I called Aunty Ev my second Mum. She understood that we had been through trauma. She didn't dwell on it, but gave us positive feedback and support. She was like a cross between a mother, a sister and a pal to me. I could talk to her about clothes and boys, books and movies, moral values and politics, and the way our stepmother had treated us.
She didn’t say about that last – as the girls at school had, the only time I tried to tell them – ‘You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?’ She accepted my word, listened with understanding, and took my side.
She had opinions and firm values, and expressed them. They didn't always agree with mine, but she wasn't attached to being right. She could allow for different points of view without surrendering her principles. She didn’t tell me how to be, but she did give me advice if I asked. She presented me with options. I found it amazing.
It wasn't surprising that my school friends didn't believe me. My experiences with the Wicked Stepmother were bizarre.
Dad married her not so much on the rebound as to get away from a small place where everyone knew that my mother had fallen in love with someone else, and almost certainly knew that she had good reason after many years of serial infidelities on my father's part.
It was the old, 'But they didn't mean anything!' – to which I now wonder, ‘Then why do it?’ But he is not here any more to answer that.
Many years later, Mum said to me, 'If only he hadn't always felt obliged to confess!' Back in those days it wasn't widely understood that confession (followed by some form of forgiveness, absolution or self-punishment) is a way of giving oneself permission to sin again.
It was different when she finally turned the tables and it did mean something. (Not one for light affairs, it had to mean a lot or she would never have done it, even with all the excuses she had.) Ironically, Dad gave her an ultimatum: give up the other man, or it's divorce. Like her daughter decades in the future (facing a husband who said, in effect, 'Do as I want or it's over') she threw his ultimatum back in his teeth.
Her lover's history was much the same: a wife who embarrassed him with her notorious affairs for many years while he tried to keep things together for the sake of the children, and then – by the time his children were grown up and married themselves – falling in love with Mum and finally straying in his turn.
Then, for the divorce laws of the time, these two had to be the guilty parties, caught in the act. It was a big scandal, written up in Truth, the local gutter press of the day. Then there was a quick divorce. (Well, two divorces.)
After which – Mum told me many years later, when she confided the whole saga – Dad said privately to her, and her lover's ex-wife said separately to him, 'Don't rush to get married. You can do better.'
'I don't know what they thought we went through all that for, if not to marry each other!' she said.
My Dad demanded custody of my brother and me during school term, and my mother didn't fight it. Whatever his faults as a husband (and really there weren't that many, except for the big one) he had always been a great, and adored, father.
Visiting his family interstate to break the news of the impending divorce, he met a rich widow. She was holidaying with her daughter, who was eighteen months older than me. They got chatting on a train journey, and spent time together at their destination. (I found out the details later from the girl who became my stepsister.)
When he returned home to Tasmania, they followed, putting up in a hotel for appearances' sake. My father and the widow arranged outings that included her daughter, Merrie, and me. They expressed the hope that we would become great friends. And in fact, innocent of any agenda (Australian teenagers were a lot more naive in the fifties) we did get on well.
He then proceeded to introduce Merrie's mother to all his friends. The cover story was that she and her daughter were on holiday, and Merrie and Rosemary had chummed up. His friends weren't fooled. Polite for his sake (he was well-loved) and with initial goodwill, they didn't really take to this woman. One who had regular business in the hotel where she stayed remarked years later that he used to see her waiting for Dad in the foyer, 'like a big Black Widow spider'.
Also, she seemed to expect that Dad's old friends would side with him against Mum instead of still counting her as a friend and being 'civilised' about the whole thing. She held it against them forever after. Well, perhaps she had heard a one-sided view of events. Come to think of it, he very likely didn't confide in his intended that he had been a serial philanderer! However, her adversarial attitude didn't endear her to anyone.
