If The West Was Won, It Was Won Because Of This.

From L-R: Hero, Kid.
From L-R: Hero, Kid.

When I was in fourth grade, my parents got divorced.

It was 1989. Movies like When Harry Met Sally and Working Girl were out and they were funny but sad, too, because love was clearly hard. Erica Jong was writing divorced chick-lit with titles like Parachutes and Kisses; it was all Reagan and minivans in America back then and a failed marriage was kinda en vogue. Smart, devastated women had made foolish choices, okay sure, but maybe there was life after divorce and maybe that life included a wine cooler and a sexy, Mr. Right #2, if you listened to enough Carly Simon.

But divorce wasn’t a funny movie for Mom. And I was eight. For me, 1989 was Mrs. Brown’s homeroom and something disintegrating in my solar plexus. My sisters and I practiced our stiff upper lips. Mad verbal as we were, the word “adulterer,” was way too present in our vocabularies. We learned to use it because it was what Dad was; he was also “depressed.” He was also leaving again.

When it all came to an end in 1989, Mom bit the proverbial bullet and the marriage bit the proverbial dust. It was like a Western with a custody battle. One afternoon I got a note not to board the school bus home but walk to the library, instead. My mother and sisters met me there and we never went home. We never spent another night in the house where we grew up. It was over, and it was happening now. Mom had us; that was secure. But we couldn’t live where we had been living.

Minor glitch: we didn’t have anywhere to go. Which meant we were homeless.

There were family friends whose kindness and grace patched up some bullet holes. Each of us girls were farmed out to friends whose parents would take on a foster Fons for as long as they could while Mom wrestled with lawyers, the papers, and the wolves at the door. And outside of the weekends here and there in different spots, there were two different couples who took us in for several weeks on end, all of us, together. They interrupted their lives, their flow, their schtick, and they let three kids and a soon-to-be single mother into their house until the pack figured out the next step. There are acts of kindness and there are acts of kindness.

I was in North Dakota on Sunday when a ninety-three-year-old woman I’ll call J. was suddenly there, smiling at me. J. and her husband were one of the couples who sheltered my family. Her husband is gone; she lives in North Dakota now near her daughter. The ebullient, joyous, remarkably spry woman (a quilter, no surprise) laughed this glorious laugh and said, “Oh, my! Well, would you…! Kid! You’re looking awfully pretty for a kid — will you look…!” and her eyes were wet and she patted my hand and my hair and kept looking at me and laughing and patting and laughing.

I don’t cry as much as I used to. But I cried to see J. again. That woman helped us. She and her husband helped us when we needed it real, real bad. I left her in North Dakota after our happy, achingly awesome reunion and on the plane home I kept looping back to the conversation that must’ve taken place when she and her husband P. decided to help us. I picture them in bed, lights out, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.

“Marianne and the girls, Paul. What we talked about.”

“Of course. You call Marianne in the morning.”

25 Responses

  1. melissah

    Very powerful and heartwarming at the same time. My parents divorced when I was nine and thank God for the people that helped us….wow I am proud of you for Sharing….thank you

  2. Ruth

    That is a heartwarming story during such a difficult time in you and your Mom and sisters life.
    I had the pleasure of meeting your Mom in Salt Lake City at Market. My daughter was with me for our business and I remember such a lovely conversation we had and how she spoke so proudly of her girls. She may recall meeting my daughter, as she asked her what her job was – my daughter was doing me a huge favor and helping me at market and apparently did not read any of the personal bios of people we may encounter at market. You Mom was so graceful and lovely with her answer to my daughter and to this day I bring that up to her and we laugh and she says, “oh yeah, we had a moment at market”.
    Thanks for sharing your families brave story of bravery, survival and success!

  3. mary ann

    I was 7 when my Mom and the 4 of us kids moved in to a small house with my grandparents in 1957. Oh the stigma…for the next 5 yrs my youngest brother thought my father was dead cause you just didn’t talk desertion in an Irish Catholic family. Such a hero J. and her husband were , so glad you shared them with us.

  4. Cruz

    Thank you for sharing. Life can be very difficult and people can be very kind. May God bless you and yours! XO

  5. Donna Montibello

    Thank you for sharing your story. My heart goes out to you. I have never met you. But you seem like a strong woman. And you have a big heart. Sharing this story, may help someone, help themselves. I wish you great success in all you do. Love watching your show.

