The Wicked Among Us

I have had three stepmothers in my life, although I don’t know if your father’s wives are truly stepmothers if you’ve never lived with them. Still, three stepmothers are satisfyingly fairytale-ish, which serves this story. I did live for a short time with one of these women – the first, when I was eight. My brother, sister, and I spent a month in Florida with my father and his new wife, Eloise. I didn’t get along with Eloise. She made me eat everything on my plate, and I was a very picky eater. At one point, she forced me to eat mashed potatoes until I threw up. She then made me keep eating them. During this trip we rented a camper and visited Disney World. Early on, I made the observation to Eloise that, “Isn’t it funny that here we are in Disney World and you’re like the evil stepmother?”

Later that evening my father took me for a walk. He said I needed to apologize to Eloise. “Why?” I asked. He mentioned the evil stepmother comment. I was honestly confused. If a woman who makes you keep eating mashed potatoes after eating mashed potatoes induces vomiting isn’t evil, then who is? I don’t remember how the rest of the discussion went, but I wound up apologizing to Eloise. She sat me on her lap and delivered a long lecture about respect and love – I think. I didn’t listen.

My father left Eloise shortly after this and returned to Providence to live closer to his children. As far as I know, the mashed potatoes incident did not factor into the move. I do remember that for Christmas I sent him a framed school photo of myself. The story goes that he opened my gift Christmas morning, began to cry, and that was the end of his second marriage.

Eloise has always made a very convenient villain in the story of my life. I refused to eat mashed potatoes for the next 35 years. If anyone questioned my feelings about mashed potatoes I would happily tell them my Florida story. It was my badge of suffering.

And then three years ago, at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, I was served a dinner of filet mignon and garlic mashed potatoes. It had been a long day at the conference and I was hungry. What’s more, I had recently started a magazine, I was meeting all kinds of wonderful writers, and I was no longer waiting tables. I turned to my wife. “I’m going to eat them.”

I took a bite. They were quite delicious. So I finished the whole plate, and the wicked queen was dead.

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