Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Residue of Divorce

I’ve mentioned previously that the effects of divorce on children are sadly all-too-well documented. There is a whole set of fears and neuroses that cluster around the category 'children of divorce'. And I can see some of them in myself.

For virtually all of my post-divorce childhood, and into my young adulthood, I didn't particularly 'feel' any effects of my parents' divorce - I didn't cry myself to sleep, and, once we settled into the routines of the 'new' family, life was busy and challenging and intense. I had an 'alpha male' contest to work out with my step-brother (I'll call him my 'step-brother' for blogging purposes, just because it's easier; in real life, I've only ever called him my 'brother'; just so you know), and, for the first time in my life, I had sisters, which introduced a whole interesting set of parameters to my life.

My 'first mother' pretty much just disappeared from the scene of our lives. In retrospect, I think it had more to do with a sense of shame than any kind of rejection of us (but she had clearly rejected my dad, and didn't particularly want to bump into him, if she could help it). For a couple years after she left, she sent my brother and me birthday cards, but then, even that stopped, and I wouldn't hear from her again for over 20 years. I can't say that I ever consciously 'missed her'; maybe I did, but I don't remember it.

To backtrack just a bit, for the year between when my mother left and when my dad got married again, we lived in a different house. We had moved 'up north' when I was seven, and our house was right on the shore of one of the Great Lakes, which is a pretty good working model of heaven - long walks on the beach, going swimming at the drop of a hat all summer long, and beautiful scenery out the back window all year long. So, the first casualty of my parents' divorce was living in heaven. Dad moved us into an old house 'in town', where we could be more easily cared for while he was at work.

I look back on that year with a kind of odd amusement. Dad certainly did well enough by my brother and me, but - well, he was a guy. Lots of mac-n-cheese for dinner, and he was as likely to open a can of kippers for dinner as anything else.

When Dad remarried, we moved again, into another house on the edge of town, at the isolated end of a dead-end street, with the yard surrounded on all sides by woods. And that was where we lived for the rest of my youth.

My relationship with my step-brother was interesting. I'd grown up pretty sheltered and bookish up to that point; he'd grown up on the street. He was much 'tougher' than I was, more street-wise, and generally 'hipper'. When he wanted to assert his dominance, he would just pound on my shoulder until I cried. But, as we got older, I stood up to him more and more. I recall one time when he was taunting me during a football game with a group of our friends, and I chased him around the field in a blind rage; I was sure that I saw fear in his eyes, and he treated me better after that. Over time, we arrived at a decently respectful relationship with each other.

He always had trouble with Dad, and when he was 16, he ran away from home. His life has been a lot harder than it needed to be, but at the time, I admired him for being able to live 'on his own', and I wondered if I could do that, when the time came.


Anyway - the effects of divorce. When Molly and I were dating, and I laid out the story of my life for her - adoption, divorce, etc, etc - she looked at me and asked, in the way that only Molly could, "How can you possibly be normal?" (She found out, heh, heh, heh)

I sometimes see in myself a kind of insecurity, a fear that the good things in my life won't last, or will be taken from me. Molly will tell you that, right up until our wedding day, I was anxious that something would go tragically wrong - she'd get run over by a truck, or she'd change her mind about getting married, or whatever. I even worried that we'd get in an accident on our honeymoon, and be killed before our life together could really get started.

Going back a bit further, I think that, with my girlfriends before Molly, I was a 'clingier-than-normal' boyfriend, which they eventually found kind of stifling.

I've been prone to depression most of my life. I've never taken medication for it, and it's never been debilitating, but, given the right day and the right set of bleak circumstances, life can seem pretty hopeless and dreary. That's the point at which having Molly for my wife really works in my favor - she's so sunny, so sanguine, that she just cheers me right up out of it. Most of the time, anyway.

So yeah - until ten or fifteen years ago, I'd have said that I was unaffected by my parents' divorce. I don't say that anymore. The effects haven't been crippling, and I've had a good life, even so. But the scars are there; they're 'deal-able with', but they are there.


