The Eighties ~ Part II
I can only say, with gratitude and love, that life would have been a lot more traumatic and stressful if my sons didn’t respond to our circumstances with resilience and strength. Other than the typical, expected upheavals that four teenagers and a six-year-old would bring to a household, they continued to move forward in a hopeful and trusting way. My style of dealing with stress was to stuff it down inside me or find some constructive way to deal with it. I’d seen how kids respond to an environment where the parent was verbally and physically acting out their frustrations on them. So I tried to only tell them what I felt they needed to know as it happened.
Then one afternoon, when we were all at home, one of my sons who was out delivering newspapers on his paper route came barreling into the house with confusing news. “I just saw Dad!” he said. We all looked up, confused, wondering what he was talking about. “I was delivering papers in this one apartment building and I just saw Dad!” I asked him if he was sure it was him and if he spoke with him. Yes, it was definitely him ….. and no, he didn’t speak with him. He told us that he was too shocked to know how to act and just came right home. My immediate feeling was one of anger! How could he not be in contact with his sons about this?
It wasn’t long after that, when I received a phone call from Don letting me know he had moved back and inviting me to dinner at his apartment. I was still in a relationship with Bob S. who I considered a valued friend who was there for me through a lot. Bob and I were beginning to wind down our relationship with a sense that we were both moving on. So, wondering where this re-encounter with Don was going, I agreed to come over for dinner at his place. When I arrived, it was clear that he had been there for a while as the apartment looked settled in. It was obviously planned that this was a ‘date’ and we had wine. During the dinner, I listened. He told me about his health situation and explained how he had to keep the stress in his life at a minimum. He suggested that he would be open to renewing our relationship with conditions. Those conditions were that I would stay in my rental home and care for our sons while we continued to be married, and he remained in his own apartment. He said he wouldn’t be able to deal with the stress of moving in together as a family with all the physical and emotional stress that would be put on his heart. He admitted he couldn’t guarantee a committed relationship because he wanted to still meet other women. I can’t believe I stayed there and even remotely considered this offer. Not only did I stay ….. we also wound up in bed together.
The disruption and craziness of my life, and the relationship with this man truly had weakened my self-worth. My self-worth was all mixed up with wanting to do what was best for my sons and how my decisions would influence the type of men they might become when they became adults. What message would it give them about what being a man was if I allowed myself to be used in this way. I wanted to ‘fix’ things for them by restoring our once intact (yet dysfunctional) family yet there was so much work that had to be done to restore the trust that was broken between me and their father, and between their father and his sons. Don would need to earn our trust back again.
It was about this time that Don’s father died. I decided to travel to New Jersey to the funeral with my sons. Separating the feelings and past connections that we had before the abandonment was difficult for me and I felt that meeting this expectation would allow my sons to show respect for their grandfather. We hadn’t heard from anyone on Don’s side of the family since he left. There was no reaching out to see how we were managing or any expression of support that showed they cared. It was like we never existed! I imagine they were hearing another story about why he left.
The funeral was surreal with me being pleasant to the relatives on his side of the family and sitting next to his mother. She told me that Don’s father had done similar to her during an earlier time and that she had been through a lot too. He didn’t abandon the family though she never went into detail. I know she was hoping to fix things for her son yet it was my reality that I was living with and I knew that choosing one direction over the other would only trade the difficulties I had now with another set of difficulties down the road. It was my decision to make. Not having any support or encouragement made it more difficult for me to see which direction was the wisest choice.
The next time that I stopped over to his apartment to drop off his box of things, a woman answered the door and told me he wasn’t there. She said she was the cleaning lady. In confusion and distrust, I immediately left and decided it was best that I not get myself emotionally drawn into his situation. I had enough going on in my own life. It had been almost three years since he left us and I still felt manipulated by him.
I spoke with a minister/counselor and was advised it would be best to get off the fence and go for the final divorce. I knew I wasn’t going to get that kind of guidance from the Catholic Church and I had to make a decision. I stopped turning to Fr. N even though I now think that he would have guided and supported my decision in the same way. There were Catholics who were less rigid and who were able to see the reality of each individual person’s situation. In some cases, especially in those cases where abuse was involved, a divorce became a necessary step towards moving on with your life.
My own dating situation wasn’t very nurturing at the time and I felt vulnerable. Bob S began to date another woman in the support group and we continued to care about each other.
