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The Legacy of Divorce

At the Worst of Times, Our Family Found Light in the Darkness

Image: Nataliia Bielous

The shadowy figure of divorce had been skulking around the corners for months while everyone ignored its presence, pretending to greet each day like the one before. It left a trail of darkness but light fought hard to find me.

We called him Dr. Whatsit, Dr. Watchamacallit, Dr. Wet Your Pants. We called him names to escape the reality of who he really was. The new boyfriend, the interloper, the replacement father.

Although we had known him as our mother’s business partner, the cantor in our congregation, the psychiatrist whose home we’d dined at for Passover— this new definition was undefined in our own lives.

What is the legacy of divorce? If you had asked me when I was a twelve-year-old girl, I would have said it’s the end of my childhood. I might have told you the story of adults who calmly lied to their children about something they wanted to discuss after dinner. My stoic parents bitterly chewed in silence while staring into the space behind each other’s heads. Refusing to eat, I splayed across the couch as tears stained the silk pillows already knowing that my brother and I were about to become sacrificial lambs at the altar of their selfishness.

The shadowy figure of divorce has been skulking around the corners for months while everyone ignored its presence, pretending to greet each day as cheery as the one before.

Except it wasn’t.

I remember staring at the white bedroom door because my mother was often closeted behind it. I remember the weight of the couch where I rested in the curve and warmth of my father’s round belly. I remember the way his fingers curled around the strands of my bark-colored hair while we watched his favorite programs like Gunsmoke or Wild, Wild West. I remember the shuffling sounds of feet on the green shag carpet as my parents passed each other — strangers in the hallway.

But most of all I remember the divorce dessert they served us — informing my brother and me that they didn’t love each other anymore — that they were separating.

I ran away from my house, barefoot and breathless across the cold grass to the safety of my best friend’s ranch-style home. Normal people were laughing together over dinner, the tinkling sounds of silverware and friendly clanging of plates were music to my ears. I tried to ignore the doorbell and the worried looks Kristi’s mother gave me, as she stared doe-eyed across the room. I held onto the table wedging myself into place while my mother explained what was happening.

Kristi was invited for a sleep-over at our house. All eyes followed us as we left with her pink fuzzy sleeping bag and clothes. Even now I can feel the blanket of quiet wrapping around us as we walked to the door.

We were the first divorce in our small town. Very soon closets and drawers were emptied, the cigar smell was perfumed away from the curtains and carpet, and the pancake mix for the Sunday-funday breakfast my father always cooked sat untouched in the pantry. Everything in my life had changed. But, the house still sat squarely facing the street, the school bus still waited for me at the corner, the meals got prepared by our babysitter and time ticked by. Every single day after that one had careened like a pinball inside a machine — spinning me from one extreme to another. I ricocheted across emotions I couldn’t control.

It changed me forever. Soon, and without much explanation, the good doctor was there when we woke up in the morning and when we went to sleep at night. The white door to my mother’s bedroom still remained closed but for different reasons. One day, I forced my way in.

“Why are your clothes in my father’s closet,” I demanded, focusing on the boyfriend now reclining on his chaise lounge. His halting reply — “It seemed like a good idea at the time” sent me into paroxysms of breathlessness that required heaving into a bag to fill my lungs with the wind that had been knocked out of it. I stumbled back to my bedroom and closed my door against both of them.

Months passed and the deadline of my Bat Mitzvah loomed but I was unprepared, failing to learn Hebrew and fearing the eyes of the community on my newly fractured family. One day, as I tried to maintain a focused interest on the squiggly letters squirming across the page, Dr. Whatsit came and sat beside me. I edged away.

Softly, with a measured voice, he said, “You don’t have to like me.” He didn’t need to worry about that. “But you do have to learn your parsha. And I can help you.”

I leveled my gaze at him, fully seeing him since the first time he’d insinuated himself into my life. Feeling desperate, I pushed the book between the space of our bodies but didn’t nudge my chair closer.

Each week after that, the air between us became less weighted with recriminations, anger and loss. Musical notes hung between us, lifting us up as our voices joined in harmony. He told me stories about his own difficult childhood, of his Bar Mitzvah, of finding God, of travelling to Israel. He told me about his regrets and his hopes for the new extended family they were creating. I was able to see him and then see myself, who I was becoming. For the first time in months, I was inside my own body.

Standing on the bimah in our small synagogue, I stared out at the congregation in my white Annie Hall suit and Dorothy Hamill haircut. My father, his girlfriend, my mother, and my step-father-to-be were all at my side as I confidently led the Friday night and Saturday morning service with our female Rabbi. I cemented my newly adult status by cart wheeling across the concrete in front of the temple and demanding that we go-cart for the afternoon. It was January 20, 1976, the bi-centennial. The entire country was celebrating. And so was I.

My mother remained my mother. But this man who we had once hated and blamed for breaking what we learned was an already long-broken marriage had become my teacher — my confidant — my extra parent.

When I married and had children, they were gifted with a set of four doting grandparents and a great-grandmother — as my husband’s parents had died long before. There were vacations to Texas, to Colorado and Florida.There was a long line of people to pass down the Torah at my children’s bnai mitzvahs. And there was more love that I could have ever expected on that dismal night many years ago.

So if you ask me today what is the legacy of divorce? I can tell you. My father gave me life. He gave me a Jewish name and our family history. But my step-father gave me the spiritual legacy that I am passing down. This man, who was born in Siberia and spent the first three years of his life in a Russian labor camp — who grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn over a deli, put himself through medical school to become a psychiatrist, a gabbai, a cantor, an author, an actor — who played Teyve in our community theatre and sang around the house constantly (I can still hear him singing If I were a Rich Man). This man, who has been happily married to my mother for more than 40 years — he is my Dad.

Dr. Watchamacallit now has another name. He is my children’s Zayde.

We are all family.

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