Just as a kind of 'post-script', I did eventually get back in touch with my 'first mother'. 1F is very musical, and when she was five or so, we started her on piano lessons, and she took right off with them. I recalled that my 'first mother' had gotten me started on piano lessons, and had instilled in me a love of music (my dad can't carry a tune in a basket), which I then saw passing through to 1F, and I wanted to thank her for planting that seed in our lives. So, with that as the motivation, I decided to look for her. I was able to track her for a few years after she'd left my dad, but then the trail went cold, and I quit searching. Then over Thanksgiving - what, 18 years ago? - out of the blue, she called. Somebody I'd talked to had talked to somebody, who'd talked to somebody, who told her I was looking for her.

She'd gotten remarried four years after she left Dad, which corresponded to the time that the birthday cards stopped coming. She'd never told her new husband that she'd had kids, and the news that I was looking for her left her with some 'splainin' to do. (The 'adoptive' thing played into it, too - even when she was still with us, she didn't really, 'deep in her gut', think of herself as our 'real' mother; kinda sad, when I think about it).

Anyway, we've re-established our relationship, and she's happy to know us and our kids. Ironic, on one level, that she and my dad are both still living, well into their 80s; they'd have celebrated their 59th anniversary a few weeks ago, if they'd stayed married.


But, I don't have any 'yearnings' to go back and have the life we had before. As I hope I've conveyed, for all the bumps in the road, we wound up with a good family, one which gave life to its inhabitants. But sometimes I look back and just marvel at all the twists and turns that have brought my life to where it is today.

La-la, how the life goes on. . .


Monday, November 27, 2006

Yours, Mine and Ours

Up to now, I haven’t told you all very much about my ‘family of origin’, and I really should, as that’s been a pretty formative influence in my life.

I’ve told you that I was adopted. My parents also adopted another boy, my brother, 2-1/2 years younger than me. And, for all intents and purposes, that was our family.

Until I was nine, when my mother left my dad. To this day, I don’t really know why she left him. My dad is a solid man, the best man I’ve ever known. But he can be stubborn and hard to live with. Knowing what I do now about my mother, she was sensitive and fairly insecure, and I think she just decided one day that she didn’t want to deal with it anymore. So she left. And for all intents and purposes, that was the last I saw of her for more than 20 years.

That summer when I was nine, Dad started seeing a woman, herself divorced, with three kids (a boy and two girls) roughly the same ages as my brother and me. They were married the following winter, and suddenly, we had five kids in our family, spanning less than three years. Within a year, my stepmother (I’ve never called her anything but ‘Mom’) gave birth to a baby boy, and four years after that, she had another boy, so we ended with seven kids in a ‘yours-mine-and-ours’ blended family.

Everything I’ve read about ‘blended’ families emphasizes how difficult they are to pull off – how few of them succeed, and how many of them end in disaster. It didn’t work that way for us. We had lots of challenges, to be sure. My stepbrother and I were almost exactly the same age, and a fairly nasty struggle ensued over who was going to be the ‘alpha male’ of the litter. He won that struggle in the short run, but I think I won it in the long run.

My parents worked real hard to forge a new family identity for us. There was never any real distinction made as to who had come to the family from which direction, or which kids ‘belonged’ to which parent. And it must have worked – none of us has ever referred to each other as ‘step-brother’ or ‘step-sister’. As far as I remember, we’ve always just thought of each other as ‘brothers and sisters’. Partly just as a kind of short-hand, I suppose, but we really did come to think of each other that way. It probably also helped when the two younger boys came along, to sort of provide a ‘focal point’ that we all had in common.

It probably also helped that both of the ‘ex-es’ basically disappeared from the scene. There were no ‘sharing’ arrangements, no ‘weekends at Mom’s house’, or anything like that. The focus just shifted to the new family, and life went on.

Our family wasn’t perfect, by a long shot. But, as I look back on it, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am at the job my parents did of building a new family out of the ashes of two broken ones. On my own behalf, I can say that their marriage, and the family they built together, probably saved my life; and I think any of my brothers and sisters could say the same.

My folks celebrated their 40th anniversary last winter, and it was a great opportunity for all of us to celebrate the life that they built together, and the ways in which we’ve all benefited from it.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Giving Thanks

Over the years, the conviction has grown within me that gratitude is, on a very fundamental level, the most appropriate response we can make for our lives. Gratitude to God, yes, certainly, and fundamentally so. But, even on a more mundane level, gratitude to our parents; to our teachers, coaches, and mentors; to our brothers and sisters, and our friends.