At one time, a former neighbor phoned from a local bar in the early a.m. hours. He had previously shown interest in me right after Don had left us by stopping over and asking if there was anything he could do for me. We had a brief flirtation that ended right away. This time he was definitely drunk and was telling me he was coming over. I told him no and when he insisted I told him I’d call the police. I was scared because my sons were upstairs sleeping and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. When he arrived and started banging on the door, I yelled at him to go home (he had a wife) and that I had called the police (which I didn’t). When it finally registered with him what I had said, I could hear him quickly walking away. That was a time when I was scared enough to call Don and he came over. Afterwards, I felt foolish to have reached out to him like that. We avoided any physical contact. It was nice to have ‘someone’ respond when I felt threatened, yet here I was calling on the very person who was responsible for putting me in that situation.
Another time, one of my son’s messed up the accounts on his paper route and for some reason, the dispatcher phoned Don instead of me to complain about it. My first knowledge of it was at the very moment Don barged into my house and raced upstairs to my son’s bedroom. He began beating him while my son was lying in his bed reading. While he was beating him he was yelling and gasping from the exertion. I stood there in disbelief yelling at him to get out of my house and fearing that he was going to drop dead right on top of my son. I know that this was very traumatic for my son to have experienced this also.
More and more, with the passing of time, I could see how a woman’s status changes once she is on her own due to divorce or abandonment and her income drops. It’s like she no longer deserves the respect and consideration that she once had unless she’s of widow status. It saddens me that the courage and resilience that it takes to meet all the challenges that face her and her family aren’t fully appreciated by society at large.
Some of the friends I’d made at the divorced and separated support group attended a congregational church that appealed to me. I went to a few of their services and social gatherings. They had a wonderful art show where local people could enter their art work. It was so much fun applying to have my work displayed even though I had only done two pieces.
I also continued with my classes and found that the English Literature courses stimulated my passion for writing. The teachers’ comments about my writing gave me more confidence about this talent and I hoped to be able to use writing to communicate my thoughts and convictions. Through writing and these classes, I was able to explore some of the current issues that were not only affecting me as a woman but also our country as a whole. I felt that my consciousness of the bigger picture was expanding and my foundation on how to continue building my life was growing stronger. It’s amazing how just knowing there are others out there who support you and recognize the challenges you’re facing can strengthen your belief in yourself and your ability to rise above overwhelming setbacks.
My landlord phoned one day to let me know he was getting a divorce and would need the house we were renting for his own residence. Once again I was searching for a rental for me and my sons. At the same time, Don would be purchasing a house on Third Ave, which had a small studio attached to it. It was never clear to me how he could afford to do this. My thinking was that perhaps his mother loaned him money. I had no money to afford legal counsel about this so I tried not to let it distract me from my own responsibilities and schedule. There was no further mention by him regarding us working toward building trust and working together within the marriage. He had started a part-time job with a local ophthalmologist, as his physician’s assistant, so any disability payments were once again thrown into uncertainty. Support payments weren’t coming my way either during this time of his getting back on his feet, nor would they ever be consistent.
I found a three-bedroom apartment on Lexington Avenue that I could afford. At this point, it felt like I was just drifting with whatever happened and doing the best I could with what needed to be done. My two oldest sons were attending college at the local community college, one with thoughts of transferring to Oneonta State Teachers College and the other thinking of transferring to SUNY Purchase for Pre-Med, so their living arrangement needs were rapidly changing.
It was then that I realized, to my dismay, that I had moved to an area of town that was outside of my youngest son, G’s, elementary school district. I panicked because it was unclear on how I could resolve this now that I’d made the move. I reluctantly agreed to his father’s offer to have G live with him during the week when school was in session. He intended to list G as his dependent who was living with him. I was listed as custodial parent on the divorce papers with his father having agreed upon visitation rights. At the same time, he also offered my two oldest sons the use of the studio apartment for the times they would be back on school breaks, which they agreed to. So now, I had JP and D living with me and G on a shared basis with his father.
My need for the divorced and separated support group became less and less as time passed and I was able to regroup and grow. Of course, I will always remember those friends who became a real support for me and for each other during those difficult times.
Social events that were advertised in the local paper then started to appeal to me, so I decided to try some of them. Contra dancing was really popular and looked like fun! I also saw an article about the Mohawk Valley Chorus which was a group of men and women who put on performances three to four times a year all over the area.
At one of the contra dances I met a friend of a friend. There was plenty of instant chemistry between Mark and I, and the fun and laughter of the evening was memorable to the point that I wanted to see him again. I asked the friend who knew him if she was involved with him and she said no, that they were just friends. I was quickly learning in the divorce scene that this doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t involved with each other. I did tell her that I was interested in Mark and he did call shortly after.
Mark was a professor at the local Community College. He taught Biology and Geology. A very interesting and stimulating man! He also owned a family-operated apple orchard ~ which was very popular in the area as a family activity during the Fall. I remember that when I participated in the CROP Walk for Hunger with my sons, we had walked by his orchard and he was outside cheering us on. I was impressed even then with his upbeat attitude even though I didn’t know who he was. We did a lot together ~ nice dinners, events at the community college, dinner at his house with his family. He was exciting ~ did I mention that before?
