March 22, 2009

Divorce [kris]

This is a piece of a story. One view of something too big to be caught by pen and paper. It is a daughter’s view. A daughter who is part of a later generation. Living life atop a foundation formed by the choices, the brokenness and the beauty, of those before her.

My Mother is a tower. A graceful cathedral spire. And if my Mother is a tower my Father is the surrounding swirl of clouds and powder blue expanse of sky. She has always been beautiful, a sensual beauty with dark hair like cherry wood and gems for eyes, one emerald and one lapis. He has always been a dreamer. A changer and stout idealist. She is constant. He barrels forward into the unknown, always asking, seeking, pursuing and demanding. Her rare beauty is coupled with a dark side bearing the same measure of intensity—she knows she is powerful. The energy emanating from him propels forward into uncharted territories without caution. He is a navigator in an unsteady ship. And she is tall. So much closer to the sky than me.

Christmas 2008.
Mom is poised on the corner chair nearest the tree. The sparkling lights and gem-toned bulbs accent her exotic beauty perfectly. Her hair is laced with silver and rolled into a chignon at the nape of her neck, elegant as ever. Her legs are crossed at the ankle and her hands folded in her lap. She is all presence and no words. Dad is on the floor, sleeves rolled up, playing make believe with Tommy and his new yellow Tonka truck and Chelsea and her ‘Baby Alive’ doll. He is much less agile but vigorous as ever. Inviting, but with conditions of course. He doesn’t meet eyes with Mom and no one needs to say why. It’s been 20 years, but it feels like even 500 wouldn’t help. Neither is willing to change.

* * *

As I round the corner to come down the stairs I glance at the digital clock in my bedroom. 9:15. Tommy and Chelsea are tucked in bed and my stomach is turning because I know without their presence there’s nothing to keep us from talking about it. I take the steps slowly, preparing myself for this conversation. Dad sees me come around the corner into the kitchen.

“You want some coffee, kiddo?”
“Yeah, black. Thanks Dad.”
“Sure.” He smiles. We drink our coffee the same way.
Once Mom hears me in the kitchen she switches off the living room light and comes in, taking a seat at the table.
“You want coffee too, Mom?” I ask.
“No. Thank you. I made tea.”
Dad brings our mugs to the table and I sit at the end, he sits across from Mom.

“Thanks for coming tonight and for the kids’ gifts, I can’t believe how excited Chelsea was about her doll.”
Mom smiles. “I knew she would love it.”
Dad, never one to waste time, cuts in. “So are you going to tell us why Kevin isn’t here?”
Mom doesn’t say anything but looks intensely at me. No way around this.
“He’s at his parents’ house.”
“Without his family, on Christmas?”
“We need space.”
I’ve fought tears intermittently all night but I’m losing that battle now.
Mom chimes in. “Space? What could you possibly need space for?”

I do want to listen to my parents. I know they love my family and me deeply. But it’s laughable to me that we are having this conversation. Dad’s frustration is starting to surface. His voice is more desperate, his face a little red.

“Did either of you think about the kids?”
Mom, forgetting that as a general rule she does not agree with Dad, leans in and nods.
Though it’s been so long, my anger and hurt at their divorce, like childhood companions, make themselves known once again. A familiar but unwelcome sensation, like the tearing of the tissue of my heart, returns. When I was little I thought that because the pain was so great my heart must really be torn. Physically torn inside of me. I thought they’d find me dead and bloody in my fluffy pink bed from a torn up heart. Of course I’m much smarter now. I’m an adult. And of course this isn’t serious pain, there isn’t any blood. I’m mad that even with all I know now, with how grown I am, this pain can affect me as if I were still that naive little girl. So I accuse.
“Did YOU!?”

Christmas Eve 1974.
This part of the story I tell from second hand memory, only because I am the only one who will still tell it. Like an old photograph with faded colors and torn edges, I hold it close to my heart. John met Regina on a broken down greyhound bus in the Christmas Eve snowstorm of 1974. The bus was en route to Cleveland from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh where they both went to college and Cleveland where the both grew up—though they’d never met in Cleveland or in Pittsburgh. While the bus was parked on 76 awaiting repair, John got up from his seat to stretch and walked a few steps down the aisle, right onto Regina’s foot. When I was a little girl and Dad told me this story he was “completely mortified . . . she was absolutely the most striking girl I’d ever seen!” And when he apologized and heard her speak he heard “the most beautiful, mysterious voice he’d ever heard, like an angel!” I loved Dad’s animation so much when I heard this story, and Mom’s coy grin and lack of input, that I never protested when the details were different each time I heard it. Somehow John and Regina went from an awkward meeting to a fascinating conversation to a relationship and then a wedding on Christmas Day two years later. The story was more extravagant, and more dramatic every time. I loved it. Mom never interjected, her eyes showed her amusement and her grin was the reward he sought. The details always changed but Dad never failed to end his story with, “and the rest is history and happily ever after.”