Existence itself is a gratuitous gift, for which there is no appropriate response except gratitude. Loving relationships; food, clothing, and shelter; all the mundane, daily circumstances that, individually and collectively, bring joy to our lives.

Every one of us has his/her own set of things to be thankful for, and people to be thankful to. Rather than riff off into my own 'list', I'll just encourage all my friends in Blog-space to, however briefly, give some thought to what you're grateful for, and to whom. . .


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Only My Love Does It Good To Me

There are times when I’m simply overwhelmed by the wonderful-ness of my wife. Times when I just look at her and ask myself, “How is it that the most amazing woman in the universe threw her life in with me?” And I’m just in awe of my good fortune.

There might be a few women in the world (stress on ‘might’ and ‘few’) who are physically more beautiful than Molly, but when I consider the strength of her character, the beauty of her soul and spirit, she blows them all away. I’ll say it again – she is the most amazing woman in the universe. I almost feel bad for the rest of you guys that she’s my wife. Almost.

And the thing is, I’m well aware that I did nothing in particular to deserve her. I’m still not real sure why, all those years ago, she brought that rubber ball to me, when it seems like there must have been lots of more desirable guys than me available to her. But I’m glad she did. I’ve described previously how we knew each other pretty well before we ever got to the point of courtship. And that’s what’s most amazing of all to me – she’s told me many times how God told her, before I even proposed to her, “What you see is what you get with him.” She had a pretty good, sober assessment of my character. AND SHE STILL MARRIED ME! That blows me away, and I’m grateful for it every single day I’m married to her.

And even now, after 26 years, I’m still blown away. She knows me way better now than she did back then, and she still throws her life in with mine. For all the clear-eyed, sober appraisal of my character she had when we were courting, there are lots of things, not all of them good, that she’s only learned from living with me for 26 years. And she still stays married to me. Amazing!

“Somewhere in my wicked, miserable past, I must have done something good.”

Simply flat-out amazing.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Here, Girl!

All new parents go through a kind of 'break-in' period, during which they slowly figure out the real ways in which being parents is different from how they were before. For Molly and me, this lasted quite a while - even past 1F's first birthday, we were still discovering unanticipated ways in which our lives would never be the same.

Once, the three of us went out to dinner at a restaurant which the childless Molly and me would have counted very 'family friendly', and in fairness, it probably was, as long as none of the children were younger than five or so. 1F was about a year old on the evening in question, though, and by the time we finished our dinner, there was a circle about five feet in diameter, centered on 1F's high chair, littered with an assortment of food fragments, torn napkins, pieces of silverware, and other miscellaneous items. I left a very large tip, and we realized that taking 1F to a 'nice' restaurant with us was not going to be a live option for a while.

I've always been a bit of a gadget buff, but I really like gadgets that have a certain simplicity about them, and Kid-world is rife with elegantly simple, practical gadgets. When 1F was a baby, the little seats that you can sort of hang off the edge of the table were new, and we got one of those right away. Suddenly, we could eat at friends' houses, or church potlucks, or at a picnic table in a park, without having to pack a full-blown high chair with us. A very cool, simple contraption.

Around the same time, we met a couple who were visiting from Germany, whose daughter was just a bit older than 1F. They had a little leather harness that they put on their daughter when they took her to a crowded public place; they would clip a short tether to the harness, and they could keep the child close to them, without all the bad posture that goes along with holding her hand, to say nothing of the struggles that invariably occur when the child in question decides that she doesn't want to have her hand held anymore.

I loved it - so elegant, so simple, so practical. And all the moreso, because the child actually had a lot more freedom of movement - a lot more freedom to go where she wanted to, within a much larger radius, than she would if her hand were being held. We were so taken by this little item that we asked our German friends to send us one, since they hadn't appeared in the US market yet.

A few weeks later, we received a package in the mail from a German address. We opened it eagerly, and put it to use at our first opportunity. It worked really well, and we were pleased - 1F could roam about more freely, engage her curiosity more freely, and we hardly had to exert any effort to keep track of her. In fact, we were so taken with it that we decided to make a modest improvement - in place of the short tether, we used a 25-foot retractable leash, so 1F could have even more freedom of movement.