My Mum was a pretty woman and a good conversationalist, with nice manners. She had humour and sweetness. People were fond of her too. She and Dad had been a popular couple. The Wicked Stepmother (not yet in that role) was probably slightly older than him, stout of stomach, with a finely wrinkled face, and she reeked of heavy perfume. As far as one could gather, she didn't even seem to share Dad's values or political leanings. Everyone thought he was marrying her for her money, and I still think so.
But that was only part of the story. He couldn't stand the loss of face at his wife having left him for another man. And, to be fair, despite all the infidelities he did actually love my mother. She was truly the love of his life. Only I believe he was one of those men who had women separated into sexy bad girls to have a good time with, and the good girls to marry and have kids with. At any rate, he couldn't bear to stay in a small town on a small island, where everyone knew what had happened and where he could not avoid seeing Mum with her new husband – where, in fact, they would have continued to move in the same circles because the town wasn't big enough for it to be otherwise. He resigned his job and prepared to leave.
Though it wasn't what Mum had expected, and she didn't warm to her replacement at their one meeting, she put a good face on it.
'We'll have you for the holidays,' she said.
My brother knew nothing of all this, except that Mum and Dad had separated. When Dad went interstate to tell his mother and siblings, he took my brother with him and, as it was the long school holidays, left him with a sister and her family on a farm, 'to get to know his cousins'.
Eventually Merrie and her mother went back home. Dad followed with me, making a detour to the farm to leave me there with my brother for a week or so. That bit was good; we had fun with our cousins. Then he arranged for us to take a train to our new home.
He asked me not to tell my brother about our mother's remarriage. He would explain it later, he said. What he did explain, when he picked us up after our train journey, was that he himself had just got married. It was a shock to me, and devastating for my 11-year-old brother, who had had no idea and got the whole lot landed on him at once.
We had grown up in a temperate climate, in a hilly, tree-lined town on an island with mountains, lakes, rushing rivers, forests, and of course the sea. We arrived to a flat inland region of low scrub and one large, sluggish river. It was a place of harsh, dry heat. The countryside was so parched that many irrigation channels had been made to water the grapes and oranges which were the major crops and livelihood. There was not a hill in sight, let alone a mountain. Except along the river bank, trees were also in short supply.
We had been part of a neighbourhood and community where we and our family had a place, where our parents’ adult friends treated us warmly, and we went to school with their children. We had an extended family of my mother’s relatives whom we saw often. In our new home we didn't even have my father’s relatives, whom we at least knew of. During our childhood my Dad’s brothers and sisters and of course his mother, my Grandma, kept in touch with Dad and Mum often via letters and photos. Some cousins, and some aunts and uncles, we met in person when they visited us in Tasmania. Grandma visited a number of times. But they all lived in and around Melbourne, in the south of the State of Victoria. Stepmother had a home and thriving business (a general store) in a very different kind of place, a tiny village outside the town of Mildura in the north of the State.
My stepmother's way of life and house rules were different from what we were used to. Things were much more formal in some ways. But it was the country, not the suburbs, and life was in other ways more rough and ready than we were used to. We didn't have the practical self-reliance of country kids.
We were presented with a 19-year-old step-brother who clearly resented both us and our father. He was barely polite at the dinner table and not at all anywhere else. He mostly ignored my brother and me as if beneath contempt. He had left school and was working in the family business, which had been his father’s. His mother was keeping it going until he could step in and take over. (It occurs to me now, so very belatedly, that this was admirable on her part, and quite something for a woman unexpectedly widowed to take on.)
Merrie and I were glad to see each other. We had some whispered discussions about the surprising fact of our parents' marriage, working out with hindsight that it must have been planned soon after they first met. We didn't at that stage realise the Stepmother had an agenda too. She wasn't likely to find a new husband in a community where she was well-known and not much liked.
