Opening Words from Sun. May 12 by Billie Teneau: “A Tribute to My Step-Mother”

“The little girl needs a Mother,” my father wrote in his life story. My Mother died when I was six years old. My father, my two teen-age sisters, and the neighbors, more-or-less, took care of me. Realizing that I was growing up, my Dad began to look around for a suitable step-mother (and a suitable wife for him).

I was on my way to becoming 10 years old when my Dad took me and a classy lady in a fur coat for an afternoon ride in our car. Soon I began seeing her around frequently. For my birthday, she gave me a red wool cap and a box of candy. Before many weeks passed, I heard about a honeymoon. This lady, named Gertrude, and my Dad were going to take a trip somewhere, leaving me with my older sisters. Since the honeymoon was going to be in July, my main concern was “Would I have enough money for fire-crackers?”

When they came home from their honeymoon, things began to change. Gertrude’s last name was now “Coil,” like my last name. And I now had a room all to myself: a bed, a chest of drawers, and a desk. Gertrude spent a lot of time in the front room where her piano was, giving voice lessons to her students. Sometimes, she also gave voice lessons in nearby Crystal City and in St. Louis. I worked out a schedule for myself. I made my bed every morning like she wanted me to. And I practiced my piano lessons every morning before school now that Gertrude’s sister was showing me how to play the piano.

When I moved on to Middle School, I spent time lying in a hammock reading Nancy Drew Mysteries. One day, I handed the librarian a different kind of book to check out. I was surprised when she said, “Does you father know you are reading this book?” To this day, I cannot remember the name of that book. But I remember how I resented the librarian’s question.

A couple of days later, Gertrude suggested my father bring home a high school typing book. During the rest of the summer months, I typed my way through all the exercises in that text book. And eventually those typing skills opened doors for several good jobs.

During my high school years, I finished homework in class, and schemed to be at a school event every night, usually with the same boyfriend. By the end of my junior year, my Dad transferred to a new job in the Missouri boot-heel. This was difficult for everyone in the family, including Gertrude.

I had lived in Desoto, Mo. for 16 years, and I had only my senior year of High School to complete. I was going to finish that one year in a strange school miles away. Gertrude lost her vocal teaching career; all her students in Desoto and in the surrounding area were left behind.

Gertrude was a talented musician who shared her skill as a contralto soloist, and her passion for good music. Now, her big challenge was to become a part of a new community and to attract new vocal students. Thriving on success and reaching new goals, she was soon sharing her talents with new students from around Steele, Mo. She also became important in the local church, by directing the choir.

As a child and maybe a teenager, I sometimes felt Gertrude cared more for her students than for me. How selfish of me. She was responsible for my becoming an excellent typist, for being able to make many of my own clothes, for adapting to new situations and for achieving goals. She also taught me to dive and to enjoy swimming; she was a sun worshipper and spent many afternoons sun bathing. Most years, she enjoyed spending a week at Daytona Beach, Florida, and when I was not teaching in the summer, she asked me to care for my Dad so she could have a week to herself. I did this for several years.

When I was teaching, I often went to visit Gertrude and Dad–riding a bus about 250 miles from St. Louis to Steele and back. I needed these visits. Both my Dad and Gertrude were my parents, and later Grandparents for my two children. They remember how much Gertrude loved gardening and taking care of her chickens.

I never called my Step-Mother “Mother.” But names don’t matter. My Dad’s name was Oscar, but Gertrude did not seem to like that name, so she always called him “Daddy.” Being a Step-Mother is an important position in any home where her presence is needed to help create a total family. As shown by Gertrude, that job requires patience, flexibility, understanding, and creativity. I was a lucky Step-Daughter.

Thank you for allowing me to present this tribute to my Step-Mother, Gertrude. I think she would have liked it.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.