Wild Flower

Yesterday I drove to Racine — and got lost on the way, again — to spend the day with my in-laws. It's a little strange visiting them without Stephanie, but there's no part of my life that isn't a little strange without Stephanie.
So many times we drove to Racine to see Stephanie's parents, or to Milwaukee to play bingo or see a museum or spend the night at the Fairy Tale Palace. Some of the landmarks along Interstate-94 are familiar to me — the little church, the outlet mall, the rest area, the hotel we'd once stayed at, adjacent to a mall we never set foot in, and the gas stations and fast-food dumps, etc. But the freeway is always under construction, they've added new interchanges, and the exit that was on the left is now on the right. It's too easy to get lost, without my Navigator Girl.
And all along the way, of course, the farm country between Madison and Milwaukee has an endless supply of wingnut Republican and religious billboards. My favorite today was, "Where are you going, Heaven or Hell? Call 855-FOR-TRUTH." Nah, I'm going to Racine, looking for the exit for County Road K.
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Stephanie was always a little worried before we'd visit her parents. She wanted them to be proud of her, but she always felt that there wasn't much to be proud of. Which is, of course, simply wrong — her parents were always proud of Stephanie, and they still are. Stephanie had some major insecurities, an aspect of her personality that I'll need to write about, and I will, but that's not the topic for today. For now let's suffice to say, Stephanie never realized how remarkable she was.
So she worried on the way to every visit, but on the drive home after seeing her folks, she'd almost always tell me how much she loved them. She'd found them frustrating when she was a kid, of course, but as she'd grown up they'd somehow become smarter. "They're good parents," she said many times, "and good friends."
Steph's Mom, Karen Webb, has a delightful no-nonsense attitude, common sense and good ideas galore, limited patience for stupid people, and a sharp sense of humor. Steph's Dad, Jack Webb, is a bright guy who knows a lot of things, a good storyteller, and has a quiet demeanor, solid instincts, and a very kind heart. They're both quite intelligent, so it's no mystery that their daughter was a genius.
They grew up in the same small town in Iowa, and married in 1967, when he was 23 years old and she was 20. Steph came along three years later, and she told me that she'd been planned as a deferment baby. Under the Selective Service Act, young men Jack's age in 1970 faced military conscription and the Vietnam War, and Jack was understandably not enthusiastic about that concept. One way to legally avoid being drafted was being classified 3-A, meaning a paternity deferment. For men aged 18-26 who had a "bona fide father-child relationship in their home," induction to the military was deemed a hardship on their dependents, and thus young fathers were protected from the military draft. And so it was, quite intentionally, that Stephanie was born — July 8, 1970.
Jack went to college instead of to war, and earned a degree in Chemistry — the same degree Stephanie earned many years later. He worked in middle management at Johnson Wax (now S. C. Johnson & Son), the makers of Glade, Pledge, Off!, Raid, and a zillion other household products, until he was laid off in a corporate cost-cutting move while Stephanie was in college. Jack has always reminded me of my father, in his personality and demeanor, and my dad was also a chemist; he worked for Boeing in Seattle, and was laid off in his 50s in a similar corporate cost-cutting move while I was a kid.
Karen had been a stay-at-home Mom, but when Jack lost his job she went back to work, in the office at a car wholesaler. Jack took most of the money out of his savings account and started a travel agency, a field where he had no experience except for having been sent on some business trips for Johnson Wax. But he found a good opportunity, signed a contract with American Express, and opened a travel agency in the outskirts of Milwaukee. He learned the ropes quickly, ran his company well, and the business was a success. That's impressive, to me. Going from middle-management and middle-age to starting your own business doesn't sound like an easy challenge, but he pulled it off.
Years later, as travel sites like Expedia and Priceline came on-line, being a travel agent suddenly became less lucrative, but Steph's pop sold his company at a good price, and he's been comfortably retired since then. Karen retired too, a few years ago. They're not wealthy by any means, but they're middle-class comfortable, and they own a nice three-bedroom home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Racine.
That's where we spent the morning and afternoon, talking about Stephanie, and for me that's a good way to spend a day. We ate lunch at the same kitchen table where the four of us had eaten so many times in the past, and my gaze kept falling on the empty chair where Stephanie usually sat. But I didn't cry as much as I was expecting to. I took notes about the things Karen and Jack said, to bolster my memory of events that occurred before I was part of the family. Grabbing my spiral notebook and scribbling in it while we talked probably seemed weird to them, but they never said so.