Her late husband had been very well liked – had grown up there, taken over in his turn the family business started by his grandfather, and was admired as a local sportsman in his youth. She was the daughter of a wealthy grazier (Australian landed gentry) far south, and they fell in love when she arrived as a new teacher at the tiny local school. She was attractive when young (I saw the photos) and must have seemed a glamorous, even exotic stranger. He was handsome and well-to-do, and I gather quite a dynamic personality. Apparently it was a passionate, devoted match. But then he had a heart attack, or stroke or something (I’m hazy on the details) and died suddenly, much too young.
The fact that she was a snob probably wasn't enough to cause her to be disliked, as she was mingling with the local upper crust anyway; but I overheard gossip from people who had no idea that the schoolgirl within earshot was connected to her – she was considered vain and conceited by many. I expect there was resentment, too, that he had married a newcomer instead of one of the local girls. And then, after being widowed, she took to drink. I have some sympathy for that, but what it turned her into wasn't nice.
We, her new family, took a little while to realise that the heavy perfume was to cover up the smell of alcohol. She held it well most of the time, but when she was drunk by the end of the day she would become irrationally angry and make strange, unfair accusations. My brother and I would try to be polite, and as inoffensive as possible, while she subjected us to long tirades. She would impose penalties such as extra chores for things we had not actually done. There was no reasoning with her.
At first we tried to talk to our Dad. His response wounded us deeply: ‘I’ve had one broken marriage and I won't have you kids wrecking another!’
(Years later, my psychiatrist, hearing this, exclaimed, "Why didn’t he say to her, 'Leave my bloody kids alone!'?" [Yes, this experience was a huge factor in a full-scale nervous breakdown that happened when I was in my twenties. I’ll get to that.] I didn't have an answer then, but I have one now: my father was a weak man.)
She soon realised my father had not married her for love but was in truth still pining for my Mum. Her jealousy, taken out on my brother and me, was fierce. I've said that what drink turned her into wasn't nice – but in truth she wasn't very nice in the first place.
In some ways her behaviour was quite funny, even to us then, intimidated as we were (we wouldn’t have dared laugh openly). She had a way of playing favourites, being charming to most of the family alongside addressing foul remarks in a hideous tone of voice to whoever was out of favour at the time. I still remember one day when everyone was in her bad books, and she turned to her crabby old orange cat, saying in her sweetest voice, ‘Oh, you’re such a beautiful lad, Fritz!’ Funny as in pathetic, ridiculous, obvious and silly!
It wasn’t funny at all when my little brother, traumatised, started wetting the bed, and rather than receiving any understanding was treated as ‘naughty’, required to cart his heavy sheets to an outdoor laundry trough and wash them by hand in cold water, even in the middle of winter.
It wasn’t funny one night when she gave us a dinner with small pieces of broken glass in it. No, we didn't eat it; it wasn't ground too fine to detect, and we weren’t stupid. Neither did we complain. As I said, we were not stupid. We disposed of it quietly and went hungry. I expect we snuck into the kitchen later and got ourselves a piece of fresh fruit, hoping she wasn’t counting what was in the fruit bowl.
It wasn't funny when some of my best books went missing, and some days later my stepmother led me to where they lay under a hedge, damaged by rain and mud.
‘That naughty little boy!’ she said, oozing fake sympathy. I knew who had done it, and it wasn't my brother. He claimed, of course, to know nothing about it; I believed him, my father didn’t. There was some punishment, I forget what.
It was even less amusing when I accepted an invitation to spend a long weekend with my godmother in Melbourne, and came back to find that in my absence my athletic 19-year-old stepbrother had decided to inflict on my small, skinny 11-year-old brother some tortures he’d learned at his posh boarding school. Why? My brother had wet the bed again, or been accused of disobedience or ‘cheek’ or something. I forget; and in any case I think the ‘reason’ was an excuse. When I was there, I was able to stand up for him a bit despite being intimidated myself. I was a good talker and, combining that with a meek, placating manner, could often talk our way out of trouble, or at least mitigate the punishments.
