This March, as the world marked one full year of the pandemic, my mother and stepfather celebrated their second go at a first wedding anniversary, 25 years after they divorced.
I was 13 when they split. If you’d asked me then if I wished my mother, Fawn Waterfield, and my second stepfather, Chilton Allen Bowman III (C.A. to those who know him), would reunite, I’d have said no way. My father had long been out of the picture, and my first stepfather had moved to Sitka, Alaska, with our baby brother, Camden Buzard, leaving my little sister and me in nearby Juneau. I just wanted Mom to myself.
C.A. had never shared space with young people before us and had a cat’s distaste for any change in his environment. We brought chaos and noise to his well-ordered life, upending a careful balance I couldn’t see at the time. I was a careless dishwasher and a laundry spendthrift, oblivious to the expense of each laundromat visit. We were deeply poor in the way of hippies who value experience over material goods, and I was a tight budget’s nightmare.
It never occurred to me to offer him a little generosity of spirit back then. Instead, I made sure he knew I’d had my fill of dads and that my wily heart was a Mad Lib he’d never decipher. Our constant battles wore Mom down to pencil shavings. My sister, Tekla Waterfield, was more of a choose-your-own-adventure kid. She usually chose peace.
A few months before they split, Mom’s adoptive father died. Her grief turned her inward. The endless bickering between C.A. and me, compounded by the stress of bereavement and a boundless hippie wanderlust, sealed their divorce. Tekla and I were relieved. We thought maybe we’d finally have Mom to ourselves, but we lost something valuable in that move.
Mom and C.A. remained friendly, calling and sending postcards now and then. Mom settled in Salinas, Calif., teaching middle school art and English. She lived on an old wood yacht while saving to buy a house. C.A. worked for the Alaska Department of Transportation, slowly paying off the ramshackle house they had bought before we left Juneau. He called Mom the night he burned the mortgage documents, saying, “I can finally build the house we dreamed about.”
He was siding the new house the first time I visited him in Juneau, during a long layover in 2007, 13 years after their divorce. Over lunch he said, mistily, “You’ve always been my daughter. Your mom will always be my wife.” His tenderness helped me see in my late 20s what I had overlooked as a child: a great fit for my mother. I finally understood his need for structure and organization.
We stayed in touch after that.
At first, Tekla and I were happy simply to have him back in our lives, but in 2015 Mom and C.A. were both single and in flux. Tekla and I decided: We wanted C.A. all the way back, for ourselves and for Mom.
It took another three years to “Parent Trap” them once we set our minds to it. I invited C.A. to my home in Missoula, Mont., for Thanksgiving. He flew to Seattle for Tekla’s album release. “You should encourage Mom to visit Juneau,” Tekla and I told him during every visit and phone call.
Mom was surprised by our nudges. “Seriously?”
“He’s always loved you just the way you are,” I said. “We made it hard before, but you deserve that kind of love and we think you can have it still.”
Tekla asked C.A. to give her away when she married in 2018. Mom beamed as they walked down the aisle together. She took C.A.’s hand when he sat down and hasn’t let go.
They planned to remarry on June 19, 2020, their original anniversary. But when states began declaring Covid-19 lockdowns, they couldn’t wait. “What if the virus takes one of us before then?” Mom said. Our first pandemic video call as a family was on March 19, 2020, to attend a ceremony in their officiant’s home in Juneau. My brother, Camden, living in Juneau with his own family, and my parents’ neighbors stood as the only three witnesses.
My two toddlers, 4 and 18 months, dressed up with me and my husband rushed home from work while I logged into Zoom for the first time ever. We couldn’t hear much, and I accidentally muted our cheers as my parents laughed and said, “I do … again.”
My children and I have since spent countless hours at home on video calls with my folks. We recently chatted while Mom bent over an art project in her little kitchen nook. C.A. cooked dinner beside her while my children splattered watercolor paints everywhere, pausing to shout, “Look what I made!”
C.A. cupped his hand and leaned close to the screen, straining to hear them over the squawk of his hearing aids. His long, braided goatee waggled when he spoke, and it set my kids to face-on-the-table laughing fits.
“Beautiful!” Mom said.
You wouldn’t know they’d ever been apart the way C.A. laid his hand on my mother’s back and gazed at her when she spoke, the way she pressed into him as though he had always been there.
In January, a friend of Mom’s asked: “What is the best thing that happened in 2020?”
Mom laughed, replying: “C.A.!”
She turned to C.A. and repeated the question. He chuckled. “That’s easy. I married you.”
At a time when lockdown has strained partnerships, my mom and C.A. forged a tighter bond. Hunkering down together gave them a long, blissful honeymoon do-over. And it gave me one small, beautiful thing to hold onto through this hard time, knowing that my parents were healthy, safe, and together again.