There I stood in my best pressed pants, crisp dress shirt and color coordinated, clip-on tie. Waiting to pose for my 5th-grade picture. Standing with my classmates, we were all coiffed and coutured by our mothers for posterity.
With the last picture taken, the photographer asked our teacher, Mrs. Goodstein to move forward for her picture. She stood there in her stylish blue dress with red and white scarf, so patriotic, and readied herself. To keep us engaged, the photographer turned to us.
“What should we have your teacher say as I take her picture?”
Without a bit of hesitation, 20+ ten-year olds screamed in unison.
With cheeks as red as the proverbial apple on her desk, poor Mrs. Goodstein gamely smiled as the camera captured her – and the state of her life – for posterity.
To us, Mrs. Goodstein being divorced was scintillating and salacious. This was the early ‘70s and having a teacher who was neither married or a “Miss” was something that rattled our everyday existence. Divorce was rarely discussed deep in the boroughs of New York City.
The amazing thing was that within a year of that photograph, I was on a plane to Los Angeles with my mom, who had left her life and my father back at home. Mrs. Goodstein wouldn’t be the only lady with a scarlet A for alimony emblazoned on her chest.
That was decades ago and how times have changed. When my kids were in 5th grade, there were many divorced parents. Even more by middle school and high school. My kids share our community’s marital news like they share test grades and hallway drama. For them, it’s just a daily part of the fabric of their lives… I mean, other people’s lives.
There are often two addresses for kids in the school directory. Step-moms and step-dads coaching and carpooling while custodial parents are often MIA. Friendships formed, dissolved and then rediscovered stemming from a single couple’s break-up.
Over my twenty-plus years in suburbia, I’ve seen it all from backyards and front porches. There are separated parents, while not the best of friends, demonstrating a unified front by sitting close to one another at open-school night. There are parents who keep a force field around themselves in case their ex suddenly appears. Revealing innuendos in football stands, biting sarcasm at cocktail parties, uncomfortable confrontations in parking lots. It’s the talk of the townsfolk.
The funny thing… it’s the kids, especially my kids, who keep it straight for me. One daughter reminds me where drop-off and pick-up will be for friends whose parent’s share joint custody. One daughter gently squeezes my arm when I enter into conversational territory that may put me in social hot water. More intuitive than I ever was or could be.
The not-so-funny thing? Even with the gentle reminders on being socially politically correct, I sometimes put my size 11 foot in my mouth. I asked one mom why I haven’t seen her husband in a while… and then found out he left with no forwarding address. I told one dad a funny story about my wife admiring the gardener’s abs… and found out his ex-wife slept with the kitchen contractor. In my effort to support, I often fall flat.
But when it comes to taking in the landscape, the most interesting dynamic is the one with my wife. We have our significant ups and downs, like any married couple. And we have weathered most storms, climate or emotionally initiated. But once we somehow get started on specific situations involving divorced people we know, we can end up on totally opposite sides.
One night as we enjoyed one of those rare just-by-ourselves dinners away from home and hearth, the subject turned to the people on the hill… and neighboring lanes.
“Why did you talk to Steve at the basketball game?”
“He came to say hello and sat next to me. He was being very pleasant.”
“He’s a dumb ass! Trust me… a total jerk! Laura told me he won’t let her have the kids for 30 extra minutes next week. She has to leave her mother’s 70th birthday party early to return them so he can control her life.”
“Well, that is dumb. But maybe she pissed him off about something. I mean, they’ve been divorced for four years and all she does is go to the gym. I’ve never seen a person who’s a bit out to lunch have so many lunch dates.”
“She can do whatever she wants to do. He’s not her boss or husband any more. She takes great care of their kids who are suffering from this intolerable situation. He threatens to take her to court every other day. Don’t sit next to him if you don’t have to. You don’t even like him.”
Okay, she’s right there. I really don’t like him. But shouldn’t I defend my gender even when my fellow man doesn’t man up? Even when he buys a two-seat convertible when he has four kids under 15? Will I be violating some man code by agreeing with the feminine side of my house?
Divorce is hard enough without commentary and conclusions from the peanut-free gallery. But in the ‘burbs, love and marriage are all fair game at any kid’s recreational game. And navigating your Honda Pilot towards self fulfillment, Match.com and long-term happiness might mean steering clear of the cul-de-sac chatter of home, sweet home.