The Fourth of July was coming up soon, and the harness setup seemed perfect for such an occasion - a large crowd in an open public place. 1F could wander to her heart's content within a 25-foot radius, and, as long as we kept hold of the leash, Molly and I didn't need to worry about where she was.

Our first inkling that this would work out just a bit less than perfectly came as we walked into the park. We were walking alongside another young family like us, with the toddler being carried on his father's shoulders. They were looking intently at the harness/leash setup we had 1F in. I smiled, knowing that they were appreciating the ingenuity, the elegance, the simplicity, the practicality of it, and preparing to tell them how we had friends in Germany, and this was all the rage among European parents, and how they could get one for themselves. Instead, the dad sort of sneered and said, "Kind of a sick joke, man."

What?!? Sick joke? What the heck does he mean by that? Ah, well; obviously a philistine who doesn't appreciate ingenious gadgets when he sees them. We found a spot suitable to our liking to settle at, and we spread our blanket. Molly and I sat down on the blanket, while 1F wandered around on the end of the leash. When she reached the limit, she would just turn around, and poke around in a different direction, checking for bugs in the grass, or whatever else captured her eye. We were enjoying ourselves immensely, just watching her exploring her expansive little piece of turf.

While we were sitting there, a woman approached us to talk. I smiled in friendly greeting, but she immediately ripped into us. "How could you?!" she shrieked. What the hell? "Treating your child like an animal!"

No, wait, you don't understand - see, she's so much more free to roam about. . .
But the woman would have none of it. See, this was a leash, and leashes are for dogs, and that was that. At the very best, in her mind, this was an inappropriate transfer of technology; at worst, it was slam-dunk evidence of depraved child abuse. And nothing I could say would dissuade her.

Before the night was over, and all the fireworks had flashed, two or three other folks wandered by to very helpfully read us the riot act and call us colorful names.

We were more circumspect about taking the harness out in public after that, and we eventually decided that the elegance, simplicity, and practicality didn't quite outweigh the grief we had to endure from well-meaning idiots fellow-citizens.

So you see, a thing can be wonderfully practical, elegantly designed, and a vast improvement on the existing technology. But, if you don't take account of public reaction, you can still wind up with a marketplace failure. . .


Friday, November 10, 2006

You Want It When?

Years ago, at my previous job, my boss was a guy named Ross. Good guy; we had several interests in common, and it wasn't uncommon for me to sit in his office telling stories for a few minutes at the start of the day.

One morning, just before Thanksgiving, I was sitting in his office doing just that, when the Vice President of Engineering came in with a large stack of papers. "Sorry to spring this on you like this," he said, "but I need all this information by twelve-fifteen."

It was already almost nine o'clock, and there was way more than three hours' worth of normally-paced work in that stack. I offered to help, and he gave me a couple items that I could handle for him. It didn't take me all that long to find what he needed, and I returned the papers to him, filled out with the necessary information.

I found him in his office working feverishly, the phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder, as he frantically gathered information for the VP. I offered to pick up more of the load, but there really wasn't anything else that I could be all that helpful with, so I returned to my 'normal' duties.

But all the rest of that morning, and into the afternoon, I saw Ross running all through the building, tracking down this or that or another item for the VP's pile of papers.

Finally, about 1:30 or so, I met him in the hall, with the papers all filled out, heading up to the VP's office. "I hope he's not too mad, but this is as soon as I could pull it all together." I wished him luck, and he went on his way.


I saw Ross later that afternoon, and I asked him how it had gone with the VP. He got an odd look on his face.

"I went into his office," he began, "and he seemed surprised to see me. That was odd, since I was more than an hour late with information that he had asked me for just this morning."

"Anyway, I apologized - 'Sorry I'm so late with this, but I just couldn't get this all together any sooner' - and I handed him the stack of papers. He was looking through them, and finally he said, 'This is great, but why did you put yourself out so much? I don't need it until the middle of next month!'

'You said you needed it by 12:15; it's already 1:30'

A wry smile crossed the VP's face: 'Not 12:15 on the clock; 12/15 on the calendar - December 15th.'"

And at that point, there was nothing left to say, except for both of us to break down laughing. . .


Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Election Day - Jones Family Version

Yesterday was Election Day. In recent years, that has come to have a different kind of significance in the Jones family. A few years back, the company I work for started giving its employees Election Day as a paid holiday (I think the union negotiated it so that union members could be free to 'get out the vote', but that's a story for another time and place). It's not like I needed the extra eight hours to fit voting into my day, but hey, a day off is a day off.

For the last few years, Molly, while basically a stay-at-home mom, has been taking on little odd, part-time gigs here, there, and everywhere, to bring in a little supplemental income. Mostly, she proctors state licensing exams a few days a month - if a plumber, say, wants his journeyman's license, he needs to pass a state exam, and Molly is one of the folks wandering up and down the aisles, making sure nobody cheats. She really appreciates the 'quiet time' in the exam room.

Anyway, a few years back, Molly got the idea of working elections. It actually pays pretty well for a one-day gig, and it's a ton of hours (usually 15-16). But - it means that, on my newly-minted paid holiday, I'm playing Mr. Mom all day. Which isn't all that big a deal - it's not like I'm phobic of looking after my kids, or anything. It's just that I don't do it very often in such a, um, all-encompassing way. I can put a meal together, but I don't know where everything is, so I'm a bit slower and clumsier than I'd like to be; in general, Molly is well-dialed-in to running the household on a daily basis, and I'm a poor substitute at best. But, for the extra couple hundred bucks, I'll soldier through.

Yesterday, Molly got up early - she had to be at the polling place by 6AM. I got up and got breakfast for the school kids, and saw them out the door. One of the kids opened the box of cheerios from the bottom, so the box was 'upside-down' as it sat on the table; but if you worry about stuff like that, you'll never make it in the parent biz.

So, it was just 8M and me at home. And he was still in bed. So far, so good. And I got 8M off to his pre-school mid-morning, so that left me with a few hours to catch up on my reading. This Mr. Mom thing was going really smoothly; I was congratulating myself for the confident, competent manner in which I was pulling it all off.

I should interject here that Molly had spent the weekend canning applesauce - about 50 quarts' worth. My wife is an incredibly hard-working woman (for those of you who read the Bible, Proverbs 31 gives a striking description of Molly). But, with the election taking her out of the house, there was still a fair bit of cleanup left to be done - the kitchen floor, in particular, was a sticky, grungy mess, and I promised that I would mop the kitchen floor for her.

Anyway, I got suitably caught up on my reading before the kids came home from school; I was feeling relaxed and on top of the situation.

Both 4M and 5M had flat tires on their bikes, and Molly wanted me to press them to repair their bikes. When you have a big family, you really need your kids to be as independent as they can manage; having their bikes in working order means they can get to their friend a mile-and-a-half away without hitting Mom up for a ride. Well, the bikes had suffered from benign neglect a bit more than just flat tires, so I wound up spending 45 minutes or so sweating and cussing over the irritating little maintenance items that we hadn't planned on. But the upshot was, that we got a couple working bikes where we'd had none.

I left the bikes, and went back to start mopping the kitchen, but when I got there, the dining room floor was covered with cheerios, while 6F and 7M sat at the dining-room table, reading and having their after-school snack. "Why are there cheerios all over the floor?" I asked. A reasonable question, it seemed to me.

"Oh - 8M spilled them."

And you just left them? You didn't bother to clean them up?

"I didn't make the mess."

I'm exasperated by that whole line of thinking, but, see, now I've got a situation. Where's 8M?

8M, why did you dump cheerios all over the floor?

"I just picked up the box and they fell out."

6F and 7M at this point helpfully point out that the box was opened at the wrong end, so 8M thought he was turning it right-side-up, whereupon all the contents of the box fell out on the floor. I'm starting to get exasperated, but I haven't lost it yet; still clinging to a degree of control.

Then 5M comes wandering through the dining room, blithely crunching through the cheerios strewn across the floor. Which wouldn't have been as bad as all that, except that cheerio dust is stickier than you might think - it clings to the bottom of shoes. Which meant that, once 5M's feet hit the living-room carpet, they left a trail of cheerio-dust footprints. In fact, it was then that I noticed a whole set of cheerio-dust footprints crossing the living-room, and also heading down the hall in the opposite direction.

