The written word is a powerful medium – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was nine when Mum died. Her death devastated me and my dad. After Mum was gone we grew closer. I could talk to him about anything. My dad was my whole world. We did everything together. But two years after Mum died he spoilt it all by meeting Janis. I hated her from the very beginning for stealing my dad. I felt that whatever I did or said against Janis, Dad always took her side.
Eighteen months later my worst nightmare came true. Dad told me they were getting married. I threw the almightiest tantrum accusing him of having forgotten mum and made it clear that there was no way I’d EVER call Janis mum. Then I stormed upstairs and trashed my room screaming to the world how life was unfair. I buried my face in my pillow - no way I was going to let HER hear me crying. After a few minutes, I wiped the snot across my sleeve and surveyed the carnage. There among the wreckage was a broken photo frame.
“Mum.” I’d slid off my bed to pick up the shattered pieces. Turning it over, I felt on the verge of crying again. My mum’s picture was sticking halfway out. There was blood smeared over her face from a tiny shard of glass embedded in my thumb. “Oh Mum, how can he marry her? She’s, she’s not you.”
I remember Dad coming up the stairs, he thumped on my bedroom door.
“Penny, open this door.”
“If you don’t open this door I’ll break it down.”
He’d never been so angry. We’d never ever shouted at each other before. This was Janis’s fault. The door lock slid back with a thunk and I ran back to my bed facing the wall with my back to him as he entered.
“Get downstairs NOW and apologise to Janis.”
“No I won’t. How can you forget about mum so soon? I bet you never really loved her. I miss her so much. I’ll NEVER forget her and I’ll always love her.
“How dare you accuse me of not loving your mother. I miss her too, but she made me promise not to live in sadness for the rest of my life and to make sure you didn’t either.”
“Well I can’t, I won’t forget her.”
“How can I when every day I see her face reflected in your eyes.
At that moment I realised then how much I had hurt him but I was too stubborn to apologise to him or Janis. Before he left my room he made one thing clear he WAS going to marry Janis.
For the next three months leading up to the wedding I behaved like a spoilt brat. I lost count of the number of times I’d stormed upstairs to the sanctuary of my room. I’d pick up the photo of my mum in its new frame and talk to her about Janis’ latest scheme.
“That bitch is turning everyone I love against me, Mum, She’s a Dad stealing bitch and she wants to erase every trace of you from my life. Well I’m not going to let her, Mum. I’ll never forget you.”
They tried to include me in the wedding preparations. But at every opportunity I found ways of sabotaging their plan. Like trying to cancel the registry office booking; changing the flower order; turning up late, or not at all for my dress fittings. I even threatened not to attend. Nothing worked. Instead of getting rid of Janis I ended up pushing dad further away. A rift had grown between us and it was all her fault.
When the dreaded day arrived, I finally had to accept my Dad and Janis were getting married. It was strange none of Janis’ relatives came to the wedding. I secretly hoped she’d been a druggie or something and they had thrown her out or she’d stolen from them. It was obvious her own family hated her just as much as I did.
I sulked the whole day. In the evening Dad asked me for the first dance, not Janis. She smiled and nodded as she pushed us on to the dance floor. The record playing was so familiar. It was the first song dad had heard the night I was born, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t she lovely”. Dad was forever telling me that it was our song and whenever it came on the radio we’d stop whatever we were doing and dance together.
Whilst we danced Dad kept telling me how much he loved me; that I would always be his princess and that although he’d remarried, Janis could never share the special bond between him and me, or our memories of Mum. Just before the end of the song he asked if I could try to get on with Janis for his sake. I agreed, but I lied. I had no intention of becoming friends with her. I’d smile and chat nicely whenever Dad was around, but when he wasn’t there, I showed Janis just how much I resented her coming into our lives.
I was such a hateful cow towards her in so many ways. The best day of my life was the day I made her cry. One afternoon I saw Janis’ silver locket on the bedside table and sneaked in to steal it. I knew it must have had some special meaning to her as she never usually took it off. I heard her coming up the stairs and rushed into the bathroom holding the locket over the toilet pan in full view of Janis - then I let it slowly slip through my fingers into the toilet and flushed it away. I laughed seeing the pain in her eyes.
