat between Pam and me during our church service last weekend in our family's usual balcony pew. When the congregation stood for "Here I Am, Lord," my dad bolted from the sanctuary, returning only after the last verse had concluded. This was my mom's favorite hymn, a rousing anthem we sang at her memorial service. None of us could sing it without hearing Mom's voice echoing forcefully over our shoulders. Pam and I stood next to each other, without my dad as a buffer, and sang the hymn together. I belted it out in honor of my mother with exaggerated zeal. "I the Lord of snow and rain/I have borne my people's pain/I have wept for love of them/they turn away." It is impossible to cry while singing loudly. Over brunch, my dad offered me a needless explanation for his flight: "It was getting crowded in the pew with you, Mom and Pam all there," he said.

I am not evolved enough to be able to say that I rejoice every time Pam enters the room. She still annoys me occasionally, but she's beginning to grow on me. My dad is happier than he has been since my mom died, and I am really, truly happy for them. I know it's time for all of us to start building lives for ourselves that don't revolve entirely around Mom.

It's enough for me to know that she'll still show up every once in a while, comforting us and pushing us forward in her full alto voice.