The Mohawk Valley Chorus was exciting too! We were required to try out to determine which section we belonged in and I landed in the second-soprano group. It took a lot of courage to stand there next to the piano while the chorus director played the accompanying music and told you what to sing. …. And I made it! Practice was held in Amsterdam NY so I traveled down with another chorus member who lived the next town over from me. The thrill and newness of being a part of this group was such a positive experience. Each performance required that we all wear the same attire so I had to search around at thrift shops to find something that would be appropriate. I realized that a lot of the members in the chorus were people who were well off and not dealing with the restraints in spending that I had. This choral-singing experience was something I’d always wanted to try so I hung in there.
The songs we sang were Broadway, Classical and Pop tunes depending on each concerts theme. I remember the songs of Barry Manilow because they touched me deep inside and began to awaken those idealistic, emotional feelings that I used to feel in a different time and place. One song I remember was I Made It Through the Rain by Barry Manilow. I remember one of the women in the Divorced and Separated Group who mocked his songs as being overly sentimental and not realistic. Maybe so, however I did feel a melting in my heart that was a long time coming:
For the first performance we did I was picked to sing ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ along with five other women. It was so much fun! We appeared in the newspaper as the event drew nearer. (That’s me in the back row on the left.)
Mark came to see the last show in which I participated. He also came to a few rehearsals thinking he might join too. The chorus would have dinners along with dancing after each event to celebrate a job well done. Someone would take pictures of these events and give all of us the opportunity to buy whatever pictures we wanted. I bought this photo below of the dinner/dance because Mark was in the background, along with Cliff who I had briefly dated. These were all great times and helped me along the road of improving my life and moving forward.
I was dealing with a lot of back-and-forth feelings about letting go of the ‘ideal’ family environment that I felt was good for my family and replacing it with a messy, out-of-control haphazard situation in which I found myself. I grieved for the loss of a close-knit relationship with my sons who were now rapidly leaving the nest in more ways than one. Each son cut the apron-strings in painful ways for me as they moved into a more independent stage of their lives. I knew in my head that this was ‘normal’ for their age, yet I still felt traumatized by it on top of our precarious financial situation. Sharing custody with Don when it came to my youngest was the most difficult. I didn’t trust Don and was concerned that G was being used to get even with me and/or to put me in my place. I just never had the sense that we were truly working together as two parents who wanted the best for our children. It seemed to be more of a regaining of control issue for Don. It was a path that I felt I wasn’t able to control.
Meanwhile, Don had decided to live with a woman he met who had two children. My son’s life, at such a young age, was moving in a direction that I, as his mother, wasn’t able to have a nurturing input into. I was concerned about how this direction might be affecting him. When it came to my involvements with men, I didn’t expose my sons to the sexual side of those relationships and usually included them when the occasion was a more family oriented, if at all. I never felt comfortable with the idea of bringing another man into their lives where they would have to be adjusting to more major life changes. I felt the trauma we’d already experienced was enough and wanted to maintain some kind of order and consistency along this bumpy road.
These changes in the lives of my sons opened up a void in mine, along with more time to begin to fill my own life with positive things that kept me looking forward to my own future as well.
The Unemployment office sent me a notice of a typist/clerk position with the County in the Personnel Office of the county building. It was a full-time position and had much better benefits than I had at the Training Center. I decided to take it even though I was still struggling with the ‘letting go’ process of wanting my family back to the way it was and accepting the reality of the upheaval simultaneously going on in our lives. There were a number of other divorced women working at the county building and as the old saying goes …. ‘Misery loves company.” I still stuck to my goal of getting my Associates Degree at the community college and found it to be a centering focus that helped me think in terms of the future.
My relationship with Mark continued to be a freeing escape from the things I couldn’t change as well as an inspiration and learning experience for the direction in which I was moving. He had an intellectual side that really appealed to me and we explored many areas of life’s fascinating details that I’d never thought about before. He was an atheist and because of his chosen profession of teaching science he took me down roads that he considered proof that there was no God. I listened and found it all fascinating even though I could never come to the absolute conclusion that there was no divine power behind it all. My encounter with the life and message of Jesus within my own religion, along with my experience of a loving spiritual presence within my own life, convinced me that there was more behind it all. I began to feel grounded in this centering position of where I was comfortable spiritually regardless of where others might be in their belief or unbelief.
