Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Child on the Porch

The Porch, 2007

My parents’ divorce was ugly and, like many, took a toll on the lives of everyone. The forty years thereafter were marked by outbursts of hostility so fierce that you could only conclude that there was still an underlying love.

I was young when the divorce occurred. Looking back at that time, I find that much of the memory of it is erased or just tucked deeply into the folds of my brain. My sister, who is ten years older than me, and I can sometimes fill in the gaps in each other’s memories of those days. She was in high school and then going off to college just as I was becoming alert enough to realize that what was going on around us wasn’t what all families were like. Before he died, my father filled me in on other details. My mother, in moments of clarity, continues to do so. Rolled all together, these stories help me understand who I am.

Around Christmas, not long after the divorce, my mother’s brother invited us to a holiday open house. My uncle owned a plumbing business that enjoyed some success through the years. He was a respected member of his church and the building trades. He and my mother had had a falling out over some inheritance a few years earlier and she had not initiated a conversation with him since that time. He knew she was in fragile shape, both emotionally and financially, and phoned from time to time to check on her. She was barely cordial in return.

When the invitation to this holiday party came, my mother decided she couldn’t face her brother. The inheritance issue had finally been settled, but she could not let the grudge go. She thought it might be good for me to see relatives, though, so she called my father and asked him to take me to the gathering. I have no idea what his relationship was with my uncle’s family by then. Looking back, I suspect that because my mother was known to have periods of emotional instability that could be very difficult to be around, they may have felt that my father was the just the unlucky guy who got caught in the line of fire.

In any event, Dad picked me up and took me to the party. Mind you, I don’t remember any of this. It’s one of those memories that got blocked. But as the story is told, when Dad brought me home I immediately bolted into the house and right on through to the back porch, where I huddled down under a table in the cold, dark night.

Anyone who as a child had to deal with parents who fought a lot knows what it’s like to want to get away from the hostility and the noise. Nearly every encounter my parents had with each other in those days ended in shouting. The resulting tension took days to dissipate. When you’re too young to know enough to run away, you seek the muffling silence of bedcovers, closets and, apparently, tables.

Before my father even got from the car up to the front door of the house my mother was already armed for bear, ready to yell at him for whatever he’d done to send me hiding so quickly. It took him some time and a bit of shouting of his own to quiet her and explain that he’d done nothing, that when we’d gone to my uncle’s house no one had even acknowledged our presence, that he’d had words with my uncle, and that he’d taken me out to dinner afterwards so that I’d at least have a decent meal before returning home.

As I say, I don’t remember any of this. I was under the table.


  1. Divorce is so emotionally wrenching. My parents never divorced, so when I did divorce, I think I ached for my son more than anyone else. I still do--your powerful story just reinforces how fragile and yet strong we all ultimately are. I think it's all the more commendable of you that you were able to find someone you loved and spent all these years with, after living through the difficulties of divorce as a child. It does show the resilience of the human spirit. My son has an insane sense of sarcasm and a powerful sense of humor, and I adore that in him, but I'm also smart enough to realize that humor often comes from pain in childhood, and that same humor helps to ease it all. I'm often reminded of that...

  2. ps
    Emma Thompson once said, and I agree with her:
    "It's unfortunate and I really wish I wouldn't have to say this, but I really like human beings who have suffered. They're kinder."

  3. So sad, Chris. How wonderful for Grace that you and Laine have been strongly and happily married for all these years. How wonderful for you and Laine, too.