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.”