“Not to take one’s own suffering seriously, to make light of it, or even laugh at it, is considered good manners in our culture… Many people are proud of their lack of sensitivity toward their own fate and above all their own childhood.”
~Alice Miller, Banished Knowledge
I lost my parents when I was 19. It wasn’t a car accident or a plane crash, it was a divorce.
That year psychology was my major, and so I researched the effect of divorce on children. This was a relatively new field in the early 80’s; and when I presented my findings to my sophomore class, I repeated what I had read (instead of what I felt): Older children cope well with divorce.
Since I’d long relied upon my thoughts, instead of feelings, I stuffed my feelings and put my focus on my younger siblings, becoming the guardian of what remained of our family: our history, our traditions, our memories.
My parents moved on–turning their backs on what came before and reinvesting their lives in new relationships–new loves, new family.
My siblings and I were left in a No Man’s Land, highlighted on that first Easter Sunday after the divorce; when each parent thought the other planned to have the kids for dinner (or perhaps didn’t think of us at all.)
We did the divorce-kid shuffle that morning: waking at Mom’s for an Easter Egg hunt and then heading over to Dad’s for a late brunch. Fortunately for them, I did all the driving; so they could avoid any future contact.
In the afternoon, our father quickly ushered us out so that he could rush over to his prospective in-laws for dinner. We arrived back at home to a surprisingly empty house.
There was no ham in the oven, no Parker rolls, no applesauce with cinnamon, no mash potatoes and peas (that our father had always forced us to combine.)
We had been forgotten–all six of us.
I searched the refrigerator and cupboards for something to approximate an Easter dinner, but came up empty.
The “babies” (who were now actually preschoolers) searched the house for “Mommy,” while the middle two fought over candy. My second-in-command, at the tender age of 16, offered to shoot us all with the toy gun she held pointed at her heart.
I awkwardly called my mother at her future in-laws house, and she quickly abandoned her dinner there, arriving home with a box of frozen chicken from the convenience store.
Things didn’t go well for my mother in her second marriage. Her husband, twenty years her junior, was unfaithful, and she became the parent of two more children in her forties.
Our father, fared better, at least on the outside. He fell in love with a tall, attractive OR nurse (he was a surgeon), and began the jet set life he had never embraced with our petite, down-to-earth mother.
Right away, however, there were fireworks between our father’s girlfriend and his oldest daughters. Once engaged, however, she vowed that she would never let any of us come between them.
These plans were foiled when our own mother began drinking, and the youngest four children moved into my father’s condo, making him a full-time parent instead of an occasional weekend one. Soon after his wedding, a mansion was built by the bay, and our younger siblings were swallowed up into a new life without the rest of us.
With the family fabric further frayed, I took on the crusade of knitting us back together with great odds–two different households, myself off at school, and the second-in-charge, married, and expecting her own child after two weeks at college.
I did not grasp the concept of “Alpha Female”at the time, but my stepmother meant to keep us apart:
We were to knock before entering “her” home.
We were not to arrive there with friends, uninvited.
We were not included in special family celebrations–our father’s birthday for instance.
We were no longer asked along on family vacations.
There was no room set aside for us in the new house, not a bed, or any form of welcome, not even a photo on the wall.
And we no longer enjoyed free reign over our youngest siblings who we had practically raised, and who had suddenly become exclusively hers. We would need to make an appointment to “have” them for an outing, scheduled well in advance, subject to gross delays and sudden, heart-breaking, cancellations.
Finally, she made it clear that she saw no need for our younger sisters to spend time with what she dismissed as their “half” siblings; and she dismissed all of our efforts to spend time together.
A decade of anguish ensued as I watched everything I knew and loved slip from my hands. My mother, hardly able to hold together the new life she had created, was reluctant to insist on visitation; and in her self-pity preferred to let her daughters enjoy their new, “richer,” lives in coordinating Gap outfits and matching pigtails.
For my father’s part, it seemed to pain him to recall his life with us. In some corrupted way, we were held accountable for our mother’s shameless relationship with a younger man, and for the new half-siblings we adored, but were supposed to eschew.
He would often explain that we represented the children his new wife would never have with him, and thus our very existence was a source of anguish and pain.
Occasionally, the man who was once our father lavished fatherly affection on us for a single bright moment; but it was always followed by an awkwardness, as if he was embarrassed to love us in the presence of his wife–as if we were his ex-es instead of his daughters.
Once I was married myself, my stepmother refused to accept that I maintained my family name. Maybe she didn’t want to share it with me. I always thought it would have made more sense for my father to have shared hers. He had so little to do with us after the divorce–always following her lead and enjoying life’s special occasions with her family and friends.
To his credit, he did try to include us now and then. “Why don’t you join us,” he’d say, off-handedly, as if he remembered that we had once been connected. Frequently this invitation would be silently rebuked by our stepmother, and we could tell we shouldn’t accept although we felt unable to say why for fear of further alienated ourselves. Other times, she would be openly rescind the invitation; and on some occasions, we’d arrive on time, to find that we had been left behind or forgotten altogether.
For years, it was impossible to reach the man who had been our father. Letters or presents sent were never received, and he was rarely available to come to the phone. She would answer and we could never quite figure how to circumvent her. He was busy. They had important, prestigious lives. We were a distraction, an annoyance, a bother. What did we want?
It’s pathetic to admit, but during those years we formed an underground hotline on the man who had been our father. If one of us were to discover him alone, either by phone or in person, we would notify the others immediately, so that they too could grasp at his attention.
“Hey, she’s at the mall for the day,” we’d whisper to each other on the phone, or “She’s at the gym for the morning.” or “Dad’s here at the office, alone!”
A protective layer of scar tissue has formed since this god-awful time two decades ago, but I still feel the pain of my parents divorce and the loss of our family.
It’s as if we were once held in a beautiful blanket, with each parent holding two corners, only to be carelessly dropped. There has been healing for me–for all of us–for sure, but our bottoms are still sore from that fall
We’ve each woven new blankets, my siblings and I–with each other, as we gathered around our mother as she died, and within our own families, who themselves have suffered some of the ravages of infidelity and separation.
As adults, I think we each hold onto a little too tightly to our corners of love and responsibility, not wanting our children or lives to plummet to the ground like we did so long ago.
At forty years old, I’m ready to give it all up–all this tight holding. But I am afraid. If I let go, will we have ever existed?
Kelly Salasin, 2004