What added to my spiritual growth was the sense of freedom I had found within myself to do more of what made me happy. I was convinced that this God I believed in would want that and I resisted everything that pulled me back into the dark hole that I felt threatened to sink into if I fell into despair or hopelessness. It became clearer and clearer to me that there were certain teachings within the organized religions that lead more to that despair and hopelessness than to the freeing notion that there was a new life ahead of you and you could create it through belief in a benevolent source within you.
Mark and I would ride on his motorcycle up through the winding country roads in the Adirondacks heading to nowhere. We’d stop for breakfast or lunch whenever we saw a restaurant that appealed to us and would pull into a beautiful lake area and take a swim. It was the most exhilarating and freeing experience to hold onto him and let the wind blow my hair and see the beautiful trees above me as we rode by.
I needed to buy another car and a friend of my oldest son was selling his. It was a small red AMC Gremlin. I decided to go for it as the price was right and it looked good. I didn’t listen to the warnings that insurance companies don’t like red cars because they are a magnet for accidents. Well, as it turned out, this car was in two accidents in the one year while I owned it! Once when one of my sons took a ride in it early one Saturday morning to go get Dunkin Donuts and then, after insurance repaired that, another time when I was driving to work, on ice, and a woman came out of her driveway and slid right into my car’s path. It was like slow motion …….. I remember exactly the moment and what I said as her eyes locked with mine and I mouthed “Oh,…. Shit!” Needless to say, my oldest son’s friend said to him ~ “What’s your Mom doing to my car!!”
It was totaled and I had my very first experience with looking for a car through a dealer this time. The salesman was very sympathetic and helpful. He found a brown AMC Concord for me that was in beautiful shape.
While I was in the Lexington Avenue apartment my son, D, graduated from high school and my brother-in-law and my nieces and nephew came for a small celebration party. This meant a lot to us as we felt isolated because my limited funds created an inability to make too many visits to family. I had made an effort to take a few overnight trips, off and on, to my sister and brother-in-law’s small farm in rural western NY. It was a beautiful ride through the country roads to get there and all the kids would sleep in sleeping bags.
My brother, J, and his 2nd wife, L, drove up to see us also while I was living on Lexington Avenue. Luci had a small apartment-size washer/dryer that they weren’t using and brought it with them. They had no idea how much that was appreciated. I was making treks to the Laundromat since we moved out of our home on 2nd Avenue. The memory of the many times I spent doing laundry at the laundromat for six people is a blur. I did most of my reading there to liven up the deadening routine.
Then I received an annual lease-renewal notice that my rent was going to go up the next year ~ an additional amount that I definitely couldn’t swing on my budget I asked the landlady if she could reduce it and she said no. Because I was outside of my son’s school district and now I couldn’t even afford the monthly rent there, I decided to begin looking one more time for a smaller apartment with an affordable rent. I found one that was on the next street over from Don’s new residence, bringing me closer to G. My sons, one more time, helped me with loading up the U-haul truck and moving me across town into one more apartment. I could tell they were pissed and thought I was nuts. Can’t blame them! I was on high-drive stress all the time and my decision making was questionable …. even by me!
This upstairs apartment had been converted from an entire one family house. It had a small kitchen, a dining/living room and one bedroom off the living room with French doors.
It was now 1986, and after five years of taking courses at FMCC I was due to graduate in May. I’d received scholarships as an adult learner who qualified with good grades and also received financial aid and grants for my associates degree. I was 44 years old and I was seeing my hard work bringing me to my goal. It was a wonderful experience at FMCC. The thrill of walking across that stage and being handed my diploma was something I’ll never forget. At that very moment, as the audience clapped and I took the diploma in my hand, a shout from my son, JP, echoed throughout the auditorium ….. “Alright, Mom!”
I knew without a doubt that this was one of the most important reasons I wanted to have my sons there. Education and learning, throughout life and in the classroom, is something no one can take away from you. You learn how to think critically and make wiser decisions as you move through this life.
“You keep it up
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
The shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart”
It was around 1986 that I began to make more trips to Oneonta, NY. Two of my sons had moved there to live in the dorm while attending Oneonta State Teachers College (SUNY). Oneonta was a sweet little college town. We used to walk all over town. I wanted to feel comfortable that my sons were in a decent living situation and in a safe area. Their first few years were dorm-life experiences and eventually they moved to local residences and shared the rent with their friends. They picked up part-time jobs, one in local popular bar as a bouncer/bartender and the other in the an equally popular cafe as a chef.
One time while they were still living on the dorm, I drove them back after the Thanksgiving break and spent awhile visiting with them. When my youngest son and I started to head back home there were predictions of a snow storm and the skies were darkening. I headed onto Highway 88 just as the first dusting of snow began to fall. I was used to driving on ice and snow, and wasn’t too concerned about travelling in it. I glanced over at G, who was holding his boom box on his lap, as we both settled in for the ride home.
