The hot pavement blisters my feet the instant I step out of the car. I always kick my sandals off about an hour into the long ride, and in my hurry to get into the house, often leave them forgotten on the floorboards.
The children stream out of the car, noisy and excited, running in and around the house. I call to them my usual and often ignored reminder to stay out of the lake, and go inside.
It’s dim and cool in the front room. From where I am standing, I can see three televisions, each throwing light into the darkness, competing for attention. He’s in the recliner, and greets me with a familiar “Hello, Kid.”
She’s in the kitchen, always. She wipes her hands on her apron and hugs me. I take my place beside her, joining a rhythm I know well. We talk easily as we set the table. We will for the next several days; I call her so often during the week that when we’re together it’s just a continuation of the conversation (or seven) we started apart.
I am home.
I met my first husband’s parents nearly 25 years ago, and they quickly became surrogates for my own. My family traveled the world, and I was geographically orphaned in college. Bill and Kathy, Billy’s parents, filled the gap. I spent holidays around their oval oak table and summers on the back deck with a soon familiar group of neighbors and family and friends.
I loved them. I loved the abundance of snacks stacked on the top of the refrigerator, and the chocolates on the counter. I loved the idea that a day on the couch watching football was a day well spent. I loved being part of stories that started long before I arrived, but shifted quickly to include me. I loved the noisy holiday celebrations and the quiet nights at the kitchen counter with pie. I loved the catalogs carefully saved and stacked under the coffee table for me, their daughter who loved to shop from home long before the days of Amazon Prime.
Kathy and Bill were different from my parents. My parents moved every two years, our home was wherever my father’s job sent us, marked by our pictures on the wall and our ancient salad spinner in the cupboard. My parents are active adventurers, always on the move, doing and seeing more.
Kathy and Bill were always home, entertaining family and friends and spending the hours sharing old stories. Once, not interested in the pregame show of the day, I set about cleaning Billy’s childhood closet and found a toddler’s dress shirt hanging, pressed and ready to wear. It was his, pushed to the back by shirts that fit his now six-foot frame, but still hanging in the closet nonetheless. The safe same-ness in that closet and that house called to me.
I settled into the familiar comfort of Kathy and Bill’s, a nomad child finally home. Nothing ever changed.
Until everything did.
We were on the phone when I told her. Sitting in a parking lot I said that we’d separated. He’d said he didn’t love me, wasn’t sure he ever had. My voice cracked and faltered.
“You have to fix this,” she said. “I know he loves you.”
“I don’t know if I can,” I whispered.
“You have to,” she repeated firmly.
I don’t know what I said next, but it must’ve been something that suggested my truth. I knew we weren’t going to fix. I didn’t want to say it yet, even to myself, but I knew. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember her uncharacteristically sharp response and what happened next.
“You’re my family,” I pleaded softly.
“No,” she replied. “Not if you don’t fix this.”
In the years that followed, she kept her word. Billy and I divorced the following year. He and I navigated the tricky terrain of separation and divorce and coparenting as well as can be expected; we’re amicable now. But I’ve never gone home again.
Kathy, once my mother in nearly every sense of the word is a familiar stranger now. We exchange texts about the children’s activities and birthday lists, and pleasantries when I happen to see her on a visit. I’m embarrassed to admit how happy it makes me when she occasionally signs her texts (because she does that) “Love!” as she did years ago. Some part of me is like the bird in that old book searching for its mother.
I tried in the early days to rationalize away my missing of his mother and the home she and Bill created for me. I wondered if I was fooling myself: perhaps I wasn’t as happy as a single mother and later a married woman as I felt. I tried to make “either/or” the right answer.
Over the years, I’ve come to accept it as it is. Divorce is a wound and grief is complicated. “Both/and” is the answer that makes the most sense for me. I can both be be delighted with my new life and understand that it is complicated in a way first-families are not. I can both be grounded and sure that our decision to divorce was the right one and deeply miss part of my former life.
Dreams like the one I woke from in the early light of this morning still feel both warmly comfortable and vaguely disconcerting.
I am both wholly comfortable in the new life I have created, delighted by the noisy chaos of our tribe and the soul-to-soul partnership with my husband, and still miss part of my old life. Accepting that allows me to dwell in the sleepy comfort of that dream for a minute longer, honoring the memory and history it summons, before getting up to greet the new day.