Now at age 53 I look back at the years leading up to my parents’ breakup – old pictures, my memories and my brother’s, and recalling things my mom shared with me later. I have pictures of my parents standing together (for the picture presumably) with happy smiles on their faces. I remember them together in the front seat of the car when we took trips to visit family or vacation back east, or taking us out to dinner at some local restaurant.
But in the years leading to their divorce in 1965, I also remember my mom’s angry words to my dad that there was not enough money, that she felt like a drudge, and that she needed the opportunity to pursue her own development as my dad was working for his PhD and later as a college professor. My dad would not say so much in response except to express his hurt at her anger and that he was doing the best that he could. Often later, after one of their verbal “fights”, he would share privately with me how frustrating she was.
He had what I would learn later to describe as a passive-aggressive approach to their relationship. I remember when he brought home a cheap brand of orange juice, rather than the brand my mom had asked him to get, she would get upset and then he would respond by reminding her that she kept complaining that they did not have enough money. My dad was not one for “I statements” and his real emotions showed only when his attempts to hold them in finally failed and he would say something like “Damn it Jane” and stalk off.
For me as a kid, all the anger and arguments were traumatic, so much so apparently that still today I am generally uncomfortable getting into a heated exchange with somebody. This trauma was mitigated by the fact that it was clear that both my parents loved me, and even though they had serious differences with each other on every other subject, they seemed always aligned when it came to parenting me.
About a year before they divorced, there were two events that were a watershed for things to come. The first, which I did not find out about until later, was that my mom found out that my dad was having an affair with another woman. The second was that, as a result, my mom had a horrific panic attack (see “Panic Attack”) where she suddenly felt she could not breathe, which I was a terrified witness of. That event was so traumatic for me that, to this day, I don’t remember exactly how it was resolved. Somehow my mom was able to call somebody – my dad, a friend, paramedics – to get her to doctor or the hospital. All I remember was my mom saying over and over, “Oh my god… I can’t breathe,” and sucking desperately for air.
So after all these things had transpired and their “fights” continued, one day my mom and dad sat me down and told me that they were getting divorced and that my dad would be moving out of the house. I being more passive-aggressive like my dad, listened and was angry but did not say so. Because my mom was more the obvious aggressor in their arguments, most of my anger was directed towards her. She had obviously been unreasonable and my poor dad had suffered the consequences.
So as a consequence of the divorce my world and my family’s world changed. My dad moved out of the house to live with some University of Michigan graduate student friends in a house across town on campus. My mom, my brother and I, moved from our house on Prescott Street (across from Almendinger Park) to the east side of town and rented half of a duplex on Martin Place just across the street from Burns Park.
Again, the location of our new residence was mainly based on what would be best for my brother and me (and certainly serving to help my mom as a single parent in the process). Burns was a large park with swings and other play equipment, basketball, baseball and football fields, even tennis courts and a backboard, along with a public elementary school within view of our house, where my brother and I would attend. The park was full of kids each day after school was out, on weekends and throughout the summer. We spent hours at a time, unsupervised by adults, playing in the park, either alone or more often with a neighborhood friend or a larger bunch of kids. My mom would ring a cow bell from our front porch when it was time for me to come home for dinner.
Though our dad was out of the house, he was still involved in our lives in different ways. On school days, he would pick us up at lunchtime and take us to the soda fountain at a local market and buy us hot dogs and a soda. We would also spend every other weekend with him.
The initial trauma of the divorce faded as my life continued and I still was getting the support I needed from my parents to move forward with my life. It was actually a relief to no longer have the two of them in the house fighting with each other, though my mom would still have very angry phone conversations with my dad at night, that I overheard from my bed in the room next door to my mom’s bedroom.
It is painful for me to recall that particularly for the first few years after their divorce, I took up the cause for my dad, and developed a comparable passive-aggressive thing with my mom. My small assigned job of keeping an eye on the kitchen trash can, and taking it out when it was full, became one battleground (See “Taking out the Trash”). I would forget to do things she asked me, and then get angry and sulk when she would remind me.
But I would also sit in the rocking chair at the foot of her bed and listen to her torrent of issues, financial and emotional, her longings, her plans, and her frustrations (see “Bills on the Bed”). It was through many of these sessions in particular that I began to develop a new sense of her as a real human being like me, who once was a kid like me, but was now older and struggling with a situation that she was not well prepared for but had to negotiate nonetheless.