Then, in what seemed like in an instant, the car took on a life of its own and veered off to the right at an accelerating speed. I knew that steering in the direction of the skid, plus lightly pumping the brake pedal could bring it back. Nothing seemed to work and I realized that I had lost control and there was no stopping it. I looked over at G, still sitting there but now registering what was happening, and realized that this could be it for us. Out in front of me I saw off to the right the tops of the evergreen trees that were far below us down the embankment and the vast sky above us. The only hope I saw was the guard rail, which was made out of heavy cable, that was just a few feet from the side of the car. We hit the guard rail and scraped along for a long stretch and then instantly came to a stop just as the passenger side front wheel was heading off the embankment. Everything just stopped! I sat there in disbelief! It must have been within seconds that all this happened!
The snow continued to fall heavier and the silence around us was stunning. What now?
Within a few minutes there was a knock on my driver’s side window. A man and his son had seen the accident while they were driving behind us. “Don’t open the door on the passenger side” ~ he told me. “Try not to move too much!”
When I tried to open my driver’s side door, I could see that it had shifted in the frame and was difficult to open. “The right side of your car is right on the edge of the cliff” ~ he told me. “I’ve called the police and fire department. They should be here soon.” Surprisingly, neither G or I were outwardly panicking. And, more important, we were both OK! Not a scratch or bruise! It was surreal! The man had a crow bar on his truck and gently pried my door open. Both G and I shifted very carefully across the seat and got out of the car. When we went over to look at the right side of the car we saw that the front wheel had caught onto the cable wire on the guard rail, and this alone was what stopped the car from careening off the cliff.
When the police arrived they took the two of us to the nearby fire house off the thruway. We were sitting in the fire house waiting for the report and paperwork to be completed when all of a sudden I heard my son, JP, shouting for me. He and his wife, V, were also heading home from Oneonta and had left only a short while after us. They came upon the accident and when they found our car empty they began to search for where we had been taken. I’m not sure how they were able to locate us at the fire house and, all that I know was that I was totally relieved to see them.
JP and V took G and I back to the dorm at the college and we all stayed overnight as the snow continued to fall leaving a major blizzard on the whole area. We headed back to home when we knew the roads had been cleared later in the day. My car was totaled and I never saw it again. As we drove back in JP’s car, I was filled with the sobering conviction that a divine source had intervened on that highway. I had looked at my small son’s face while realizing that we were surely heading for a major accident and we were both going to die, and then a split second later the car had come to a cushioned halt. We were meant to live, and I was filled with gratitude and a sense of awe. Somehow, I would find a way to live out this gift more fully.
But first …….. the practical needs …….. finding another car!
The experience of this accident really left me with a profound wake-up call that it was time to make a change. I wasn’t sure what that change was going to be. My immediate step was to deal with the issues of getting myself another car and all the insurance paperwork surrounding my totaled AMC Concord. I had good results from the auto salesman who found me that car and decided to look to him again. He came through with another AMC Concord. This time in navy blue and in very good shape.
As for the rest of what was going on, I literally felt like it was one-step-in-front-of-the-other. I felt like I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. I was feeling that my life wasn’t my own anymore. My role as wife had ended; my role as mother was rapidly changing due to all these challenging circumstances and my efforts to get myself on track seemed unproductive and chaotic. I knew it was time for a reality check. The internal stress I was feeling seemed like I was co-creating the outward stressful events with a chain reaction of setbacks.
This was reinforced when one day, a few months after the first accident, I was driving G to school. There had been a major snowstorm that left a couple of feet of snow. The streets had been plowed and the mounds on the side of the road were twice as high. I approached Kingsborough Ave, which had an island in the middle of the road with high snow mounds. After looking to my left in one direction I proceeded to cross to the middle of the intersection. As I checked to my right coming in the other direction, I started to proceed into the other half of the Avenue. Suddenly, once again, G and I were in that moment of suspended animation! The side of the car was slammed by a little white car that I failed to see. The glare from the white snow mounds had made the white car blend in and almost invisible. The glass from the passenger side window shattered and G jumped out of the car and ran to the home of one of his friends with me following.
All of this is a blur for me to recall step-by-step so I can’t even remember the police coming or settling things with the other driver. Looking back, Annemarie, the mother of G’s friend, must have been shocked to have this drama playing out in her living room. I was all apologies for inconveniencing her. Once more my car was towed to a repair shop only this time it wasn’t totaled and only needed the passenger side door replaced.
I believe the thing that really set the ball rolling for a major change in my life came when I found out that Don was going to marry the woman he was living with. It was that moment of truth where I realized that, for him, life was easily moving on with no consequences while mine was still reeling from the result of his abandoning the family. It was hard for me to reconcile and sort through.
