Divorce at 23 years old: boxes of the past
My mother would always say that my father was a pack rat, that he saved everything. There were boxes upon boxes in our garage of paper: old legal documents, pay stubs, and receipts from his days as a landlord. After my dad died when I was a kid, these saved papers were of no use to anyone, seemingly. In hindsight, though, they did mean something. I think my mom was trying to save my father by clinging to these bits and pieces of a man I did not know. If he had saved something, she and I clung to it with a desperation that makes me sad now. Even when the boxes went unopened for years, it was reassuring that somewhere in the house my parents had bought together, a part of him remained.
When I moved to Chicago, my mother was remarrying and also moving. She didn't talk much about the process of throwing away all of my father’s things. As much as she had loved my dad, discarding these pieces of a life was a concession towards a new life. We never actually spoke about those boxes, and we didn’t discuss the vetting process when she moved. But I remembered all of my father’s papers years after my mother’s move when I found myself sitting on a cold concrete basement floor, surrounded by my own boxes of ghosts.
Divorce is a haunting. It lurks, just behind you, hiding for weeks at a time. You become careless and it finds you. You open a drawer or closet and, though you think you’ve packed it all away, it springs forth in the form of his old gym shorts, a stray sock, or, the worst, a photo. There is a smile in his eyes that you have not seen in years. When you saw it, it gave you that feeling—“butterflies,” my mother called them—and though now those gentle wings are like walking through a spider web at dusk, you remember. You remember when they were wings.
They were wings at seventeen. He was my high school sweetheart. And, in Indiana, a lot of high school sweethearts turn college romances, turn spouses. And that’s what we did. I made a decision at seventeen, bought a home with him two days after turning twenty-one, married him three months before turning twenty-two, and didn’t stop to think about any of it until a month before turning twenty-three.
Since I’d moved to Chicago after high school, my mother had taken to telling me about her daily endeavors in significant detail. The mundane to the extraordinary, nothing went untouched. And one day in the summer, a couple months shy of my twenty-third birthday, and a month past my one year wedding anniversary, she told me that she and her husband had gone to the Children’s Museum and rode the carousel.
“Did you bring your grandkid?” I asked. “Was a niece or nephew in town?” No and no.
“We realized we hadn’t been there in years and we talked about how much our kids had always loved the carousel. So we rode it.”
I imaged two sixty-somethings in line with giddy children, selecting their horses, and then I heard the ostentatious, canned, grandstanding music from the same ride. And then, phone still tucked between my ear and shoulder, I looked over at my husband.
I knew that I would not be riding carousels with him in our sixties.
A series of conversations engulfed the remainder of our summer, and as it turned out, the remainder of our marriage. In one epic exchange that ended it all, I learned that he did not want children, did not want me to write, did not want to move for the graduate program to which I’d been accepted, and that he expected me to adapt.
Within three weeks of that conversation, he had moved out, leaving most of his belongings behind for me to sort. But his quick departure was welcomed, and I blindly filled my basement storage unit with his things, dirty laundry and clean, useable items and scraps of paper from his nightstand drawer. I couldn’t face any of it and let it sit in the storage unit of my basement, out of sight. I threw my wedding dress on top.
But each time I’d realize I needed something down there, I’d see that mountain of my marriage. The mountain festered for a year before I had the courage to face it. I called a resale shop and set a date for donation pick-up. I shoved things into bags. And then I waited. I waited for them to come take it all away.
I watched the men carry bags out to their truck. On their final haul, I saw the dress in one strong hand. The papery garment bag was wrinkled harshly and flecked with basement floor bits. Inside lay a $1500 gown in which I had begun my life without carousels.
As I watched the man go, my eyes barely lingered, and I was not sad for the dress, or for me. It felt like I was watching another woman’s dress leave. The story was sad enough, and I could have been persuaded to feel something stirring in me; but it did not feel like my story. I just watched. I just waited. The men left the dingy basement through the alley with the contents of a past life. And I walked upstairs, that old grand-standing carousel music in my ears.
Mary-Margaret McSweene is a writer based in Chicago. Her work can be found at http://www.nootherlifebuthere.blogspot.com/.Want to have your writing featured on Pluck? We’re always looking to showcase smart, relevant pieces -- contact the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more
By Mary-Margaret McSweene, Published 12/21/11
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