Nothing Brings a Stepfamily Closer than Scary Stories by Holly Robinson
Four children are not really so many. Plenty of couples have more. But, when I married my second husband, Dan, we brought four children into our new family. Because our kids were so young and close in age—6, 7, 8 and 9—that number seemed exponentially greater than the sum of two and two.
In other words, it was bedlam.
Our first year together, we visited my mom in Florida. I talked Dan into taking the train because we couldn’t afford to fly.
“It’ll be so much fun!” I enthused. “We can just sit back and watch the scenery.”
Of course, with four kids under the age of ten, there’s never a lot of sitting. The kids shoved past each other to the cafe car every five minutes, competing to slap the automatic doors open first. We got them to settle down only by trapping them in their seats, playing endless games with dolls and toy cars.
At one point, I looked across the aisle. I was squashed next to the two boys and Dan was nearly doubled over in the seat with the girls, a Barbie in each hand. “Ah, the romance of train travel,” he said.
Once we arrived at my mother’s on Florida’s steamy Gulf Coast, things got even worse. Mom lived on a river thick with alligators; you could hear them plopping into the water. There were fire ants in the grass, too. There was no such thing as sending kids to play outside.
Mom was clearly horrified by our multitude of children, who used her slippery tile floors as a playground. “My poor ears,” she said. “I need a drink.”
I could have used a drink, too, and it wasn’t even noon. This was not a good sign. “Let’s take the kids out someplace where they can run around,” I said, and suggested a nearby wildlife park.
Mom climbed into our rented van as the kids pulled numbers from a hat, a system we’d devised to keep them from killing each other over who got to sit where. The boys started fighting on the way to the wildlife park anyway, and the girls sang to drown them out. “Good lord,” Mom said. “I’ve been to rock concerts quieter than this.”
At the park, the kids tumbled out of the van like clowns from a circus VW and Dan loped after them. I hoped he wouldn’t lose them. Our kids were the perfect size for alligator bait.
That night, the boys started running a fever. “My throat hurts, too,” Dan moaned. “We must have strep throat.” He went to lie down after dinner, leaving me with the dishes.
My mother watched television while I washed up. Afterward, exhausted and aching, I sneaked out the front door to sit on the step and started to cry.
The challenges at home continued. Luckily, by the end of that first year together, I stumbled on a surefire path to peace: family story hours, not just at night, but whenever we needed to settle the kids down in the middle of a hectic afternoon. Or even some mornings.
Family reading time was no easy task at first, since some of our kids were more avid about books than others. But then I stumbled on the one genre all four would sit blessedly still to hear: horror. My kids loved to hear about kids in peril.
“Should they be exposed to so much gore?” asked a friend who has just one peaceful daughter.
“Heck, yeah,” I said. If nothing else, the scare factor held them silently in place on the couch beside me. There’s a reason kids love fairy tales about lost children who get shoved into ovens by witches and little girls in shoes that won’t stop dancing: they know the world isn’t always a kind place. Pretend worlds are safe places for children to imagine what they’d do if, say, a wolf tried to eat them.
As the kids got older, their love of horror remained steadfast. We quickly moved through all of the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Our favorite was Say Cheese and Die, about a camera with lethal powers.
Reading such an entertaining series had another effect as well: My son Blaise started writing his own series of books, called “Goosechicks,” featuring chicks as main characters, and his stepbrother Drew illustrated the text.
Naturally, as the kids got older, their reading tastes diverged, but when the first Harry Potter book was published, we found another family favorite. The girls never got tired of pretending to be as whip-smart and beautiful as Hermione, and the soul-sucking Dementors were plenty scary even for me.
Dan and I added a child of our own two years after we were married. It wasn’t long before he was begging for stories from his older brothers and sisters, or listening raptly to Harry Potter from his car seat. Now that the older kids are out of college, they’re still pursuing their true passions—my son Blaise is a writer who works in public relations, and my stepson Drew creates sets for music videos and movies. The girls are every bit as clever as Hermione and are busy having adventures of their own in places as farflung as Brazil and Senegal. Still, the kids remain close; for instance, Blaise recently organized a birthday surprise for our youngest son, buying concert tickets so all of the siblings could attend the concert together.
You never know how a stepfamily’s story will end. The statistics are dire—more second marriages end in divorce than first marriages—but our own family is a happily-ever-after one, thanks in part to stories where the children learn to stick together as they bravely stand up to bullies, witches, zombies, and even the occasional evil stepmother.
Holly Robinson is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Huffington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, More, Open Salon, and Parents. Robinson holds a B.A. in biology from Clark University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She and her husband have five children, two cats, a grumpy hamster, and two very stubborn small dogs. Holly’s latest novel, Beach Plum Island, is out now. Learn more and order your copy here.
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