You guys just tracked crushed cheerios all through the house!

"Oh - sorry."

I have to say that I'm proud of myself. A younger, less mature me would have erupted like Krakatoa. Instead, I simply told the kids to go outside and play for a few minutes. While I collected myself and swept up the dining room. Then I called them back in and handed them the vacuum-cleaner to tend to the carpet (I could accept that the original dumping of the cheerios had been an accident, and, at any rate, 8M isn't quite up to the task of sweeping the floor just yet; but walking through the mess and tracking it onto the carpet - that was culpable, people, and you're gonna clean it up).

Which they did, and, in due time, order was restored. I mopped the kitchen floor, got dinner (fortunately, we had a good crop of leftovers in the fridge), and got the kids to bed. So that, when Molly finally got home about 10PM, I was quietly reading, the very portrait of paternal competence.

"Wow - the kids are in bed?"


"Any problems?"

Oh, nothing I couldn't handle (ahem).

"Wow - and you even mopped the floor!"


"I'm impressed! What say we head to bed?" she says, with a distinct twinkle in her eye.

Sounds good to me, dear. What did you have in mind? . . .


Monday, November 6, 2006


One summer day when I was 12 years old, my dad, passing by me in the hallway, stopped, grabbed hold of me, and stared intently at my face. Then he moistened his thumb with his tongue and rubbed it against my upper lip. “Nope,” he said, “it’s not dirt. Come with me.”

He dragged me down the hall to the bathroom, standing me in front of the mirror. He rummaged around in the bathroom closet until he found a can of shaving cream, which he tossed to me.

“Shake the can,” he commanded. I did as he ordered.

“Now put some in your hand.” Again, I obeyed.

“Rub it on your face.”

When I had done all that, he handed me a razor – one of the single-blade injector types which were what passed for ‘high-tech’ in those days.

“Now scrape the shaving cream off your face.” I made a few tentative strokes. “You’ve got to press hard enough to actually get it off your face,” he pointed out, helpfully. I scraped more vigorously. “But not so hard that you cut your face to ribbons.” Okay, I could see that there was a fine line to be walked here, between ‘hard enough’ and ‘not too hard’. Anyway, I managed to finish my first shave without too many self-inflicted lacerations, and the shadow on my upper lip was gone.

And, boy, did my chest stick out after that! I had crossed the threshold, and I was now to be counted among the elite corps of Shavers. Not a little boy any more, not this fella! No, sirree! I was so excited, I took a whole hard-earned dollar down to the store and purchased a bottle of some cheap aftershave that I’d seen advertised during a baseball game. And I used that bottle up in about my first five shaves – you couldn’t leave something so important as letting the world know that you were Shaving, to chance.


I was recalling this story from my own life this weekend. I was sitting at the dining room table with the newspaper spread out in front of me, and Molly was in the kitchen, when 6F, who is eleven, came roaring through the house.

“I can shave now!”

What the heck is that about, I wondered.

She ran right past me to Molly in the kitchen. “You said I couldn’t shave until I had hair in my armpits!” she declared. Whereupon, she peeled back her shirtsleeve to show Molly her armpit. “See!” she declared triumphantly. “I’ve got hair in my armpits! So now I can shave!”

Molly leaned in for a closer look. “Well, so you do!” she said, admiringly.

6F began to bounce excitedly up and down. “So I can shave?”

“I guess you can,” Molly said, and she whisked her down the hall to the bathroom for some pit-shaving lessons. . .


Friday, November 3, 2006

My Old Flame

I got a phone call last week. From my first girlfriend (call her GF1; clever pseudonyms are not my strong suit), telling me of the death of a mutual friend's mother. Aside from the sad news, I was glad to hear from her. I hadn't heard from her in 10 years, and it had been more than 20 years before that since I'd had any contact with her.

I met GF1 at the same Christian summer camp I mentioned in this post, the summer before my senior year of high school. She was outgoing and fun, and we connected almost immediately. Looking back, high school summer camps are virtual hothouses of teenage romances - we were away from home and the normal 'authorities' in our lives (ie, our parents); it was summer, the weather was beautiful, and we had lots of free time. Much of which we spent on the beach, um, fairly scantily clad. And, as I said, we hit it off pretty quickly. By mid-week, we were an 'item'.