    • Mary Fons

      To Donna and Cruz and Mary Ann and Ruth and Melissa and all — it’s my pleasure to share all the stories. Thank you. 🙂

  6. Diane Mosher

    Mary…I live on Hilton Head Island after 20 winters in Grand Forks…and I’m still thawing out!! My children are students at UND and my husband and I continue to keep a home in Grand Forks. I have been away almost a year and was thrilled that I would be “home” for the quilt show and to see you. I attended all your talks last weekend with “my posse” and was sitting a couple rows behind your friend and only noticed when you sat next to her and began wiping tears from your face. The thought crossed my mind that you were upset, but I realized that the tears didn’t appear to be ones of anger or sadness but more of bittersweet happiness…and now I know the whole story…:) Thanks for sharing. While you and I didn’t formally meet, after attending all your presentations I feel like I have a new friend!

  7. Penni

    I think many of us had a hero of divorce in our lives in the 80’s. Mine was my grandmother. She will always be a superwoman to me.

  8. Janet Szabo

    I so enjoy your blog. Thank you for sharing about your life.

  9. Catherine

    Mary, thank you for sharing. It brought tears to my eyes. Even though I never met you, I think you and your mom are amazing women. God Bless you!

  10. Laurie

    This is so beautiful. I remember when I was taken out of kindergarten early one day and my mom had already packed the car and we drove from North Carolina to New Hampshire as my mom had finally left my dad. This piece is evoking a lot of feelings – amazing. I love that you met up with J. again.

  11. brenda

    thank you for sharing.

  12. Barbara

    What a touching story you shared with us Mary. It no doubt took a lot of courage to open up to people out there you do not know. Perhaps what you shared will give courage to others who are going through a challenging time in their life. You and your mom have definitely come out of this stronger and to be admired.

  13. Donna Stickovich

    What courage your mother had to do that at that time. And you wouldn’t be the same person if she hadn’t.

  14. Pepper Cory

    Thanks Mary for the well-written post. It brought tears to my eyes. I was only an occasional friend of your Mom’s at quilting events but remember this time. She is an A-1 trooper and so are you. I am so happy for you both now.

  15. Diana Barry

    Hi Mary,

    I read your post about the difficult time when your mom got a divorce. That took such strength for her to make the decision and follow through, not knowing what was next for her and the children. I was so fortunate to have family who supported me and my kids during my own divorce.

    A friend needed a place to stay when she separated from her husband. I was so pleased to be able to have her and her 3 kids come to my house and stay for 14 months. They just moved out last month and I miss them so much. They are part of my family now and I hope for the best for them.

    I love your blog and tv show. I always find something helpful and encouraging.

    Take care.

  16. jennifer ward

    Mary, love, love your writing & especially this one. My 3 sons had to find their way through their parents’ divorce in 1990. They are well, but all bear scars. Your writing is creative and real. Thanks for sharing with us.

  17. Liz Flaherty

    This is a wonderful post. When I watch the show and am a “mind your own business” type (I’m not always), I know nothing about you or your mom. And she looks like a textbook woman of her (okay—MY) generation. Perfect marriage, perfect home, perfect children–you name it. Thanks for the reminder that even textbooks have lots of footnotes and citations that tell more of the story than the unaltered prose does.

  18. Rina

    Reading your post brought back the memories of my parents divorce in 1962. Your mother reminds me of mine, strong enough to do what ever she needed to do. So glad to hear that you were reunited with the angel that stepped in and took some of the load onto herself.

  19. Michele

    Thank God for the angels who touch our lives. Your story is very powerful and endearing. The same feelings many of us have experienced. Your words brought tears and smiles/ Thank you for sharing and thanks to your Mom for her strength and love for 3 beautiful daughters.

  20. teresa

    Mary, Thank you for sharing your story here (and at lunch in Houston). As someone who also had no place to go with kids-in-tow, I understand how difficult it is in the moment. We were lucky enough to have several families who helped us for a couple of months and I will be forever indebted to them, as you are to J. It is through the kindness of others that we make it through our most difficult trials.
    xo, teresa

  21. Gravel Roads. | Mary Fons

    […] no more than six. Mom told us that we would’t be going home that night, that we’d be staying with friends. Dad had lost his mind; it wasn’t safe to be so far away from town. He wasn’t violent, […]

  22. […] have; I’ve been seated at a breakfast table with the man no more than a handful of times since the divorce. To be thirty-something and discover things about your father, (e.g., he likes cheesecake for […]

  23. Lucy

    Ah Mary, Girl,

    Why you gotta make me cry!

    Lucy (Anderton, that is).

  24. […] no! We love Becky. Becky is not the issue. Lots of other people made similar comments when I wrote about my parents’ divorce. They said things like, “Wow, you never would guessed your family endured something like […]