“What have I done to make you hate me?” was all she’d said as she walked into her bedroom closing the door behind her. I listened at the door and smiled relishing in my victory - she was crying.
Later that day I realised I’d gone too far. I was terrified Janis would tell my dad what a spiteful daughter he had. When he came home I waited anxiously for him to come upstairs and have it out with me, but he didn’t. At dinner he called me down. I ignored him, afraid to face him. He had to call me three times before I warily ventured into the kitchen. They were chatting about something, I can’t even remember what it was. When his back was turned, I glanced at Janis. By the look on her face I knew she hadn’t told him. I grinned at her, gloating once more in my victory.
My triumph over “the enemy” came three weeks before my entire world collapsed. I arrived home from school and Janis was sitting at the kitchen table crying. There were two police officers with her. One was holding Janis’ hand. I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t get my breath as I realised something bad must have happened to my dad.
Janis asked me to sit down and began to explain. I couldn’t take it in. They had to be wrong. Not my dad, my dad couldn’t be dead. I’d only seen him that morning and he was fine. But he wasn’t fine. He’d been in a road accident, a head on collision with another car. My dad, my darling wonderful dad was dead. At that moment I felt completely alone. I didn’t notice Janis reach over and put her arm around me. I was numb. Then the grief spilled out and I sobbed shouting for my dad as I ran to my room.
The funeral was a week later. I sat next to Janis in the church refusing to look at the coffin. If I didn’t look at it, then he wasn’t in there. It was all just a bad dream. I never heard the priest’s words or the eulogy by my uncle John.
The wake was at our house. I hated it, all those people looking at me with their sad, pathetic expressions. I spent most of the time in the gazebo. Dad had made it for mum when she was pregnant with me. My mum had loved her garden.
Finally everyone left the house and it was just Janis and me. It was all too much, I ran upstairs seeking the solace of my room. I cried and cried, the tears just wouldn’t stop. An hour later I heard the front door close. Looking out of the window I saw Janis taking Mimsy our Labradoodle for his nightly walk…that used to be dad’s job.
I wandered downstairs feeling ravenous, I realised I hadn’t eaten anything all day. Opening the fridge I took out a plate of sandwiches, neatly covered with cling film left over from the wake and sat down to eat.
That’s when I noticed the letter sticking out of Janis’ handbag. It was addressed to my dad. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself. I took the letter out. It wasn’t sealed and my fingers trembled as I removed it from the envelope. I started to read.
It wasn’t the love letter I was expecting to find about how much she loved my dad; it was about so much more. The wedding had been small. I remembered there being no guests from Janis’ side. My Uncle John, dad’s brother and his wife were witnesses and the only other relative was Nanna Bent. All the other guests were dad’s friends.
Through the words of a simple letter, I discovered who the real Janis was. How she’d been forced to choose between me and Dad, and her own family. She lost everything, money; family; friends. She was reviled and shunned by her whole community for marrying outside of her religion, but she’d given it all up willingly to be with Dad and a child who hated her.
She even wrote about me,
“I love both of you Tom, and although I can never replace her mum, one day I hope she will call me her friend and the three of us can be a proper family.”
I swallowed hard as I read those words. How could she love me after all the awful things I’d done to her?
The final paragraph reduced me to tears. Janis, the so called “dad stealer” had once had a child of her own, a little boy who’d died when he was two. The silver locket, the one I had so maliciously flushed away had held the last remaining piece of her son, a lock of his hair. I never knew. I’d never wanted to get to know the real Janis, the Janis who’d given up so much to try to make a difference to my life. I felt sick with revulsion at what I had put her through over the last four years. That day my tears weren’t just for my dad, they were for all the hurt I had caused her.
I didn’t hear the front door open. Janis caught me hurriedly stuffing the letter into her bag.
“Oh, I didn’t mean you to find that,” she’d said.
I can remember rushing over and throwing my arms around her neck. In between sobs I apologised for every mean thing I’d said and done to her.
That was the first time Janis and I really talked. I asked her to tell me all about Janis, her family, her son and it was well into the early hours when the talking was over. Then without thinking I’d blurted out,
“Janis, I’d like us to be a family, just like Dad always wanted and – if you’ll have me I’d really love us to be friends.”
That was twelve years ago and as I gaze out of the kitchen window I’m smiling as I watch my son playing with Nanny Janis.