My Fresh Hell
Life in Scribbletown.

Ghosts, Part II


One year, at my parents’ annual New Year’s Eve party, a new couple came. The woman, when introduced to me said, “I’ve never really liked children.” To my face.

I had just met my future step-mother.

I do not have any memories of that final Christmas but I do remember, two weeks later, that my father was not present at my sister’s sixth birthday party. He had to “work” or something. I do remember that during that time, he was “working” a lot of nights and weekends. My future step-mother worked at his ad agency, too. She was married, too. But that didn’t stop them from doing whatever they wanted to do. Why should it? Rules (and legal documents) are for suckers.

My sister and I were told he was leaving (….he’s leaving home/Bye bye!...) in February. We’d been playing shoe shop. We’d been using an odd, fairly flimsy suitcase that was more like a briefcase. Filling it full of shoes. Emptying it and starting again. For some reason I have this image of the empty suitcase sitting there on the glass coffee table while my parents explained that our life as we knew it had come to an end.

I have memories of imagining my father filling this very suitcase with his clothes, his socks, his ties, his white cotton handkerchiefs (he still uses them, the old codger), his rolls of undeveloped film.

I’d used this suitcase as a small child when I’d declared, angry at my mother for something, that I was running away and never coming back. I filled it with treasures and doll clothes and my mother bid me a fond adieu. “Come back if you get hungry!” she said as I stomped down the front steps and off down the sidewalk, indignant that she wasn’t running out to stop me.

Eventually, I did come back. I hadn’t really meant to go. My father really meant it, though. He was going off to live with the woman who hated children.

Christmases were never the same after that. We spent a few of them out of town – at my grandfather’s house in Northern Virginia or with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Iowa or, later, Kansas. I imagine my mother needed to physically remove herself from vestiges of the past. Things were acrimonious for a long time. There was never a thought that my sister and I would spend Christmas with my dad. Unthinkable. Not that he’d ever invited us. At least, not to my knowledge.

My angry, bitter mother practically made us sign a loyalty oath which stated that we’d stick with her and hate my father as much as she did. And while the court had given him visiting rights on Tuesday nights and every other weekend, we weren’t supposed to like it. And so we didn’t. But we did, in a way, but we weren’t supposed to show it. My father probably thought we were the most dreadful, annoying brats on the earth. Nothing satisfied us. We couldn’t express our confusion. How were we supposed to act? What was the right response?

One year – perhaps the year after the divorce – we spent Christmas with my Jewish grandfather. He was not religious and had decided, having married my Christian Scientist grandmother (who’d been dead since 1974), that Christmas was more fun to celebrate. He’d put up a tree and mail dozens of Christmas cards each year (and keep a tally of who did and didn’t send him one so he could edit his list for next year). We’d go out to Hot Shoppes cafeteria at Tyson’s Corner for dinner. We’d eat soft serve ice cream at McDona1d’s.

That year, some struggle, some argument, had occurred between my parents. Over whether we should or could take our presents from my father with us to my grandfather’s house. I like to imagine that my father fought over this, desperately wanting to be with us when we opened our presents, that he would miss us terribly while we were gone, that surely we could wait to open them until we got back. But somehow I doubt this was true. We got to bring the presents. My sister had been begging for a Nutcracker, obsessed with the desire to own the wooden soldier. She got one from my dad and even got to open it before we left. Before Christmas. I moaned about how unfair this was! To open presents – any present – before Christmas! Unheard of!

That time had such a desperate feel to it. No one was happy. I developed a lot of stomach problems and relayed all my angst to Paddington Bear each night. He understood. Everything had been destroyed.


Luckily, my wonderful grandfather had retained his sense of humor. He strummed silly songs for us on his yukelele. He joked. He hugged. He let us be sullen and rude, ungrateful brats. He gloated over the fact that he’d cancelled my father’s subscription to Playboy, something he’d bought for my dad and uncle for years. I don’t think my father missed it. He’d already gotten what he wanted.

Another Christmas we went to Iowa. My aunt gave us ice skating lessons which I enjoyed immensely. I did so well, I worked my way up to Intermediate in a week’s time. My cousin broke her leg the first night we were there and she lay in her bed moaning, miserable, during our entire stay. The adults drank too much. I was lonely.

I had years and years to cultivate my cynicism, my disbelief in “happily ever after.” Didn’t take much, actually.

Christmas lost a lot of its meaning for me in the following years and wasn’t recaptured until Dusty was born. Now, there seems a point to it. To everything. There’s something about watching your children gaze at a lit tree, at a gaudy tacky house covered in lights with a yard filled with blow up Santas and Snoopys and Homers, at visiting Santa and feeling like the universe makes sense, that makes me think: maybe, just maybe there is some reason for things, some point to it all.

At least I hope so.


9:36 a.m. ::
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