Nor was it funny when my mother bought me a beautiful party dress after I turned 16, which I wore to a couple of parties on a school holiday visit home (Tasmania was of course our real home, in our minds and hearts) only to have it disappear after I took it back to that other home. Some time later, my stepsister spotted it on a stall of used clothing, at a fair to raise money for charity. (My stepsister was allowed to go to the fair, and on other outings; Cinderella and her little brother were of course not.) It was a very distinctive dress, easily recognised. But my stepsister was not brave enough to make an issue of it. She wasn't game to arouse her mother's anger either.
She was not an ‘ugly’ stepsister but an ally as much as she could be. She confided in me that soon after their father died, she and her brother (13 and 15 then) sat down and plotted as to how they could murder their mother and get away with it, as her treatment of them became ever more crazy and horrible. They couldn’t work out a foolproof murder, so they abandoned the idea. (I can tell this secret now, as all parties are long deceased.) So you see, it wasn't just my brother and me being upset and super-sensitive; our reaction was not exaggerated. I feel obliged to say this, even now, as our few attempts to talk about it at the time were not believed.
I don't remember us fantasising about murder; not as a serious possibility anyway. But we did dream of getting away. Because the divorce court had decide the custody arrangements, I didn't think that was possible. I was 15. It didn't occur to me that I might ask for the ruling to be reconsidered. And when I went home for holidays, I had such a good time with my mother and a stepfather who turned out to be sensible, kind and fun, that I put the horror of school terms behind me. I was living my nightmare most of the year, treading on eggshells, utterly unable to be spontaneous or authentic while under Stepmother's roof. Certainly not free! When I went home, I could be me again. I could have a life like a normal teenager. I revelled in it. In that normality, I wanted to forget the nightmare while I could. I never even mentioned what was going on.
My brother told me many years later that he mentioned it, as hard and often as he could. I asked Mum about that, and she explained that because I said nothing, and the stories seemed so preposterous, they thought he must be exaggerating because he was upset by the divorce. They could not believe my father would tolerate such things if they were true. (I am sure no-one else who knew him earlier could possibly have believed it either. But I witnessed him being mentally castrated, bit by bit, over the two years I was there.) By the time my mother and stepfather understood what had been happening, we had escaped. Meanwhile, the nightmare wasn't completely unrelieved.
My stepsister had finished secondary school and was sent to a ‘finishing school’ in Melbourne – a place where daughters of the wealthy went to learn domestic arts that would enable them to manage a household with servants – so I only saw her when she was briefly home for long weekends and holidays. Even so, because her holidays were not identical with ours (when we went to Tasmania) we had some time to cement our friendship. It was one alleviation of the situation, for me if not for my brother.
My brother and I both made friends at our respective new schools, so that helped a bit too. Our days were not entirely Dickensian. And my mother had insisted that my brother continue his music lessons, at her expense, so a teacher was found. That got him out of the house regularly, which must have been some relief.
The one thing my Dad did in my brother’s defence was to arrange for him to leave for Melbourne with me when I left to take up my University place. He told me long afterwards that he could see that, without me as a buffer, my brother wouldn’t have survived emotionally. This did not make me feel better towards my father; rather I blamed him more, that he had that much awareness yet did so little. However, I remain very thankful for his decision, as I believe it was indeed a matter of my brother's survival.
I still recall vividly my stepmother’s goodbye. My brother and I were waiting with our luggage for Dad to get the car. As soon as he was out of sight and earshot, she leaned down to my little brother, and right in his face said venomously, ‘Don’t you ever think you can come back here to see your father!’ Then she stood up, turned to me, and said in a voice dripping honey,’Rosemary dear, you’re welcome here any time.’
