I’m sitting here in happy tears. I just got an email from my dad.
My folks getting divorced is the best thing that ever happened to me.
I was brought up in the bosom of my mother’s mother’s family, for Grandma was divorced as well, and her own mother next door was widowed young. A pavilion of women. I’ve wondered if we know how to have happy, long-term relationships with men at all, in our family. But the women who married in never lasted long either.
This side of my family were unsmiling farmers who worked like John Henry every blessed day. Our corner of the world has plenty of resources, but it takes a hell of a lot of work to wrestle them into submission. The struggle to survive was constant, daily, and hard. It’s no wonder they all lived to great age. If they managed to avoid accidents, and get through wars alive, they pulled hard to live and didn’t know how to stop. Devoutly religious teetotalers and non-smokers, all.
But they didn’t laugh, or dance, or hug, or sing. Each generation had things a little better, but no one spontaneously generated the ability to express emotion, particularly any encouragement. I suppose everyone was always trying so hard that no encouragement was assumed to be needed — it would be like encouraging someone to breathe — but if anyone who lagged was dealt with harshly. Using or consuming more than you contribute is taking food out of the mouths of your siblings. Love was understood or assumed — never expressed.
To illustrate the effect this has had on me: a friend said “Hurt” (the Johnny Cash version) was the most depressing song of all time, and listed a body of shoegazing runners up. My rebuttal: “Summertime / Motherless Child”, by Mahalia Jackson, with “Baby Mine” (from Dumbo) a strong runner-up. Ronnie singing “Be My Baby.” “You Are My Sunshine.” “Just the Way You Are.” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” He thought I was missing the point. Oh, believe me, I’m not. They might not work for everyone, but I cry every time.
So: my folks were crazy kids who eloped young, had me, got divorced, married each other again, divorced again, and parted ways forever. As can happen in early marriages. And my dad roamed the earth, like Kane, remarrying a few times and eventually settling down with his wife of about 30 years, now, whom he adores. Mom remarried once, was delivered of my sister, divorced, and hasn’t been on a date since the Carter administration. To each his own, or hers.
Growing up in a so-called “broken home” meant it was all hands on deck. Mom was the Captain, I was the First Mate, and Tiny Sis was the Cabin Boy. Everyone helped out, and we were of good cheer, but the struggle continued. Enduring the pity of classmates (“your parents are divorced? That’s so saaaad) was a real challenge. My dad never paid child support, and I never had nice things. But kids from unbroken homes sometimes came to school exhausted and swollen-eyed from witnessing all-night parental fights, and I never had to deal with that.
My dad and I were strangers for years. He traveled back to our little hamlet twice to visit, and I eventually spent a few summers with him and his family. We got along incredibly well, but when we weren’t together…well, I have always hated talking on the phone, and he has never been a letter writer, so….
Fast forward to the email age. I’ve been married and divorced and remarried, and we’ve both been around the block a few times. Dad and his people are from the South, and the emotional availability and expressiveness always made me feel uncomfortable — stiff, awkward, inhibited. But years in the Southwest, and marrying a Southerner, have expanded my comfort in myself. A while back I realized that I’m no hothouse flower, but if it chokes me up when a waitress calls me “Honey,” I need more warmth in my life. Which means, by the immutable laws of man and nature, that I needed to put more warmth out there to other people. So I did. And by those same laws, expected nothing in return.
(This seems like a digression, but it’s not.)
Expectation is a killer.
It’s a lifesaver, or life-shaper, to children. Pull kitty’s tail, expect the claw. Pet kitty, expect purr. Trial and error inform us; repeated experience trains us. We know what to expect.
What we don’t know is when to stop applying it. Kids who get married expect to be transformed into Fred & Wilma, and are bitterly confused when that other idiot isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. People who hand a buck to a bum expect him to get a haircut, a suit, and a job, and grow resentful when that same bum hits him up the next day, stoned as a crow. Bougie guys are attracted to flashy females and expect them to stop wearing trashy clothes “now that we’re together.” Some girls cave to this, but others get the hell out (and are maligned as tramps forever.) Idealistic girls who get involved with tomcats think they’ll magically become devoted, monogamous romantics. Most tomcats cultivate this illusion, so long as the tail doesn’t get withheld. Some expectations are stupid.
And some are just wrong. Don’t give a gift in order to get one. Don’t give love with the expectation that you’ll get the high holy reward of love in return. And for gott’s sake, don’t dole out warmth on a rationed basis, anticipating an appropriately reciprocal amount. That’s cheap.
It feels great to show love. If you can’t accept it in return, though, halt the process until you get over those stone butch blues. (This is different from specifically not wanting it. Not all sources are healthy, and even some healthy sources aren’t wanted. It might be worthy of desire, but if it is not actually desired, don’t eat it!)
Likewise, it’s easy to love the loveable. But don’t some hard-to-love things merit love as well? I certainly feel love for some of them. My grandmother, after a lifetime that included physical abuse, mental illness, multiple surgeries, and a wasting disease, was often mean as hell, and very hard to deal with. But I loved her like crazy. I have a friend who has flown solo for his whole life after a single disastrous affair when he was young, and the bitterness has cramped his soul and bent his back. He’s a crusty, inhibited Swede, and is not ever happy to be hugged, so all I can do is meet his perpetual crankiness with patience and good cheer. And occasionally grin and say, “You’re a cranky bastard, aren’t you?” — and we both laugh. We do now, anyway. I was laughing alone for the first five or six years I knew him, but now he laughs, too.
If that seems a long time to wait for someone to share a smile…it is. But endurance, the secret to my great-grandcestors’ survival, is the secret to my loving life, and loving others, and not lacking for love, and not being hurt by the lack of it. I know that I love. Until the last line has been crossed, I won’t stop. I’m free to love without let or hindrance. Being able to love like that is a miracle, given where I’m from and the environment that produced me.
I don’t blame my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandma; they all were shortchanged too, in a way, and they gave me the endurance that keeps my good ship rocking. That fierce unspoken love that’s so hard to convey in words, I’ll cherish til the day I die. But when I caught up with my dad, earlier this year, and found we were on the same page, it gave me such a catharsis, and such delight. We had grown. We had the tools to describe our growth. We could talk about hurt and emotions and doubts, our philosophies and histories, without embarrassment or euphemistic blurring or holding back. And he loves me anyway.
Since then, we’ve emailed more and spoken on the phone, and it has been such a joy — to be known, and to be loved. I used to withhold the unhappy parts of myself, the scars and mental messes and mistakes I’d made. I used to feel that no one could possibly understand. And I was certain that no one who truly knew me could ever love me.
I tore down that thick wall around my ugly side because it worked too well. No one knew me. Which meant that their love didn’t mean a thing to me. And it is disrespectful to mislead people. I believe in boundaries, and big, distant ones at that — it allows you to welcome people further in rather than have to push them back out — but material omissions are unfair to them and unhelpful to you.
Dad is not concerned with saving my soul, but he praises it, just as it is. Thank you, Dad. It means the world to me.
But I’m deeply glad I got to the point of no longer needing this validation by the time I got it. Having someone throw you a life ring when you’re drowning is the deepest relief, and let no one sell that short. But staying afloat, teaching yourself to swim, and being strong enough for long enough to make it to shore…it wasn’t a sure thing. There are parts of my childhood I wouldn’t wish on any kid, but the Krazy Glue holding me together is stronger than the shards. Surviving, learning to love, learning acceptance without expectation…this challenge was my Everest. And I climbed it by myself.