I checked up on my 61-year-old mom one night on Facebook. Her wall loaded, displaying one new post, short and sweet. “Andra’s changed her status from married to single.”
My initial reaction wasn’t normal. I gloated. I was already in the loop. I wasn’t the last to know.
My family is like a packet of ketchup when it comes to sharing information. I tear and bite without any success until in my last ditch effort to open it, blood-red sauce explodes everywhere.
There was the time I was nine. I didn’t know my parents had scheduled me for oral surgery. I’d asked why we stayed in the waiting room after my routine cleaning. I needed x-rays they said. It wasn’t until the “x-ray” nurse told me to count backwards from 10 and the room spun that I caught on.
They’re honing their technique in my adulthood.
“We think you should come home. Granddaddy’s sick.”
“How sick?” I asked.
“Well it’s nothing to worry about. You just might want to be here.”
Both parents always greet me at the airport. This time only Dad showed up. Just the sight of my hunched father confirmed the plane-ride premonition I’d tried to dismiss. He was like the grim reaper filling in at the last minute for Ed McMahon as the Prize Patrol messenger. “Surprise! Your granddaddy died.”
Thus began this season’s series of made-for-TV ambushes.
“Surprise! Your brother was arrested for having sex with a 17-year-old student.” “Surprise! Your cousin was arrested for selling alcohol to minors and was kicked out of nursing school.” “Surprise! Your uncle’s been storing jars of his urine in the man cave to study it for signs of a terminal illness.”
What was most surprising was that my parents were still together. I’d been counting backwards for years waiting for my parents’ marriage to go under. But it lasted just long enough to make me the boastful, 32-year-old owner of the rare, unbroken home.
Mom and Dad have been married 34 years. By my elementary school phase, they’d cancelled their social life. By high school they’d entered the yelling followed by silent treatment stage. By college they’d entered separate bedrooms. By grad school they’d dropped the excuse that each other’s snoring drove them to separate rooms.
When I asked Mom what kept them together she said they relied on each other for companionship and money. They went to the movies, to dinner, and to foreign countries together. If anything in my life was predictable, it was that ups and downs defined, maybe sustained, my parents’ marriage. Then, in the midst of predators, deviants, and self-diagnosers came the next Surprise!
A month before the Facebook post, Mom was visiting my husband and me in Baltimore. Dad had stayed home because “someone has to make money around here.” We were driving to the Frankie Valli concert when I asked Mom if she and Dad might divorce because they’d been arguing constantly.
“We are divorced,” she said.
“How can that be? You live in a red state.”
Mom explained later that Kentucky dissolves a marriage lickety-split compared to other states’ mandatory periods of separation and attempts at reconciliation. So much for Kentucky’s reputation for buckling the Bible Belt and soap-boxing family values.
“I thought I told you.”
“No, no you certainly did not.”
“I’ve already changed my name back.”
I vowed to repay her for the nonchalance if the occasion presented itself. Mom, I sold all my eggs to finance our second honeymoon in Bali. I thought I told you.
They ate at Cracker Barrel afterwards to celebrate. I imagined the waitress handing Dad his Country Boy Breakfast, calling him “Sugar” because she calls everyone that. He sees this as a good time to have that discussion about when they can remove their wedding bands. They clink their coffee mugs in a toast.
At first, I shared in the celebratory mood. So what if the one constant I’d had throughout life was ending? I anticipated an end to the constant bickering. I told Mom to hit me with all the details. I was pretty sure, considering the past few years, that I wouldn’t feel the weight of whatever it was she had to say. Optimism or naiveté led me to believe a weight would actually be lifted. Of course I was sad, but I was also ready to cross “parents’ marriage” off my list of sources of drama.
“Who gets the house?” I asked.
“Both of us,” Mom said.
“So you’re selling it?”
“No. We’re living in it.”
“Nobody’s moving?” I asked.
“He’s just going to stay on his side of the house and you on yours?”
“I don’t know. Money, convenience, habit.”
For months their divorce was just a rubber stamp, a Facebook post. My husband and I visited their house for Dad’s 64th birthday. My aunt, Dad’s sister-in-law, cooked Dad his usual birthday dinner. Mom and Dad took us out on the boat, the only difference being some pronoun confusion over “their” boat or “his” boat.
Yet when Mom or Dad had a second alone with me, they griped about the other.
Mom: “Your father won’t give me any money. He expects me to substitute (teach) for the rest of my life. Which I’ll have to do if I ever want to buy anything nice for myself.”