My older sons were either attending college or working full-time jobs while living temporarily with him and my youngest son was living with him most of the time. He had his own bedroom and was becoming a part of that family with the new woman’s two children. Meanwhile, I was moving and downgrading to a more affordable one-bedroom apartment with minimal emotional support. I knew it was time for me to get my act together and make some decisions to better my life.
I was super-sensitive about each thing that came up in my life and, for some reason, I decided to visit the attorney who took care of our divorce pro bono. I wanted to see if she could set up a basic will. I have no idea where my thinking was at that time. Although I wasn’t suicidal in a complete hopelessness way, perhaps that was my sub-conscious way of asserting that I still mattered and, even though I had nothing in a material sense, I wanted whatever I might have left to go to my sons.
While at the attorney’s office, I mentioned to her that Don was getting married. Instead of being sensitive to my situation, she responded with pleasure and excitement by calling out to her secretary that Don and Linda were getting married. It seems that Don and Linda were attending the same church as my attorney and therefore they were considered church community. I felt anger well up in me as I got up and told her that I wouldn’t be needing her services while walking out and slamming the door behind me. The memory of sitting outside her office in my car while dissolving into tears is still with me. I wasn’t able to let go of those tears for a long time. They were tears of anger, humiliation, heartbreak and sorrow.
I went back to the apartment and got on the phone to call my mother. I asked her if it was OK that I come back to RP. While feeling very defeated, I still had the hope that this move would project me forward in the direction I deserved and remove me from the scene of a very traumatic six years. Once I made my decision I began to feel renewed hope in a future that was more promising. My brother, S, phoned to see how I was doing and encouraged me to come and stay at our parent’s home for as long as I wanted. Even though I was vulnerable, I really felt that I only wanted to stay there temporarily until I got settled in a job and could find affordable housing. It would be good to finally be with my family and receive their much-needed support. I was thinking that salaries would be much higher than what I was earning in Upstate New York and that housing costs would be within my range of affordability. That meant that I would be able to maintain my independence, yet still be close enough to be a support to my parents as they aged.
One thing I did know was that I didn’t want to leave my youngest son, G, in Upstate NY with his father. Yet I didn’t want to put G in a position of turmoil by having him make the change with me. His brothers were all moving on with their lives and spending less time in town. It was a tough decision but one I needed to make.
I realized after I made this decision that I had been holding on to the last threads of my commitment to what had been my marriage and the whole expectation I had for my family. It’s was a painful and scary letting go for me. It meant I was taking a leap into an unknown going forward and relinquishing any notion that I had any degree of control over what was to come.
The time came where I told my sons of my plans and, bless them, they were 100% behind what I was going to do. I asked G if he would like to think about making the move with me. It would give him a chance to get to know my extended family. While his brothers had more contact with them when they were growing up, G had never experienced this given we had been moving all around from New York, to Pennsylvania and then back to New York again.
This was in the Spring of 1987. When G’s school year ended, we would be making our move to New Jersey. That would give him time to adjust to the change before he started school in the seventh grade in a new area. I was excited about the fact that we’d be close to NYC which could provide a lot of opportunities to enrich our lives.
I began to organize things for my departure from New York. Friends came to the cottage that I had rented for a week and brought food, drink and gifts for me to wish me farewell. It was bittersweet in that I loved the Adirondack area and the stay at the cabin was so beautiful and peaceful. G’s cousin, R, came for a few days and they had a great time swimming in Caroga Lake and just hanging out.
I began sorting things in my apartment and setting aside items to sell in a apartment sale before I moved. My brother, R, had offered to come up with a friend’s pick-up truck so my goal was to take only important things. I could use the extra cash to begin my new life in NJ. I would have all of $200 to my name when I made this move. My hopes really hung on me being able to pick up a job that paid more than what I was earning in Upstate New York. Most of my furniture was second-hand stuff that I had picked up along the way. I had one piece that belonged to my parents that I wanted to bring with me …… an old buffet that had belonged to my father’s parents that we had refinished. I still have it.
One afternoon the doorbell rang and when I went downstairs to answer it, the man at the door asked if I was Mary Lou. I said I was and he handed me a letter from the Family Court of the State of New York/County of Fulton. It was an order to show cause restraining me from moving out of the state with my son. It was a petition to permanently restrain me from removing G from the State of New York.
