The rose and the sword: Laurel Gouveia, an appreciation

Long Branch Beach on the Jersey shore, which my stepmother, Laurel Gouveia, loved. Photograph by David Shankbone.

Long Branch Beach on the Jersey shore, which my stepmother, Laurel Gouveia, loved. Photograph by David Shankbone.

The arrival in movie theaters of the film “Maleficent” marks the return of the archetype – cliché might be a better word – of the Wicked Stepmother but with a twist. 

Post-feminist Hollywood is no dummy. It knows in the 21st-century that its filmmakers cannot afford to reinforce the sexist notion of the older woman out to get the Pretty Young Thing, which is the basis of “Cinderella,” “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty.” So there has to be a subplot about how the Pretty Young Thing’s daddy did Maleficent wrong when she was a pretty young thing.

You can revise a fairy tale to make the villain more of an antiheroine. You cannot, however, change history. The classic fairy tales, like much of culture, were created by men, who have feared the power of women, particularly the power of older women.

As they age, women develop a certain wisdom, a sophisticated, fluid sexuality – to say nothing of a disposable income. They’re no longer waiting to be rescued or impregnated by men, if indeed they ever were. They are free, and that’s powerful and frightening, particularly to the sex that has always held all the toys in the sandbox.

Because of their bodily cycles, women remain, though, the more visible reminder that we are all, if we’re lucky, going to get old. And we’re all going to die. Men don’t like that. With the Pretty Young Thing, they can pretend to be virile forever. With the powerful Crone archetype, eh, not so much.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stepmothers and female archetypes this past weekend with the passing of my own stepmother, Laurel Gouveia, after a long illness. She was in life a stepmother in the best possible sense of the word, which we both honored with a loving relationship. Indeed, in the last card I sent her – this past Mother’s Day – I wrote: “To the best stepmother in the world.” She got a big kick out of that.

Like the characters in my novel “Water Music,” Laurel – named after the mountain laurel, because she was all pink and white when she was born – was a woman destined for water. She was a true New Yorker – a longtime special education teacher in the South Bronx at a time when it took real guts to go there and a Manhattan resident.

Her family lives on Long Island. They summered on the Jersey Shore. She met my father, the late John Gouveia, on a cruise. And for 20 years, they divided their time between a home overlooking the Hudson that might best be described as a Modernist tree house (like the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.) and a place in Boca Raton, Fla. 

It was at the house on the Hudson – which she always described as a blessing and which she and my father bequeathed as a public park to the village of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. – that she died on June 13.

Because my own relationship with my father and mother was so difficult, I went out of my way to cultivate one with Laurel. She and I shared many good times – Super Bowl Sundays, shopping and gallery excursions in Peekskill, Mother’s Days and birthdays (hers, Sept. 10) at the horse shows at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, N.Y.

She was also a big part of “Team Tiny” as a I called the family members, friends, doctors, nurses, aides and workers who helped me care for my beloved Aunt Mary – the Tiny to whom I dedicated “Water Music.”

Laurel was a good counselor and an even better listener. I’m sure there were times when she was sick of listening to some drama in my life, but she remained patient, steadfast, true and spot-on with her advice. Among the things she told me that I’d like to pass on is “never allow anyone to rob you of your joy.”

A profoundly spiritual woman, she believed in the lived-in experience, spending time traveling with her husband and friends, entertaining family at Thanksgiving or just watching the sun set over the Hudson. She used her time wisely.

As I say, my stepmother was a Joel Osteen-watching Protestant, so I was curious how she would react to my rather homoerotic novel. But she couldn’t have been more supportive and she gave me two gifts – a crystal rose stirrer and a cutting board with a knife and fork.

It’s only now that I understand their meaning – the rose and the sword, the two sides of life.

They were accompanied by a note that read: “Congratulations on your accomplishment of ‘Water Music’ and your strength and determination while holding a full-time job. Woman to woman, I think this is what you were meant to do – write an American series of novels. You are terrific!”

The feeling, Laurel, is mutual.