The Sum of Many Parts: Memories & Life Lessons From My Stepmom

Work by Lourdes Sanchez

As of late, I find myself holding tight to memories of Gwynne, my stepmom. The arguments, holidays, family outings, and (oh-so-frequent) teaching moments. The feeling of her hand holding mine or the way she looked at my dad with unconditional love and adoration. Every open space in my house has become an opportunity to keep her at the forefront of my mind and thus, I’ve plastered it with photos of her and hung crystal prisms in every window. Because in the late evening of June 9th, 2018, my stepmom passed away. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her.

I was 13 when Gwynne came into my life. I was green, grouchy, and had no sense of humor. Little did I know, my whole world was about to be turned upside down and not just in the usual suspect, “I’m-a-Child-of-Divorce” kind of way. Gwynne opened up a whole new world to me: A thirst for knowledge and do-it-yourself handiness replaced my naïveté, grouchiness was somewhat permissible (as long as you understood why you were grouchy), and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure ushered in a new era of laughter. She inspired me and enraged me all at once, but no matter what, I loved her. And I know she loved me too.

As I call upon all these memories, both the hard-to-swallow and the glittering, I realize that I’m having a tough time finding the “right” words. I feel like it should be easy to write about someone who mattered to me—I’m a writer for crying out loud! But, in the back of my mind, I can hear her say “Should be able to write or want to write? There’s a difference. Do it because your heart’s in it, not because you think you’re obligated to do so.”

That’s the thing about my Gwynne. She was loaded with those sage little takeaways ranging from humorous and light to very heartfelt and thoughtful. Granted, acquiring these nuggets wasn’t exactly a sprint (she was quite the talker and you often heard the same story at least…well, a lot), but storytelling was part of who she was. And like me, she was the sum of many parts. Time and time again she would remind me that it was okay to be many things—to “try sh*t on” (as she said) however I pleased. And boy, had she tried it all on. There was nothing Gwynne couldn’t or didn’t do it seemed. She was a jailer, a musician, a master crocheter, a poet, a craftsman, a Mom, a sister, an Auntie, and a soulmate—hell she even owned a shaved ice truck in Alaska of all places! And because of all these experiences and lessons she acquired along the way, she had and has a lot to offer the world. So, in honor of Gwynne—my stepmom, my Mom, my boo-boo—I want to share some of my favorites.

1.) You are perfect, just the way you are.
We often relegate perfection as this unachievable totem that only grows more inaccessible over time. But the reality is, is that we’re perfect just the way we are. Improvements ought to be viewed as things we want to do—not things we think we should be doing.

2.) Understand ‘the why’ behind something.
Time and time again, no matter what we were talking about, Gwynne would ask me “well why do you think that?” or “why do you feel that way?” It used to drive me up the wall. But after a while, I realized how important it was for me to understand ‘the why.’ And I’m not talking surface-level-reactivity: I mean the nitty gritty—the stuff that can be uplifting, uncomfortable, or inspiring. If I wasn’t sure where to start unpacking my thoughts, she’d say to me “Moe, why don’t you take a W.A.G” which stood for “Wild Ass Guess.” More often than not, the W.A.G approach totally disarmed me and reminded me to look at it from a lighthearted perspective.

3.) Know what you want—not just what you don’t want.
It’s easy to say what you don’t like, while it takes a relatively concerted effort to say what you truly enjoy in life. So, instead of focusing on what doesn’t work or what you dislike, Gywnne always reminded me to focus on the stuff that brought me joy, laughter or a smile to my face.

4.) Before you buy something, ask yourself “do I love it?”
And if you do love it, buy multiple. In every color. You never know when a company or brand will stop making something, so, stock up when you can. And if you don’t love it, don’t buy it.

5.) If you feel the sudden impulse to make a change, wait three days before you take action.
In a world that’s fueled by immediate gratification, I find this nougat especially applicable. However, the causation behind it holds a little less intensity. When I was a teenager, I’d often impulsively ask Gwynne to cut my hair and then lament my decision days later. Gwynne’s solution was to make me wait three days, and then if I still wanted her to cut my hair, we’d do it. Now I wait months, then cut my hair and still don’t like it. Oh well.

6.) Don’t try to reason with a drunk person.
“It’s a waste of your time.” (Duly noted)

7.) Enjoy the little luxuries in life.
Everyday things, like sleeping in or a hot cup of coffee, can be re-interpreted as luxurious. Combine the two and you’ve got yourself a morning (or afternoon, depending on when you wake up) made in absolute Little Luxury Heaven.

8.) Observe your own body language.
Mom always called attention to my body language. For example, when I talk, I often rest my hands against my clavicle, rub my hand on my throat, or zip my jacket up snugly around my chin. When I did this in her presence, she’d ask me what was I holding back (from talking about): it reminded me that body language can be a manifestation of my feelings.

9.) Say how you feel.
The ‘I statement’ was a staple in our home. As in “I feel sad” or “I felt angry when you said (blank) to me.” Mom rarely let me get away with saying “You make me feel (blank).” She’d look me in the eye, with those glacier baby blues penetrating the essence of my soul, and tell me “I didn’t make you feel anything—you felt that. So take ownership of your feelings. I did or said something and it impacted you, so tell me how it impacted you: tell me how you feel.”

10.) Try your hand at tinkering, if you want to.
If something was broken, you could count on Gwynne to take it apart and figure out how to fix it. Or, if she wanted to repurpose something, she saved it—jewelry, clocks, and more. But she’d also be the first person to chuck something if it was truly broken or give it away if she thought it was deserving of a better home.

11.) From love, both for yourself and others, all else falls into place.
According to Gwynne, there was no stronger force than love itself. Love, be it for yourself or others, could soothe the soul in ways that dialogue, shopping, or food simply couldn’t address. From love, you could find freedom.

12.) Be authentic.
Mom was the loudest advocate for being your best self. Many years ago, she iterated a poem to me that, I think, best explains authenticity. It’s called “The Rose.”
“The rose.
The rose is without why.
She blooms because she blooms.
She does not care for herself.
Asks not if she’s seen.” 

To be honest, putting pen to paper about her legacy is tough. It makes the circumstances feel…real and I suppose I’m not ready for that quite yet. But, it is what it is. And as Mom would say “What’re ya gonna do?” I suppose I’ll just keep on keepin’ on, Mom. I’ll keep grasping at memories, holding tight to photographs, and doing things that remind me of you in the meantime. But there’s one memory in particular that keeps me afloat, especially at night when everything seems to come crashing down.

I remember that fateful day, back in 2002, when I first noticed her presence in my dad’s house—something was different. There were pictures on the wall of people I didn’t recognize, a large digital clock that seemed out of place, baskets in every corner, the bookshelf was reorganized, and the thick scent of nag champa was suspended in the air. That memory, of her being present without actually being in the room, simultaneously eases the pain of missing her and brings tears to my eyes. Because, that’s how I get to carry her forever—with her being present, but without actually being in the room.

Moments captured by Christopher Davis


Monique Seitz-Davis is a writer, crazy plant lady, and snack aficionado based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. She runs uphill for fun and believes in magic.