The moment I knew my stepfather and I had formed a lasting personal connection was the day my catalytic converter got stolen.

I felt so helpless and violated. After quickly contacting my insurance company, my very next call was to Larry Josiah Smith, who had married my mother just three months earlier. It made sense: As a veteran car salesman, he calmed me down and reminded me that hybrids like my Prius are targets of these kinds of thefts and I shouldn’t feel bad or dumb about it, even though I really did.

But I realized I hadn’t just immediately reached out to him because of his auto expertise, but because it was the kind of call you make to your dad, or to a dad-like person. Understand that Larry is not my father; my daddy, Edward “Butch” Streeter, died 11 years ago, and there’s no replacing him. Still, this tall, funny man we now call Pop, who always smells good and looks even better, is not just someone who loves my mother, or the grandfather that my young son and nephew never had. He is a wonderful and unexpected support for me. A guy to bounce dad stuff off. He has not filled the space my father’s death left in my heart, but created his own.

I like it.

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It’s funny that I met this man who is now such an integral part of my family’s life just 12 years ago at the funeral of my grandfather, Rev. Lester James Sr. I mean, I guess I met him — grief is a killer for your brain and your memory — but I was told that my mother’s college boyfriend, who she hadn’t seen in years, had come to pay his respects. There was a lot going on: My father was valiantly fighting the cancer that would kill him seven months later, and my husband and I, tired and sad, had driven up from Florida for the service. But I remember thinking what a nice gesture that had been.

What followed sounds like the Hallmark movies that my mom and I used to binge, or a Diane Keaton movie with Black people. My mother, Tina; my dad, Butch; and Pop, as we call him now, all knew each other as members of the Fairmount Heights High School class of 1965 in Prince George’s County. They also all wound up at what was Morgan State College in Baltimore, though Pop attended two years later.

Pop and my mother didn’t start dating until after their high school graduation. “She was intelligent and nice and attractive and I was a jock,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Gee, she’d never go out with me.’ What she tells me now is that she thought I was one of the fly guys, and she was a bookworm.” But opposites attracted, and eventually they became a thing and stayed together after she left for college.

Even with my mother in Baltimore, Pop stayed in touch with my Granddaddy, who “impressed me, that he had faith in me to trust me with his daughter,” Pop told me. “The whole family went to church. He encouraged me to go to school — ‘Hey, go get your education.’” Pop got serious about preparing for college, became a Christian, and headed to Morgan to play basketball and to be near my mom.

But once he arrived in Baltimore, the smooth, cool, 6′6″ athlete became the big man on campus. “Literally,” my mother said. He got a lot of attention. “I was just finding out who I was, and the ratio of women to men [at the school] was nine to one, and there were a lot of girls who were like, ‘Hey, you’re not that bad,’” Pop said.

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But Morgan is a small campus, my mother said, and it didn’t take long for people to notice him strolling across that campus with someone who wasn’t her. “It was like, ‘Isn’t that supposed to be your boyfriend?’” she said, thus hastening what my sister and I have come to call “The Coldest Breakup of All-Time,” when my mom called the hall phone at Mr. Larry’s dorm, found that he was in the shower, had him summoned, and dumped him immediately as he stood wrapped in a towel and shivering.

Refreshingly, he admits he deserved it, because “I knew I had to split with her, although she did it first. I knew her family and that she wanted to be married and have a family, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to disappoint her. I know I’m not ready and she’s too good to string along.’ This ol’ country boy had to find out who he was.”

So life went on. My mother wound up accepting a movie date with my father, who she married a year after she graduated. She gave birth to twins (one of whom was me) a year after that and settled not far from Morgan, which is how I came to be a Baltimorean. They were happily married until his death in 2012. Pop married twice and had a daughter, Imani Camille Smith, now my bonus sister. Though he didn’t sit around pining about my mother, Pop always wanted to explain what had happened to their relationship.

“I always thought, ‘If I get the chance to let her know why I did what I did, I want to,’” he said. “I was glad she got married. I was sad, but it was cool. I wanted her to know that it wasn’t that I didn’t care, but that I wasn’t ready.”

He finally got that chance at a high school reunion long after my dad died, and about a year later, he and my mom had lunch. They stayed in touch and eventually started dating long distance, with him in Maryland and her down in Florida as she helped me raise my son after my husband, Scott, died.

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Pop came to visit a few times, which is when we knew he was serious about her. In March 2020, about two weeks before the COVID lockdown changed everything, Pop flew down with the rest of my family for an event to launch my memoir, “Black Widow,” with me in conversation with superstar author James Patterson. I love my family, but we are, as my grandmother once said, “a lot.” I asked Pop why he came.

“It was an important part of your life, and an important part of your mother’s life, and I wanted to be in the mix of it,” he explained. “I had been in the singles ministry at church and people would say, ‘I’m interested in this woman’ but weren’t that strong on kids, but she had kids, and I said, ‘You don’t want her, then. They come with her.’ You came with her.”

And there you go. A lot of people didn’t believe me when I told them how happy I was my mother was serious about a new/old guy and was probably going to marry him, as they admittedly would have had a problem seeing their own mother with someone who wasn’t their father. It never occurred to me not to be happy for her — this person who’d cared for her beloved husband, rescued her grieving daughter after widowhood, and then found love again with someone awesome.

Love is fragile and precious. I’m going to begrudge the person I love more than anything that joy? No, ma’am.

We have faced a lot of loss: my granddad, my dad, my husband, my grandmother this year, and Pop’s siblings, including two brothers, since 2020. But there’s been so much gain, so much joy. Weddings and granddads and grandkids and laughter. So much laughter. I miss my dad, and will every day for the rest of my life. But he’s not here, and Pop is, willingly and lovingly a part of the craziness that is my family.

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So, happy belated Father’s Day, Pop. What a gift you’ve been to me.