Dad: “Your mother is no fun anymore. I can’t get her to go to a show or out to dinner. She hardly cooks anymore. I’ve had cereal for dinner the past three nights.”
The problem with my parents—divorced—was that they were acting like an old married couple. I didn’t have any friends with divorced parents while growing up — the moral belt lacked its current elasticity. In fact, my parents sucked in evidence that they were each other’s second marriage like a celebrity’s stomach after a Twinkie binge. I learned from Hollywood scripts that children are better off after divorce because Mommy and Daddy stop fighting. Exactly when would I get my real-time end to the mouthing?
My life remained surprise-free until this fall.
“Hol, we’ve sold the house. We have 30 days to be out,” Mom announced an hour into our phone conversation about my hand-me-down reupholstered arm chair. It was only by coincidence that I mentioned getting rid of it and she was now in the position of needing it. Otherwise, she would have waited until the 30 days were up to share the news.
“I didn’t know the house was on the market.”
“Well, sort of.”
An older couple had been driving around with several hundred thousand dollars in cash in their glove compartment. Mom and Dad didn’t have a “For Sale” sign posted. However, this couple’s realtor, who knew my parents’ realtor, arranged a pre-listing walk-through. Real estate deals (not to mention criminal and eccentric behavior) in Paducah, Kentucky, were resembling the life in New York City I was raised to fear.
For the next 15 days Mom inundated me with Zillow links to her potential new homes. She walked me step-by-step through her progress via sporadic phone calls. “I’m getting more boxes from behind Kroger’s.” “The house on Jefferson turned out to be an unfinished rehab.” “I love this last house, but the yard’s too small for my cats and I can’t see my furniture in it.”
“Mom,” I interrupted, “how’s Dad doing?”
“Maybe he’ll tell you. He hasn’t brought home a single box. I don’t know if he even has a realtor.”
Concerned, I called Dad.
“Am I packing?” Dad asked. “What am I supposed to pack? All of this stuff is your mother’s.”
Mom was a minute too late with an offer and summoned a latent aggressiveness to snatch the next house. Dad was unusually tight-lipped about his plans. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they moved into a new house together. Both seemed altered and disoriented by their first truly separate steps in 30 years.
Around day 18 of the countdown I called Mom for an update. She’d put in an offer on another house. The last I’d heard the owner had counter offered. Dad answered Mom’s cell phone.
“Hey Holly Wolly, your Mom and I are in Lowe’s doing some shopping for our new houses.”
Surprise! I thought. Mom and Dad are doing a little his and hers decorating. They were spryer than me at bouncing between sworn enemy and bosom buddy.
“Wow, Dad, congratulations!”
“I finally have a basement,” Dad said.
“I have one toooo!” Mom yelled into the receiver.
I heard “Nana nana boo boo” and decided to call my therapist next.
They’d always found contentment by rotating through spite and goodwill. And now they were doing it by shopping for each other’s bachelor/bachelorette pads. Hollywood, my template, portrays divorce as a reward to children for putting up with their parents’ crap. The onscreen divorcées buy their children ponies and convertibles to compete for their affection. At 32, I’m older than the typical child of divorce. I’ve put up with more than a fair share of my parents’ crap. And it shows no signs of stopping. Where is my damn pony?
“Naturally,” Dad continued as they waltzed down the Storage and Organization aisle, “we’re going to need your help with the move.”
Naturally, I thought. And how convenient that my brother is locked up and unavailable at this time. And my half sisters from Dad’s previous marriage have children, an excuse as airtight as prison. I hadn’t wanted them around much anyway. Who was I to expect them to jump at the opportunity now?
“Of course I’ll help with the moves, Dad.”
My husband, never one to shirk husbandly duties, couldn’t take off from work. Since he’s the only one still committed to buying my affection now and then, we thought he should stay employed. So I went, alone, to move my parents out of one house and into two.
There was a moment when I was in Paducah, directing Mom’s movers to load the furniture from the den and lifting Dad’s grill onto a truck bed, that I got tickled. I’d always felt like the black sheep of the family. The last to know, the least finessed. (Difficult to understand given that I have a clean record and a can-do attitude).
But there I was, sweating and straining to help. They weren’t competing for “Most Favored Parent” like the young, Hollywood parents. At their age, vying for their “children” to come live with them isn’t a boost to their parenting self-esteem.
I’m the one seeking favoritism. I need my parents to come to me. Even if my only reward is a tip-off. A chance to duck this holiday season as they pass the news and cranberry sauce.