Jack and Karen both mentioned a recipe they're planning to try from Cook's Country, which made me smile on Stephanie's behalf. Cook's Country is a magazine of recipes and kitchen hints, published by the same folks who do America's Test Kitchen on TV. We (well, mostly Stephanie) loved that show, which led us to the magazine, and we've been subscribing for years and years. Every time an issue came in the mail, Steph would spend hours reading through it, and usually at least a few — sometimes several — nice dinners resulted. Stephanie thought that recipes from that magazine had a higher success rate than any of her cookbooks, and since her mother is also a great cook, we gave her a subscription to Cook's Country a few Christmases ago. Her Mom said thanks, of course, but I think this was the first time she'd mentioned cooking something from the magazine, and Stephanie would've taken that as proof that her mother's "thank you" was more than perfunctory.
Her parents told delightful stories of Stephanie's childhood days as an Indian Princess. It's a program like Campfire Girls, with more of an emphasis on daddy-daughter bonding, and lots of dinners and organized outings for little girls and their fathers — ice skating, sledding, camping, etc. Steph was in the program from about age 6 to age 8. As part of the Indian Princess program, the girls and their fathers made up native-sounding names for themselves — Stephanie's name was Wild Flower, and her father's native name was Grey Wolf. Their "tribe" was called the Erie Dearies, for Lake Erie, which is one state away from Wisconsin. Of course, since Steph had no native blood, all of this does ring alarms as cultural appropriation, but hey, it was decades ago.
And again, like at her wake, I learned some things I'd never known about Stephanie: In her teen years, she was active in the Racine Theater Guild, performing in several plays, and even singing on stage. There's photographic evidence, or I would've found it hard to believe. She had mentioned that she performed in plays, but I had assumed they were school plays, and this was outside of school. Just the idea of her singing on stage is surprising; in all our years together, I heard her sing perhaps a dozen times, and she was usually unwilling to sing loud enough for me to listen. She could carry a tune quite nicely; she just never wanted to. At least, not for me.
And — Mad Magazine, the venerable satirical publication, home of movie spoofs and "The Lighter Side" and Spy Vs Spy. I loved Mad when I was a kid, subscribed for years, but I haven't read an issue of Mad since high school. Well, Stephanie subscribed to Mad too, all through her high school years, and unlike me she kept every copy. So now I have a big box of Stephanie's Mad Magazines from the 1980s. My lady definitely had a mad sense of humor — she made me laugh just about every day we were together, with the exception of the worst days in various hospitals. But she never mentioned that she'd subscribed and collected Mad.
And — Phi Beta Kappa. I never went to college, and I don't know squat about anything smarts-related, but I've heard of Phi Beta Kappa. It is the oldest and most prestigious honor society in the U.S.A., and to be a member you're required to be really, really smart. Wikipedia tells me that Phi Beta Kappa membership is usually offered only to the academically highest-performing college seniors, and to a very small number of juniors. We found a letter, welcoming Stephanie to Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year at Michigan State. So — she was a member of a national honor society so famous that even a dummy like me knows what it is. And she never told me. She was always full of surprises, and even after she's gone the surprises continue.
I'm especially excited by all the Steph stuff that Jack and Karen let me bring home. Steph was all grown up when we met, and she didn't talk a lot about her childhood, so it'll be fun and enlightening to go through these boxes of photos and mementos. There are pictures from the math competitions that she won, the plays she was in, graduation photos from high school and college, and lots of baby, infant, and toddler pictures. And of course, all of her report cards; I looked at a few, and saw nothing but straight-A's. How such a smart girl ended up with someone so not-smart remains an unsolved mystery.
Thanks, Jack and Karen, for all these souvenirs of Stephanie, and for a fun day in Racine, remembering her. Thanks for (as Stephanie said) bringing a girl into this world and raising her to be a good and happy woman, the woman who made my life worth living. Thanks for never being the meddlesome or judgmental in-laws seen on TV sit-coms; but instead always being supportive and helpful, often more so than we deserved or could have expected. Heck, Jack and Karen gave us the car we've been driving the past ten years, a now-dinged and dented Chevy that brought me to Racine yesterday. Steph loved her parents, and I'm part of the family now, and glad to be, even without Stephanie beside me. She's right — they're good parents and good friends.