I was stunned! Not having the legal mindset to have even anticipated this I was once again floored by the fact that the situation could be turned on me like this. Why should I be punished for attempting to move on with my life? How was it that I still didn’t have the means to afford legal counsel yet a man, who avoided consistent child support after abandoning his family, could buy a home and set up an ‘appearance’ of being the responsible parent through the legal system. My intention had never been to prevent his having a relationship with his children. Nor did I create an atmosphere where I turned his children against him. My intention was finally, after six years, to make a decision that would improve the circumstances that his actions created for my life. I would have given everything for us to have been able to work together to a point where we might have been able to act cooperatively as parents. I would have given everything if we were able to work on reviving our relationship and repairing the trust that had been broken.
This legal action sent an electric charge through me and my older sons. It only served to stir up and open up all the old wounds over the past years. I was shaken to the core! Though I felt so much rage and hurt during these times, I was unable to let go and have a good cry. I stuffed all these emotions deep down inside me and it wouldn’t be until years later that I would learn how to let go (or should I say have the time to begin the process of letting go).
The day that we had to appear in court was extremely intimidating for me. I was unable to speak up for myself in the court setting before me. My voice trembled and I could see the expression on Don’s face. There was no compassion at all. (At least it appeared that way to me.) The judge determined that we would need to have mediation to set up reasonable ground rules if I were going to move G out of the state and a date was set for meeting with the Tri-County Center for Dispute Resolution.
Outside the county building, Don and I stood for a few minutes and I looked up at him in disbelief. “Don, we deserved much better than this!” and I thought I was going to cry …. I just walked away. My sons later told me that they went to him and told him to let me make the move to New Jersey with G. They reassured me that they learned in their talk with him that he wasn’t going to prevent me from leaving. It warmed my heart to know they stood up for me like that. It did make it much easier going to the mediation meeting and sitting down to work out the details of a good-faith settlement before I moved. We ended up agreeing on a rigid set of terms that required one weekend a month where we would meet at an agreed upon location so that G could go to stay with his father; we agreed upon custody for alternating holidays; and we agreed that G would have a two-week summer vacation with his father. And finally, visitation days during the breaks in the school year were stipulated. (This agreement continued during G’s initial year in New Jersey and then fell by the wayside after he entered his teenage years. Then things became more flexible and less demanding and less controlling)
One last hurtful maneuver before we set out for NJ was when his father told G that he would be giving his bedroom to Stacia, his new wife’s daughter, and G would be sleeping on the couch when he came to stay with him. (What an asshole!)
The Move Home
When the day came for our move I felt as if I was flying ‘like an eagle’ on the ride down the New York Thruway. My brother, R, came up on the day before and we loaded the truck with the few possessions I was bringing ‘home’. He left that same day, heading out for NJ, where he’d unload and store everything in the basement of our family homestead.
The words of the title of a 1940 novel that had recently gained popularity kept running through my mind even though I hadn’t read the book and knew nothing of what it was about. ~ You Can’t Go Home Again ~.
And I froze up!
I knew I was returning to my home town in a vulnerable state of mind and under chaotic circumstances. I tried to put the positive aspects of the move in front of me. I would finally have caring family nearby who would assist me in locating affordable housing. It would give G and me a feeling of belonging. I would have support and guidance on how I would be able to continue to get back on my feet and build some stability and security for my future.
I was weary of doing it on my own yet I was still hoping, through this new support system, to move forward in a direction that would build my sense of self-worth.
I had taken a typing test with the Fulton County Unemployment Office for a clerk/typist position with the Correctional Facility located in Saratoga Springs, NY and forgotten all about it. Although the availability of jobs was few and far between, working in a prison gave me pause. There was a side of me that still pushed to take risks and wanted to move to a whole new location and settle down there to rebuild my life. The vulnerable side of me kept winning out. I was tired, feeling beaten and afraid that I would make a wrong move, making my situation even worse. Just before the time that we were to move back to NJ, I had received a notice that I had passed the test in the top three and was being offered the position. Even though I had this opportunity before me, I was unable to reverse the course that I had set in motion to return to my hometown. I was unable to put my son, G, in an uncertain and unknown situation. I was unable to take that risk and so I opted for the known and familiar return to the safety of my childhood roots.
When we pulled into my hometown our future was a total unknown even though the surroundings were familiar. It was more than twenty-five years ago that I had lived there. I had no idea what experiences my son, G, would be getting into. I anticipated that coming from a rural upstate environment to a town set in the middle of the Tri-State Metropolitan Area of NJ/NY/Pa would be an adjustment……. And it was.
We settled into the upstairs bedrooms that were still the same as when I had left. G was to stay in my brother, S’s, bedroom which was still inhabited by trophies and memorabilia from the time when he lived there. There was a huge mural on the wall that my brother, J, had painted that was of a Roman gladiator on a horse-pulled chariot. I was to stay in the same room my sister and I shared as children and later became my parents’ bedroom…… the one with the storage space that set our imaginations and fears into high gear. One dresser still had my father’s things in it even though they were now using the downstairs bedroom due to his difficulties of navigating the steep stairs. Although I did not intend to go through anything in the top drawer, I did happen to come across a wallet with a picture of a horse on it that I had given my father as a gift — a long, long time ago. I felt that G and I were visitors in someone else’s home, and, in fact, we were.