No, I didn't spit in her eye; still much too intimidated. If I remember rightly I made no response, and next minute Dad was there with the car. But I made a silent vow never to set foot in her house again.'Where my brother is not welcome,' I said in my mind, 'I will not go.' And I never did. I never had anything more to do with her, despite some letters from her at first, which I ignored. She soon gave up. My Dad said tentatively, once, that she was hurt I didn't answer her letters. I can't remember how I responded to that, but I'm sure I made my position very clear. He never broached the subject again.
When my brother was a young man living in Melbourne, my father and stepmother came for a visit. They stayed with Merrie. (No chance of my brother or me offering HER any hospitality.) My stepmother had appointments to which, for some reason, neither my father nor Merrie was available to drive her. Dad asked my brother, as a great favour, if he would. He decided to do it, solely for my Dad. I was amazed and admiring. I wouldn’t have done it.
Later my stepsister said to me, as one puzzled and looking for clarification: ‘Mum said that when he drove her around that day, he was really strange – he didn't address one word to her the whole time!’
‘What did she bloody expect?’ I said (thinking: Have you forgotten???). ‘She should have gone down on her knees in gratitude that he took her at all! She wanted conversation as WELL?’
My stepsister took one startled look at my face, and wisely shut up.
I hated my stepmother implacably for decades – until finally, in my late forties, I noticed that the hatred was poisoning me, not her: I was beginning to experience physical symptoms which I could trace directly to that. By then I had met and worked with Ridge and Jenette, and experienced both The Forum and the Andronicus Foundation group. I had powerful techniques which enabled me to finally let go of the hatred and move on. But it was only when I did my Reiki Master training that my initiating Master, Ann, helped me see that my stepmother had been one of my greatest teachers and, on the soul level, had perhaps even incarnated with that purpose.
It was in large part thanks to my stepmother that I was eventually able to overcome the softness and timidity I had as a child, and become better able to stand up for myself.
It was thanks to her that I got very clear on who I was and am, and confirmed for myself the vital importance of both freedom and authenticity. Conversely, I learned how to read people and tread carefully when necessary.
I honed the gift of the gab which has got me out of some very sticky situations at times, including one potential rape.
And, in the end, after many years of hanging on to it, I learned how and why to let go of hatred.
It was thanks to her, too (though not to her alone) that at the age of 23 I went temporarily crazy and ended up in years of psychotherapy – which turned out to be one of the most positive things I ever did, and almost certainly the reason I am happily alive at the age of 77 instead of dead or incarcerated in my twenties or thirties.
You may ask: What place does all this have in a magical memoir? I see now that my experience in those nightmare years, particularly the time I wasn't there to protect my brother from our stepbrother, was the motivation behind a successful piece of magic I did in my sixties. A close relative, a divorced mother of a seven-year-old son, found a new partner and the three of them were very happy together until his ex-wife died suddenly and his children, who were in their late teens, came to live full-time with him instead of only at weekends as it had been.
They were, naturally, very upset by their mother's death. They resented my relative and her little boy, were rude and aggressive to her and started bullying her son physically. Their father refused to intervene. I was furious when I heard. They were seventeen and nineteen; he was seven.
'This isn't on,' I said to myself. The young mother had been urging her partner to set up his children in a house of their own close by, where he could visit them often but they wouldn't be disrupting his new family. Seemed like a good idea to me. I did a spell of banishing, to move them out into a separate house. It worked almost immediately – but the father went with them. That was the end of his relationship with my relative, which was very upsetting for her and her son.
A long time later, I asked her, 'Was it better that they all went, or would it have been better if they'd all stayed?' She thought about it a while, then said, 'It was much better that they all went than it would have been if they had all stayed'. Then I told her what I had done. She forgave me and still loves me. She found a more satisfactory partner in due course, and her son is now grown up and in a happy relationship of his own.
It was only in writing this part of my memoir that I realised – my experience with my 'steps' accounts for times in my life that I have been moved to assist young people in need, in various ways. It is surely what lay behind my fury at a young boy being tortured by much older people on the brink of adulthood, and my taking action in his behalf.