Inspired by a New Outlook

What could she,  a tomboy of 14, have in common with her glamorous new stepmom?

- Posted on Jul 14, 2014

An artist's rendering of a young woman being wooed by various suitors

Summer at my dad’s beach house in southern California. Lazy days swimming, strolling on the boardwalk, lounging on the sand with a good mystery…what could be better for a 14-year-old tomboy bookworm, right? Too bad my new stepmother, Nancy, had other ideas.

“We’re going to have a great time,” she said, ushering my younger brother and sister and me into the house. “Look at all the things I’ve planned for you.”

She showed us the calendar she’d made, the activities color-coded for each of us. There were swimming lessons for Kevin, sailing for me, horseback riding for Kerry and me. And in the red pen she’d designated for me, something looming in July: “Kelly Ann: modeling classes.”

“I can’t wait to take you shopping, Kelly Ann,” she said, glancing at my T-shirt and faded cut-off jeans. “It’ll be fun to have a girls’ day out.”

Ugh. I hated shopping. What else would she want to do? Curl my hair? Paint my nails?

Dad must have seen the look on my face because he took me aside and said, “Just give her a chance. You’re going to love Nancy once you get to know her.”

It was obvious why he adored her. Nancy acted like the world revolved around him. Not only that, she had big brown eyes, shiny blonde hair, an infectious laugh and the most glamorous outfits.

Okay, okay. I’d never love my stepmother the way I loved my mom, but for my dad’s sake, I would try to get along with her.

So I didn’t complain when she assigned us almost as many chores as activities–washing dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning our rooms, vacuuming, laundry. (So much for the lazy days of summer!)

I let her take me shopping. I even let her pick out a few dresses for me, and sandals with heels. I listened when she admonished, “Stand up straight, dear. Posture is so important.”

Still, I felt I could never do anything right in her eyes, especially in social situations. Nancy loved going out for dinner or better yet, having company over.

At every party, she was the center of attention, laughing like she was having the best time in the world, bracelets jangling, people hanging on her every word. I stood in a corner, wishing I could just stay in my bedroom with the latest Nancy Drew from the library.

“Kelly Ann, come and introduce yourself,” my stepmother would say. I’d shuffle over in my new dress and sandals and mumble, “Nice to meet you,” then stare at the ground, tongue-tied.

“Tell them about your sailing lessons,” Nancy said one evening. “You should see her out there on the bay. She’s a natural.”

Was that a compliment? I was so surprised, all I could do was murmur, “Thank you.”

Just a few days later, though, Nancy and I got into an argument. She asked me to wash my brother’s plate and silverware even though I was already done with the breakfast dishes by the time he showed up at the table. “That’s not fair,” I said. “He made the mess after I finished.”

“I know,” Nancy said. “But he has his chores and you have yours. Wash his dishes, please.”

I stormed out of the house, letting the door slam behind me, and stalked down to the library. My sneakers smacked against the sidewalk. I pushed open the heavy door.

The librarian looked up from her desk and smiled. She knew me–this was my escape from my stepmother and all her rules and plans and ideas. Lord, why does that woman keep trying to make me be something I’m not? I’m a bookworm, not the life of the party! Why can’t she understand that?

I wandered the stacks, running my fingers along the books’ spines. I found myself at a shelf I hadn’t noticed on previous visits: 395–Etiquette. A thin, worn hardback caught my eye. I pulled it down.

The cover showed a pretty woman in a pink skirt, surrounded by admirers. The title promised to teach the reader to be charming and popular.

I sat on the floor between the shelves and turned the pages. Tips on fashion, hair, grooming and, yes, posture. Thank-you notes. Conversation starters. “Good manners are a matter of making others feel comfortable, putting them at ease,” I read in one chapter.

I looked at the cover again, the pretty woman who was the center of attention. Just like Nancy at one of her parties. I could picture her, laughing, surrounded by people.

Only this time I could see it wasn’t them hanging on her every word. It was her asking them questions, drawing them out, listening as though each of them was the most interesting person on earth, and giving everyone a compliment.

And for the first time all summer, I saw why she wanted me to stand up straighter, be more confident, reach out to other people instead of hiding behind my shyness.

Not to be someone else but to be the best me I could be, a me my new stepmother could see even if I couldn’t. A me I needed to be if I was to move ahead in life.

I checked the book out and hurried back to the house. It was as engrossing as any Nancy Drew novel, and for me, as much of an unraveling of a mystery. By the time I got to the last page, I had a new understanding.

A few days later, I found Nancy in a rare moment alone. “I’ve been reading this book about manners and charm,” I said, then blurted, “I think you are the most charming woman I know.”

She let out a startled laugh. “Is there something you want?”

“No,” I said, smiling. “I just wanted to tell you that. It’s a compliment.”

“Thank you, Kelly Ann. That means a lot,” she said. Then she smiled back, a warm, heartfelt smile. And in that moment, I felt like the most interesting person on earth.

Our relationship grew from there. I went to the modeling classes she signed me up for, and I even managed to have a little fun.

I’d always be more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt than the glamorous dresses my stepmother wore so well, but her ideas about listening, really paying attention to other people and trying to figure out what makes them tick have stuck with me.

She and Dad split up, but after all these years, Nancy and I are still friends. All because of a book that I found one day at the library. Or maybe I should say, a book that found me.


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