Christmas 1988.
History trudged on but happily ever after officially ended Christmas morning of 1988. Nighttime arguments I heard while lying in bed and less talk at the dinner table had alerted me months earlier that something wasn’t right. My fears were confirmed, Dad nailed all of it to the doorframe when he left. A very personal pink slip for Mom. A blazing list of her indiscretions. The public undressing and shaming of his ‘better half.’ I was nine. I saw it first. He poured out his heart in pen and paper, judgments and truths mixed together, exposed and delivered in a decision made impulsively without compromise or care. It was early morning and I was barefoot in my nightgown when I stepped outside on the cold, snowless Christmas Day and saw his note on the door. I brought it inside to Mom right away, not knowing what was happening, only that Dad wasn’t home but this note was from him. I read it all, walking slowly to Mom in her chair in the living room. And this is the day that all of the tearing started. The pain in my nine-year-old heart was so much louder than the words on the paper and now I can’t remember what it said. I know glimpses, “shame,” “sin,” “I can’t trust you,” “you’ve been with another man and you have no remorse,” and “its over.” What I know much better than the actual content of the letter is its aftermath. Mom’s broken heart didn’t need words to be expressed, but there were so many tears. More than a flood of tears. More tears than a woman who has only lived 34 years can possess. Her tears came and came as if they had been locked inside her for generations, as if they were part of something much bigger than she was. Later I would hear her protest the letter but never the things it contained. And later still I realized this meant that she had a relationship with someone other than Dad. But the only words I heard her say aloud that day, as she grasped the letter in her hand but not yet in her heart, were “We have a daughter together!”

Christmas 1989 and Beyond.
Eventually the flood dried up.
Eventually Dad came back.
Only into my life and never again into hers.

The time we spent together in later years was disjointed. Lukewarm. Without each other John and Regina became shadows of their former selves. I only knew them together. As Mom and Dad—husband and wife. They were both present at the significant events of my life: graduation, first job, marriage, and the births of two children. But something was lost and has never been recovered. Though they’ve lived a long time their authority seems questionable and without substance. Their separating from each other also separated me from them. As years went on time and the longing for “peace” created a welcomed buffer, but it didn’t heal any of our wounds. I grew older. The world around John and Regina changed. They didn’t.

And twenty years later we are the same people in changed bodies sitting awkwardly around my kitchen table.

“You’ve got to listen!” Says Dad, “You two have both got to change. You two made a commitment and you’re meant to be together and stay together and that’s that.” Dad is so earnest.
Mom nods, “Yes. Yes. I know we’ve not been a good example for you. But trust us now.”
I’m just mad. “And what about the two of you? When will you listen?”
Neither speaks. An awkward silence. Readjusting of bodies in chairs. Mom inhales and I wait for her to speak but she’s suddenly very interested in her tea, stirring it thoughtfully.
Dad shakes his head. “This isn’t about us.”

More silence.

I push myself to stop the tears. At least I know the physical solution. A ritual I’ve carried out for many years now. I breathe deep. I wipe my eyes and, as though I can really hide behind my hands, I feel safe for a moment. I can push the pain back down to the place inside myself that I keep it. Covered up and stored away, it may never leave but at least I will be in control. I resolve to be in control.

“It’s getting late. I still have some gifts to wrap for the kids. I appreciate you both coming . . .”
“It is.” Mom stands up, pushes her chair in and walks to the hall to get her coat. Dad hesitates but says nothing and goes for his coat as well. I walk them to the front door and we hug and say our goodbyes.
“Call me in the morning dear and let me know how the kids like the rest of their gifts.” I nod and Mom kisses me on the cheek.
Dad hugs me and then steps back; holding my shoulders he says, “Think about things.”

Standing on the porch I watch them each get into their cars and drive around the cul-de-sac and away from my house. I watch as the lights on the back of each car shrink and fade away. The night is clear and cold. There is no snow this year. I step back into the house and shut out their advice as quick and easy as I shut the door behind me.

*editor's note: This piece was a special assignment intended to personify, from the perspective of a child being torn between parents, the split in the Catholic church during the reformation. Now that you've read it once, read it again.

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