Last night was the first night I had been alone in the house since the last time I posted. It’s remarkable to note how odd this feels. All those years I was married I spent only a handful of nights in a house all by myself…if there weren’t children around, there was generally a husband, and even if I went somewhere alone (to visit my mother, for example) by myself, I wasn’t by myself when I got there, of course. Married adulthood means you are rarely alone.
Now, of course, I’m regularly alone. Life is much more varied since the divorce, as I’ve noted before, and I seem to have become acclimated to what seemed, at first, an incomprehensible and unstable routine. Sometimes I’m alone, sometimes I’m alone with my children, sometimes I’m with my boyfriend without any children, sometimes I’m with my boyfriend and all or some of our various children. Once you divide this by location (his, mine) and setting (city, small suburban town) and by extraordinary circumstances (holidays, travel, relatives) and then factor in my erratic work requirements (sometimes overwhelming, sometimes unnervingly slight) you have the makings of an unsettled life indeed. But I have gotten used to it. I must have, or I would not feel strange when one part of it (solitude) goes missing. I used to find all this change exhausting and upsetting, and long for the day I could finally appreciate how nice it was to have so many different routines. And lo and behold, the day seems to have come without my even realizing it. This augurs well for the new year, I think.
And so I’m alone. It has been an eventful month. Where to begin?
This year the kids and I spent Christmas with my father and stepmother. Also in attendance were my sister and her wife and their baby girl, my other sister and her fiancée, and my stepbrother and his two daughters. My father lives in Dallas, where my stepmother grew up, and her entire extended family (with their six million spouses and offspring) live within a six or seven block radius. I saw cousins I haven’t seen in years, and my kids met family members they never knew they had, and the whole thing was so jam-packed with events and people that I hardly remember what we actually did. If memory serves, we ate a lot (one of my sisters is a chef) while lying around reading in our pajamas, or at least I did. The kids ran wild. My father and stepmother were troopers–there were thirteen people staying in their house–and though there were always six or seven things happening at once in various areas, it never felt hectic or overcrowded or oppressive. Or at least it never did to me. My stepmother is a painter, and my kids and I were sleeping in her studio at the end of the upstairs hall. Everyone else was spread out in bedrooms and offices and studies and whatnot, and you could sneak off pretty easily if you wanted privacy, and if you felt like playing cards or Jenga or whatever, you could always find a few people willing to get up a game.
My stepbrother and his daughters were facing their first christmas without their mother, who died last April. The girls were troopers–they talked about their mom, and even talked about missing their mom, but they did not seem haunted or lonely or miserable. They joined right in, playing basketball in the alley behind the house with my kids, or singing carols around the piano as my younger son played (yes, indeed, we actually did this, at my stepmother’s behest. She went and bought the sheet music and talked my son into learning to play Silent Night and a few others, and he complied even though he didn’t want to, and we all went and sang even though we didn’t want to, and it was great. My little heart swelled. Way back when I first started this website, on my first divorced Christmas, I wrote about how disgruntled I was that no one else in my immediate family knew or cared about Christmas carols, and a few years later lo and behold, there we all were, singing Christmas carols on December 23rd. I knew all the words! My aunt and cousins sang harmony! We sang all the verses! It was quite the thrill. Hours later, when I went to sleep, I was still glowing contentedly. All was calm, all was bright.)
My sister’s sixteen month old daughter had a cold, but nobody cared–we all hugged and kissed her as much as she would let us, which turned out to be a lot. She’s an astonishingly beautiful and good natured baby. She learned everyone’s name in about six minutes, and followed my stepbrother’s oldest daughter around adoringly. My other sister, the chef, cheerfully made delicious things to eat and handed them around to everyone all day long. We went to a party filled with relatives on Christmas Eve, and my sister and I went to see my grandmother in the dementia floor of the nursing home where she now lives, and it wasn’t bad at all. She didn’t know exactly who we were, but she knew we were people she’d loved, somehow. And she looked so pretty. We showed her pictures of the baby, whose middle name is the same as her first name, and she was charmed. Her husband, my grandfather, is 95 and still lives in his house–we saw him several times as well. This whole side of the family only came into my life as a result of my father’s remarriage–these grandparents and aunts and cousins are all my stepmother’s relatives, and I now see how amazing they were to welcome a skinny little stringy-haired six year old into their family without any questions asked, and to keep me in their family all this time. My life has been immeasurably enriched, without a question, by my parents’ remarriages after their divorce.
Anyway, the whole holiday felt like Christmases when I was little, even though I have only spent a handful of actual Christmases with my dad and his family. It was so unbelievably relaxing to be with other adults, with several generations, with a large group of merrymakers, and it was such a relief not to have to muster Christmas all by myself, with the ghosts of happy family Christmases Past hanging around in the corners of the rooms, dolefully rattling their chains. I regressed a bit–sleeping in your parents’ house will do that to you–and I felt more like a child than like a parent, which was unexpectedly wonderful. And it struck me that not having a spouse made being home for Christmas easier, not harder. I didn’t have to worry that my husband was pissing off my parents, or vice versa. I didn’t have to see the ways my family was strange or annoying or Other through the eyes of someone who hadn’t grown up in their midst.
My stepbrother and I hung out a few times, which I hadn’t expected. We were very close when we were kids–our parents started dating when he was three and I was six–but the years have intervened, and we had not spent any time together–certainly not any time alone together–in years and years, since we both got married. Now we are both unmarried, and a couple of days before Christmas, during a lull in the action (the couples had gone off to nap or tend babies or whatever, and my older son was expertly managing all the kids), my stepbrother asked me to go do a few errands with him in the car. We drove around what used to be our old neighborhood, the neighborhood our parents had lived in when first we met. “Do you think you’ll ever get married again?” he said, and I said, no, I don’t think so. I said I could see living with my present boyfriend eventually, when the kids get older and circumstances allow it, and that we certainly talk about getting old together, and that we both seem to assume that we will be with each other forever, but that I am, for reasons I don’t quite understand, completely gun shy when it comes to remarrying. “So you don’t think you’ll get married?” he said, and I started to explain again, and then it hit me. “Um,” I said. “Do you think you’ll ever get married again?” And that was all it took. We drove around for nearly an hour, and he talked and talked and talked about things–about the death of his wife, about his future, his girls, his present state of mind, his ardent desire to remarry, his longing for a home, for a mother for his kids. I suddenly remembered why my stepbrother was, when I was young, one of my very favorite people in the world.
On Christmas itself it snowed, and he and I went for a long walk alone, circling the block because we were reluctant to go home, talking the entire time. It felt like when we were little and whispered and giggled all night in our room. It felt like I was his big sister again and he was once again my little brother–I don’t mean that it felt as if we had regressed, but rather that we had reclaimed our old familial friendship. We were conspicuous all week, the only two unmarried parents in the whole extended family, and while divorce is very different from death, we stood together on a kind of common ground. It was wonderful to hear him talk. I was flattered, even honored, that he would confide in me, but what really struck me was how unremarkable it all seemed. We were ourselves with each other. It felt the way our closeness always felt. Love for a sibling cuts right down to the bone, I think. In the end, we are closer to our siblings than to anyone.
So that was the fourth Christmas–I think it was the fourth, am I correct?–since the separation. Fourth, and best. Hallelujah.