My parents were visiting us just after my son was born. I was up with the baby when my father, who always rose early, came into the kitchen. He peeked into the cradle at the first of the next generation, fed, changed, and asleep with his tiny knee drawn up toward the little arm with its dimpled fist tucked under the chin.
"Would you like to hold him? He'll sleep in your arms," I said. "Better off where he is," he replied pulling a chair out on the far side of the round table. I set a cup of coffee in front of him.
When my mother was safely asleep, he could make himself available, sort of. We asked tentatively after each other. Over coffee, he talked about how, as they were getting older, she refused to speak for days if he tried to say anything positive about either my sister or me.
As he went on, I asked if he'd ever imagined his life differently and he said, "Oh, don't ask me that, dear girl." Divorce had been unthinkable and its regret was palpable.
My father's best friend had divorced in the early fifties, still rare at the time. It had remained shrouded in whispers, the first case in the state in which the father got custody of the children. The wife had been unsatisfied, and subsequently (or therefore) unfaithful, and the shame she brought on their family cast a shadow on ours. She was declared a danger to society, a home-wrecker. Let that be a lesson. My father had supported his friend's decision in spite of his own objections. Later, when his anxieties of knowing, and my mother's, had slipped into depression for both of them, it had been too late. He'd been caught in the thin place between belief and practice; she had already disappeared into an irretrievable void.
My mother, he was saying, would have been unable to manage on her own, would have gone mad. He was protecting her, he said. Theirs was a de facto in-house separation in which each felt betrayed by the other and in turn made use of the other's pain. It had been wrong, he allowed, her screaming for attention, slicing us up when we were in her way, and his letting it go on and on, but he wasn't capable of anything else.
Suddenly, I was eight years old, sitting on the bed, sobbing, and my father, in his tight white collar, was telling me that what we thought wasn't true: of course she loved us. He said, "You must try to be a good girl." The unspoken, "like your sister" echoed in my head. She was the quiet one who managed to keep out of their way.
Back in my kitchen, he was glad, he said, glad I had a stable life. It gave him hope. He didn't mention my twin, how she was doing, but we both knew. They had no news of her and I rarely did. The last I'd heard she was in rehab, again.
He stood up and went to the coffee maker. He poured a fresh cup, which he would take to my mother. He turned around in the doorway, "We'll just keep this little visit to ourselves, shall we?"
And there in the illusion of early summer, I was convinced I'd beaten the odds.
words: Margot Miller, Maryland (Margot Miller)
photo: Jessica Stubert-Perasso, Colorado (waking up late)