I had never had a girlfriend before. Not that I never wanted one, you understand; but between my own adolescent male awkwardness and certain adverse appraisals of my desirability on the part of the young women of my hometown, such a relationship had not yet materialized.

But none of those constraints applied with GF1. I didn't have a reputation as a 'nerd' with her, and her social status wasn't threatened by association with me. Just being in her presence, knowing that she liked me, was like a powerful drug.

Toward the end of the week of camp, we had an 'outing', I think to a play in the nearby town. GF1 and I worked out to ride in the same car, and we used the opportunity to, uh, get to know each other better. I was lost in a blissful fog - she liked me, she really liked me!

The last couple days of camp, we snuck off together whenever we could, until finally the day came when camp ended and she went back to her town and I went back to mine.

Her town was a few hours' drive from mine, so we really couldn't get together during the school year. Or even call each other; in those days, long-distance phone calls were expensive enough that my parents weren't about to allow even a few minutes a month for me to call her. So we sent letters back and forth, professing our undying love, and scheming for any way that we could possibly get together. There was a camp reunion over Christmas break, and we both went, so we could be together again for a day or two.

When I graduated the following spring, she managed to get the use of her parents' car to drive over for my commencement. I really relished being able to show her off to my friends, and to all the girls who had never deemed me worthy of their romantic attention.

My family moved to another town that summer, so I was sort of adrift, trying to get a summer job in a new town, and not having much success. My college orientation was in the early part of the summer, and my dad and I hit upon the idea of finding a job and staying the summer in the college town. Lo and behold, I found a job, and a place to stay (a little seedier than I was used to, but I didn't know any better).

That whole summer, then, when I got out of work on Friday, I'd throw all my possessions into a backpack and hitch-hike from the college town to GF1's town. She arranged for me to stay with the family of a mutual friend (the same one whose mother died last week), and we would spend weekends together all that summer.

I went off to college in the fall, but GF1, a year younger than I was, was still in high school. I hitch-hiked over to see her for a weekend in the fall, but she was oddly evasive toward me. Finally, she told me that it wasn't going to work with me being in college and her still home in high school, and we needed to break up. I was stunned, and crestfallen, but I suppose that, somewhere in the depths of my brain, I could admit that it was better this way. Still - she was my first serious love; I can remember my friend's mom (the woman who died last week) consoling me, and telling me that, whatever happened, I would always remember GF1 fondly just because she was my first love. And I can say that that has been the case.

After that, GF1 and I lost track of each other. She dropped in to say hello once when I was in college, and she was visiting a friend at the same school, but she spent the whole time talking to my roommate, and never said a word to me. Pretty strange.


Fast forward to 10 years ago. Molly and I are planning a getaway weekend, and I propose a bed-and-breakfast in a small town near to GF1's hometown. It's a beautiful area, on Lake Michigan, and I could show Molly around a bit, for having spent so many weekends there way back when.

At one point, we stopped at a grocery store, and there was a small group of people talking in the parking lot, near where we were parked. One woman was talking more than the others in the group, and there was something very familiar about her voice. I studied her face, but if this woman was GF1, she had put on quite a bit of weight, so it was hard to tell (well, so had I; besides which, my hair was a lot shorter than she'd have remembered me). Finally, I interrupted, saying that she reminded me of someone I knew long ago, and sure enough, it was her. We spent a few minutes catching up, then we both had to be about our business, so we traded addresses and promised to get back in touch.

Molly has mostly forgiven me now, but she has never let me live down the irony that I got back in touch with my old girlfriend when my wife and I were on a 'romantic getaway weekend'. (sigh) Sorry, sweetheart; I promise you, it wasn't intentional.

GF1 and I tried a few times to get together after that. Once, she had some business in our town, and we planned to meet for lunch, but a freak snowstorm blew in, and she wound up not coming. We traded Christmas cards for a few years, but then we lost track of each other again. Until she called last week.


edit - I really should tell you 'The Rest of the Story'; I couldn't figure out at first how to fold it into the main story without changing the focus of the story. It's not all that crucial to the story, but I think if I just laid it out there, it would wind up being distracting. And yet, telling this part of the story adds some texture; so, I'll make it a 'footnote'. . .

