Recouping the Steep Cost of Divorce: My Parents' Split Cut Me off from an Extended Family, and a Rich History, That I Have Now Come to Cherish

Newsweek, May 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Recouping the Steep Cost of Divorce: My Parents' Split Cut Me off from an Extended Family, and a Rich History, That I Have Now Come to Cherish


I did not meet my grandmother Mary until seven years ago, when I was 37. As the two of us sat alone in my father's living room in Brooklyn, N.Y., she took my hand, squeezed it and said, "We'll have fun yet." Perhaps she sensed my feeling of loss at meeting her so late in our lives, long after the usual familial bonding of grandchild to grandparent. Squeezing my hand was an act of reassurance, a humane way of closing those lost years, of bringing us into the present.

I had lost my grandmother Mary, and, for a while, my whole sense of family, because of divorce. My parents split up when I was 9 and my brother 12. We stayed with our mother in Chicago while our father eventually moved on to New York, where he started a new family.

That first divorce began a chain reaction of heartbreak. Our original family of four grew exponentially through marriage: my father and mother have each married three times, my brother four times and I married twice. In all, 12 marriages. Seven of those unions ended in divorce, one in death. Through these disruptions and constant moves, I have lost more than just physical homes. I've lost irreplaceable moments and milestones with family members, as well as the more structured pace of life in a less turbulent family. That is, if there are any--few people I have met have not been touched by divorce.

No wonder our family reunions take place in transient settings like hotel rooms and restaurant lobbies. I meet relatives in towns like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Grandmother Mary lived until last year, and more recently in the Illinois town of Downer's Grove, where motels advertise "extended stay" business suites and low-flying jets roar overhead every few seconds. Most of these reunions have come and gone without me. At the age of 17, when the time came to choose a college, I decided to go as far away as possible. Alaska was too expensive, so I went to Colorado, knowing I would return to the Midwest infrequently, if ever. I didn't need any more humidity, and I certainly didn't need the chaos of a family that was always adding and subtracting members. For how do you commit to folks who may not be in your life the following year?

Survival is something you learn early in life if you want to keep from ending up on a corner barking at passersby. I learned to hold back from the family I did have and to hold on to my sense of self. My emotional distance depended on geographical distance. …

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