G would have the rest of the summer to adjust to the change before he began seventh grade in the new school. It was good that he had the initial connection to family and could feel that he did belong here to a certain degree.
As for me, I was off and running, fighting the panicky feeling that I had to get work immediately. The fear of falling behind and maybe not being able to pick up my stride to move myself forward was always there. If I stopped moving and working, I might collapse and give up. So I began an exploration of what was out there in the way of employment. What I found was that even though housing was three times the cost of upstate New York apartments, the starting pay for clerk/typist positions wasn’t enough for me to afford most rents for two bedroom apartments. The only way that I could earn ‘big money’ was to commute into NYC and spend more money and time away from home enduring that long commute. This would be fine if I were not responsible for a teenager. I didn’t feel I could take it for granted that my mother would be able or willing to take on that aspect of caring for my son at her age along with her having the responsibility of my father’s failing health.
There had been no real communication between us about what my goals and expectations were surrounding the move back ‘home’, and there was no clear communication on what the expectations of my siblings were surrounding my move into the family home. I immediately volunteered that I would be giving my parents a monthly financial contribution even though I had only $200 to my name upon our arrival. The impact of the reality that I had moved into someone else’s home, kitchen, and daily routine began to sink in more and it was not that easy to know how to proceed without uncomfortably treading on their space. So my resolve to find our own place, nearby, where I could be a part of a team effort with my siblings in assisting our parents with the inevitable aging issues became one of my primary goals.
Perhaps, looking in hindsight, it would have been better had I taken a well-deserved break and not started to search for a job right away. I was still feeling like I was on over-drive and found it hard to let go of my need to continue to try to get myself back to feeling some emotional and financial stability. I was afraid that if I stopped and stood still I’d never get back my momentum and motivation.
I had two siblings living nearby and two living an hour or so away. We touched base on the holidays and during family get-togethers. There wasn’t any discussion relating to what options I might have and what their expectations were while I stayed in our parents’ home. My father wasn’t well, having a form of dementia, and my mother was in her mid-seventies and caring for him. My main focus and concern was getting G settled and doing what I had to do in order to give him support. I also needed to bring in an income that would steadily bring more security and stability for my approaching retirement years.
The day-to-day routine saw me working around my mother’s routine and purchasing habits. She still loved doing the cooking for her family and I was happy to leave that in her hands since I was involved in seeking a job I could settle into.
Five months after we moved in my father died at the age of 80. We were all able to get together at the hospital. I was in the room by his side and there was a nun who was making the bed next to my father’s. When my father began to gasp for air, I looked to her to tell me what was happening and she said it was time to get my mother from the waiting room.
So there were three of us who were there at his bedside when he passed away ~ my brother, R, my mother and myself. I’m not sure if my father knew we were there. I did hope that what is said about the ability to hear being the last of the senses to remain for those who are dying was actually true. We stood there together, me at the side of the bed and my mother and brother at the foot of the bed. Together we prayed the traditional prayers of our Catholic faith.
In the waiting room, where the others were gathered, G’s uncle put his hand on G’s shoulder and said ‘now you’re the man of the house’, and I lovingly looked at my 12-year-old son who had already experienced a lifetime of changes and losses.
The day of the funeral was like a scene from Dr. Shivago. There was snow on the ground and a gray sky caste over the snowy scene that gave it a somber effect. On the way out of the church we shook hands with the priest who said the funeral mass. He was a very approachable man who hugged every one as they passed him. When my turn came for him to give me a hug, I told him I was feeling so blessed that I had just moved back to the area and had some time with my father before he died. I carried within me a feeling that I had disappointed my father somehow because of my marriage ending in divorce. Fr. P, not knowing this, looked at me and said ‘Good! I’m glad you had that time with him so there are no regrets!” I appreciated that moment and felt another letting go.
Back in the early 60’s there was a song that was popular ~ Goodbye Dad by the Castle Sisters. It was about a young woman who is leaving her father’s home to start a new life with her husband. It spoke of the feelings she was experiencing as she closed the door on one phase of her life and opened the door to another. I thought of this song as we said goodbye to our father ~ Very Simply ~ Goodbye Dad.
After the burial we all came back to the homestead and, because it was still the holiday season, we did what we always did …. gathered together for the Christmas Season. We sang Christmas carols, we laughed and sang some more and we felt a lot of joy and love. …….. And we remembered.