PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Mutual Family Love Matters Most

Dec. 7, 2016, was my 25th anniversary.

Not of my marriage — that ended after 14 years. It’s the anniversary of when my family began.

Me with my late husband, Steve, and his children, Kaleb and Nicole.
Me with my late husband, Steve, and his children, Kaleb and Nicole.

When I met Steve, we had a whirlwind romance. After just over two months of dating, we decided to get married. I was 28 and had kissed enough frogs to know that this strong, sensitive and decent man was a keeper.

It was one of those things that just felt right — and even after seeing that marriage end in divorce and then, seven years after our divorce, holding his hand as he died of chronic alcoholism — it still feels right. Even with all of the pain, it is a decision I have never regretted.

But when it came to meeting his two children, Steve and I did everything wrong.

I knew from the outset that Steve had two children. Nicole at the time was a 10-year-old fifth-grader and Caleb, a kindergartner, turned 6 just about the time I first met them. But our courtship was so fast and the winter set in so early — it was the year of the Great Halloween Blizzard of ’91 — we hadn’t had a chance to go to Moorhead, where they lived with their mom, also named Paula, and stepdad, Toby.

So the very first time I met them was the day we told them we were getting married.

We picked them up and headed out to Chuck E. Cheese, where I still remember vividly we played skee ball. Then, after two hours, we headed off to the West Acres Mall, where I left Steve alone with the kids so he could tell him we were getting married. Wandering the mall, I don’t recall being nervous or concerned — I was love-sick after all.

After a half-hour, I returned and was greeted with hugs. They were excited to be the first to know (other than their mother, who Steve told before we left). We talked and walked around the mall some more, had dinner at the old Phil Wong’s in downtown Fargo, and then Steve and I headed back to Porter, the small town in southwestern Minnesota where I was a pastor, seven miles from Steve’s hometown of Canby.

If anyone had ever suggested this way of introducing yourself to your future stepchildren, I would ask “Are you insane?” I mean, who meets kids for the first time with that sort of announcement?

Even now, 25 years later, when I think back to our naïve stupidity, I shudder. Steve assured me I would love them and they would love me, and everything would work out wonderfully, and so we forged ahead with that firm, fairy tale belief.

The thing is, sometimes fairy tales do work out, and there is a happily ever after. There wasn’t for Steve and me. The demons of his addiction and its residual effect on everything that touched his life proved too much to sustain our relationship.

But there was a happy ending for the family we formed. In spite of everything Steve and I did wrong that very first day, after that, I think we did everything right. All of us. Steve with his willingness to let me be an active part of Nicole and Caleb’s life; Nicole and Caleb with their open embrace of me; Paula and Toby with their receptiveness to my presence; and me, with my acceptance of Steve’s kids as part of my family, not trying to be their mother, but still knowing I was their parent. It was indeed a group effort, and it worked.

In all honesty, in the 25 years Nicole and Caleb have been a part of my life, the three of us have never had an argument and rarely, if ever, even tense moments. Oh, there were a few child-raising issues along the way — but Steve handled those and I stayed out of the way. Mainly, there has been a lot of love, a lot of laughter and a lot of really good food along the way.

I have found it interesting over the years how our family relationship has confused people, although I have never really understood it. From the outset, sadly, a few members of my family refused to accept Nicole and Caleb as part of my family.

Following my divorce from Steve, many people sort of assumed my relationship with the kids would fade and more recently, I have been told that I don’t have any “real” grandchildren. The five children who call me — or will when they talk — Grandma Paula would be confused by that.

But none of us have ever let that bother us. I showed up at school conferences, concerts and sporting events, Nicole and Caleb were there at my last Sunday at the church I served for 20 years, gave me mother’s roses at their weddings, and we worked together to plan and organize their dad’s funeral. We gather for family meals, whenever our busy lives allow it, and wouldn’t miss “Prime Rib Wednesday,” our traditional day before Thanksgiving Family Feast.

Over the years I kept the promises I made to them when their dad and I were married — to accept them as my own, to love them, to support them and to never make them eat peas. (Yes, I actually said that.) And they kept their promises to me, as well — to receive me into their lives and include me and love me. Even when the promises Steve and I made to each other faded, the promises Nicole, Caleb and I remained intact.

Bottom line, they have been on every Christmas card (or whatever time I send a card — I’m a free spirit that way) I have sent over the past 25 years. Because for 25 years, we’ve been a family.

One of the great gifts of my life has been knowing that love is not a limited commodity nor is family. Nicole and Caleb taught me that. In spite of doing everything wrong at the beginning, they completely accepted me and welcomed me into their lives. And as our family grew, with their brothers, spouses and children, that love continued to grow expand too. Always willing to expand the welcome I first received to include everyone at the table.

Over the years, I have heard people use a lot of different words to describe our relationship — broken, blended, nontraditional, step and half. But for me, the words never really mattered. Because those words don’t define us. What defines us and what mattered, and what will always matter, is mutual love. And that is what makes a family.

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