Halloween is right around the corner and I expect our party of trick or treaters will look much like it did on our first candy hunt three years ago. Our daughter will be in the lead, my husband will stay at her heels, camera in hand, and my parents — all three of them, and I will bring up the end of the parade. We are her entourage.
Dorothy came into this world as we all do, a tiny baby with no material possessions, no powers of speech excepting a cry, and no prior understanding of the history that came before her. Yet instantly she became a centrifugal force around which our ruptured family oriented.
The rupture occurred when I was small, being about three when my parents separated and four when they divorced. As far as breakups go, this one was cordial enough. From what I understand, there was no battle for custody, disagreement over money, no one left the state or dropped out of the family. Their relationship, that of my mom and my dad, ceased. It was as simple and as complicated as that.
Because I was there, they could not part company and never look back. Especially considering my age, there was an urgent and necessary demand that they remain in each other’s orbit, painful or challenging as that might be.
Dorothy understands only superficially, I imagine, that her Grandpa and Gram were once married. Her Granty, my step-mom, is as real a fixture in her life as the two people who came together to create me, her mother. Her confusion is not far off from my own. Granty is as real a fixture in our family to me as she is to Dorothy. She is my parent too. Dorothy cannot wrap her brain around this coupling and uncoupling and new coupling that happened decades before she was born. She sees all three grandparents in one room for her birthday, for Christmas and she takes their simultaneous presence for granted, confident in her adoring, captive audience.
That’s where I know a shift happened, a healing that’s come perhaps only because of Dorothy’s arrival. Because, while they were not outwardly contentious, while they could meet up socially, at ballet recitals and school events, my folks did not move voluntarily into each other’s company. Our celebrations were clearly drawn experiences, one with my mom, one with my dad and step-mom. I never questioned that life would be any different. I never knew I wanted it to be different.
If I trace the line back through family photos and family memories, I can see when the shift happened. It was my twenty-eighth birthday, not quite a month after Dorothy’s birth. I inhabited a new-mother fog and at the time nothing struck me as unusual. We held a gathering based on a ruse, my birthday giving a thinly veiled opportunity for grandparents to dote on the newborn. I remember little of it, except deciding I better get comfortable nursing in front of people or I would spend a lot of time in a room by myself in the coming years. Only now, more than five years later, do I realize the significance of that moment — it was the first birthday party I remember with all my parents in attendance.
Christmas in our own home came about due to necessity created by parental exhaustion, mine and my husband’s, to be exact. After driving to three different homes Christmas day, covering more than sixty miles, with an increasingly hysterical eighteen-month-old in the backseat and leaving a trail of unsatisfied grandparents in our wake (save those visited first), I looked at my husband, and said, “We can’t do this again.”
The next year, we did not. We invited them to us. Some declined. My parents, all three of them, accepted. They came early that morning, bearing trays of homemade English muffin bread, smoked ham, a carton of orange juice and a bottle of champagne. They brought presents, too, towers of presents around which they could not see over and of which our two-and-a-half- year old did not know what to make. Mostly they brought courage, the willingness to partake in this experiment of mine, a Christmas with all familial parties present. I fidgeted and spent a lot of time playing hostess. The foreignness of the situation left me nervous and jumpy. Yet it was one of the happiest mornings of my life, that holiday. Here was a tradition I never knew I missed out on until I partook in it with the four grown-ups and one child who have been the central characters to the making of my life.
The morning was not only pleasant; it was pleasurable. For weeks after, we all remarked on the good time we shared. Dorothy was the main topic. She usually is, but I’m coming to realize she is often the veil for what lies beneath the surface. I think more was enjoyed than the granddaughter reveling in a wash of gifts. We had the same holiday the year after and the year after that. For two more years and this upcoming one, too, my thirty-years divorced parents, my step-mom, my husband, my daughter and I celebrate the miracle of the season.
I realize now, it can be hard to miss something you never really had. I do not see myself as someone from a broken home but I do have a string of broken holidays to my name — holidays that began in one home, with one set of loved ones, and finished in another. It is no longer unusual to come from divorced parents or to be part of a blended family, but the effort of creating a successful separated family often goes unsung. There is growth, compromise, and work put into long marriages; yet I now see the same could be said of long divorces. They are their own part of a family history, not to be overly appraised or under appreciated. Not all divorced families work this hard to make it work.
I feel blessed these last few seasons. Halloween, Christmas, the Easter breakfast we all enjoyed this past Spring, they are a beacon to me of not only what’s possible, but achieved. They are a testament to a family separated and now moving to wholeness once more. A little cracked, yes, but a family mellowed and strengthened with time. If we trust Leonard Cohen, its all cracked anyway and yet “that’s how the light gets in.”
On this plane, in this world, I do not think my daughter understands what she breathed life into simply by breathing in life. Her presence is her present and in return my folks give themselves, together, letting old grievances, hard memories, and unfamiliarity born from years apart fall away. My daughter flings her un-self-conscious love at them and they give her their willingness to put aside the past. They disguise it in bright pink gifts with silver ribbons, boxes of miniature Valentine hearts, and Easter baskets, but I know love when I see it. They pass this love, unspoken, but made visible simply by showing up, back and forth, my parents and Dorothy, who is often wearing a tutu and dancing. I sit in the middle of this circle, a lucky daughter, a lucky mother. I hold my place, the conduit from which this opportunity flowed, the center of it and yet in so many ways not the center at all, but only a chain in a link of a long family line that will hopefully continue to flow forward. I marvel at the miracle of a child, at time and at the simple and sacred events that call us together. For our family, these times and our child invite healing to occur in places I never knew needed mending.
Emily Broyles Bryant lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter in Knoxville, Tennessee. The main ingredients of her life are: writing, homeschooling, knitting, reading and trying not to worry so much. Occasionally she stops by her blog Good Mama Mojo.