GF1 is black. I don't say that to impress anyone, or to shock anyone, or to elicit any particular response from anyone. It's a fact, is all - it is what it is.

And yet, the world we live in being what it is, it can hardly help but elicit a certain range of responses. My Dad was not pleased; he and I had some of the nastiest arguments we ever had over my relationship with her. When GF1 came to my school for my commencement, it created a minor stir. Some people were uncomfortable just because she was there, and my relationship with a black girl upset them. Some of my friends were eager to meet 'The Black Girl', as if merely being in her aura would confer some grace on them. And everything in between. Some folks just wanted to touch her hair (this was waayy Up North; some of my classmates had never seen a real, live black person). . .

The thing is, to me, her blackness was just a personal fact about her, not some huge determinative marker. She wasn't 'my black girlfriend', she was just my girlfriend. She was a very cool person just for who she was, not because she was black (or, as some would have it, in spite of it).

Her race (or mine) didn't have anything to do with why we broke up, but if we had continued on together, we would sooner or later have had to deal with the racial issue (or, more precisely, the inter-racial issue), just because the world around us wouldn't have let us ignore it, try as we might have.


So now, I can tell you that Molly tried to dissuade me from approaching her - "If you're wrong, it'll be, 'oh, they all just look alike.'"

And, once we established that we were who we thought we were (or however you say that), she turned to the rest of her group and said, "This is that white guy I told you all about!"


Wednesday, November 1, 2006

All Saints' Day

On the traditional Christian calendar, today is All Saints' Day. For Catholics in the United States, it is a 'Holy Day of Obligation', and mass attendance is mandatory. It is one of my favorite Holy Days, evoking memories of all the godly, holy, heroic men and women who have gone before me in the faith. It is a day for all the un-named 'saints', the 'every-Christians' who lived the Christian life faithfully and sometimes heroically - grandparents, neighbors, friends, whoever - who never captured popular attention so as to be canonized, but who yet were faithful and godly Christians. So, I have always loved All Saints' Day.


In recent years, though, the day has taken on a darker significance in Molly's family. Today is also the second anniversary of Molly's sister's suicide.

G and Molly were barely a year apart in age, but temperamentally as different as two sisters could be. Molly is bright, cheerful and sanguine; G was brooding, angry and rebellious. Being as close in age as they were, the two girls developed an intense sibling rivalry. Molly tended to be more favored by her parents; G was more popular at school. She ran away from home when she was 16 (to California; where else?).

In the course of time, she married her English professor and bore four children by him. She seemed to settle down into wifedom and motherhood, and her relationships with the rest of the family improved, either due to her forming her own separate identity, or to her living far away and only seeing us seldom, or both.

A few years ago, though, she called to tell us that she had left her husband. She seemed very eager to get Molly's approval for it. But Molly could only, in good conscience, tell her, "You're my sister and I love you," stopping short of fully accepting what G had done. And that caused some friction between the two of them. G's children grew up and left home, and she lived an increasingly carefree (or maybe aimless?) life as she passed through her middle-, and into her late-40s. It came as a shock when we heard she had ended her life.

In retrospect, I suppose we can see the seeds of it - her children were grown, she had left her husband; she was getting old enough that the young and exciting men were looking elsewhere than at her, and I'm sure that, on the most visceral level, she was lonely.

And yet, there was always something stubborn in G, to the effect that, 'if the world isn't going to be the way I want it to be, then too bad for the world'. It is entirely possible to see her suicide as the grand, final 'Screw You' to the Universe.

And, there seems to be something significant to the fact that she chose All Saints' Day for the end of her life. She and her husband had often traveled in Mexico, and she was very fond of Mexican culture; in Mexico, tomorrow, All Souls' Day, is called 'Dia del Muerte' - the Day of the Dead.

I don't really know why I'm so reflective on G's death this year; life goes on, and I never really knew her all that well. But I liked her, hard as she tried to make herself unlikable; she was sort of like Molly's 'dark twin' - alike, and so very different. I wish she could have been happier; I wish she were still here today. She should still be here today. And that's the tragedy.

I still love All Saints' Day, and all that it means in the Christian context. But it will never be quite the same. . .