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Stepmothers don’t exactly have the best reputations. From Lady Tremaine in Cinderella to Mary Gothel in Tangled, having a stepmom in movies means being locked in the attic or hours of scrubbing the floor.

So when my dad’s girlfriend moved in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She was a journalist and photographer named Annie with long wavy black hair and round glasses. She moved in with us a few weeks after our mother left and brought with her boxes of newspapers, a Nikon Camera, and a fondness for carrot and raisin sandwiches.

I imagine she wasn’t sure what to expect either. Perhaps she had visions of baking cookies and evenings snuggled on the couch. Instead, she became the evil stepmother to three unhappy children recovering from their parent’s divorce who missed their mother.

When Annie came into our lives, I wet the bed, could barely read, and wasn’t doing well in school. She managed to change all that. In less than a year, I had read the most books in my class, got straight As, and moved to the higher class at school. I remember writing “I love Annie” on a sticker and putting it on my bed headboard.

Yet, living with Annie wasn’t easy. Unable to have children of her own, she tried to be more than a caregiver in our lives – she wanted to be our mother. But when you already have one absent but real mother, you punish the person who’s present.

And punish we did. Nothing she did was good enough, and we complained a lot. One time she threw me a sleepover birthday party, and I told her I hated her. There was the time I got off the bus at my best friend’s house, 30 minutes away, and didn’t call. And the many times I sounded so excited to talk to my real mother on the phone, just to see the reaction on Annie’s face.

Not that Annie didn’t have her faults. She was nervous, sensitive, and a perfectionist, and she was a sudden mother to three. Nothing prepares you for that.

My sister and I like to say that Annie left over an Oreo cookie. We laugh about it as if it doesn’t have that much importance. But it does. My sister was having a class party and Annie bought her a pack of Oreo cookies to take the next day. As the evening progressed we pilfered one cookie after the other until by the morning there was none left, just an empty box. The next morning, Annie discovered the empty box and became upset. I remember lots of fighting with my dad behind closed doors. A few days later, Annie left, taking all her newspapers and knitted socks.

Instead of pizzas made of English muffins we came home to beans on the wood stove and short note from our dad telling us to not watch television.

That wasn’t the last we heard from Annie. She moved close by for a time and worked for the school, so we saw her regularly. My memories of that time are of festivals getting my face painted and making cheesecake. Although she would be the first one to remind me that we probably only did those things once.

About a year later, she moved to Montana to care for her aging father. I wonder if it ever occurred to her that she left like our mother did?

Still, she kept in touch. She never forgot a birthday or a Christmas. When I needed help with my applications for college, she gave me notes and edits. In my 20s, she pushed my dad to send me to Italy to study because he had promised years before. Later, when I found out I was pregnant with my son, she was the first to send me a gift. In fact, she flew two states to watch him for a weekend, so we could get some rest. No one else had even offered.

When I look around my home, her photographs line the walls and refrigerator. Family albums are filled with her shots of me growing up. She always managed to capture that perfect moment where a person’s true essence comes forward. I asked her once how she could snap so many great shots so quickly. She shrugged and said “I’ve been doing it for so long.”

I’m not the only one she helps. She fights for people with disabilities by going to city council meetings to demand more handicapped parking. She takes pictures at people’s weddings for free and then sends them all the pictures in a photo album. When she sees an injustice she’s determined to correct it. She does this with her words and camera.

I read once that a child only really needs one person to care about them. This person doesn’t have to be a parent. I’ve been lucky enough to have Annie. She’s the one who sends me saved newspaper clippings of the time I was in a school play or the pumpkin poem I wrote in 3rd grade.

Now that I’m a mom, I realize how hard it must have been for her to raise three kids not her own. I realize how much love and determination it took to stay for the four years that she did. I understand the sacrifice. I understand the love.

I have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to my stepmom. She gave me my love of reading and writing, and still, after all these years, she’s determined to never stop loving me. For that, I’ll forever be thankful.

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