Published on March 22nd, 2018 | by Emily Tobey4
“The time when something begins.”
“Listen to this,” Lily said, reading something to me from the paper she was writing. My daughters and I were sitting by the fire on the living room rug, our books strewn about. “Wow, that’s almost exactly what I am reading about right now,” I said. She was home on a college break, and we all had work to do. By this time, I was in the midst of my Master’s program, and often found myself sitting at the kitchen table with still-in-high-school Izzy, both of us doing work, sharing thoughts or questions about what we were reading. Even though the three of us were not studying the same thing, there was remarkable overlap. The irony wasn’t lost on us that the thread stitching us together through our studies was feminism: the female body, gender, sexuality, patriarchal constructs, explorations of what it means to be a woman. We were holding mirrors up to each other, at each stage in our respective lives.
When I graduated two months ago, everyone I knew asked me, “What are you going to do now?” When you finish a Master’s Degree at age 54, people want to know. But I don’t have an answer, at least not one succinct enough to fit into small talk. It’s hard to explain how I must now find my path intuitively on a route with a severe lack of signage. Sometimes I side-step the question with something like, “I have a lot of ideas. I just have to figure out which one to focus on first.” And then I inevitably bring up comparisons to my daughters.
I don’t remember when my daughters and I first realized that we would all be graduating at the same time. Lily, 22, was completing a BFA in dance and Izzy, 18, was graduating from high school, while I was finishing a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. I do remember that when we made this discovery we rejoiced in its serendipity. Lily, proving that she is her mother’s daughter, reveled in the metaphors and symbolism of this surprising turn of events: three women, a mother and her daughters, all at crossroads, all embarking on new beginnings.
This would be a big deal under any circumstances. But to me it’s even sweeter because the home we have shared since my marriage ended has decidedly been one marked by female power, solid and supportive as our hundred-year-old brick house is, and yet porous, listening, absorbing our stories and whispering them back. I didn’t expect to see things this way. When my marriage fell apart, I mourned the disassembling of our family of four, we, who had snuggled in Jon’s and my king-sized bed, our little girls hopping under the covers into the “mommy and daddy oven,” where the world outside fell away and life was good. And there were the spontaneous family dance parties, when suddenly the perfect song would come on and the four of us would jump up in the living room, laughing with both the joy of moving to music and the acknowledgement of how silly we looked. I fought the dissolution of our life as we knew it, of the dream of our expected future, and the pain I witnessed on my children’s faces and in their wails of grief when Jon and I told them we were separating is burned into my brain and housed in my body forever.
There turned out to be an increasingly palpable sweetness though, emerging from the muck of what, at the time, seemed so thick with pure negativity. Jon relocated to the more rugged landscape of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he could feel like a pioneer again and like a whoosh of air rushing out the door, the testosterone swept by us, leaving in its wake a gentle breeze, where we stood, my daughters and I, on a threshold of past and future. We moved effortlessly about this seemingly new space, the three of us, content and silent at first, no words necessary, seeing ourselves and each other as if for the first time. While they of course missed our family togetherness, there was a new contentedness I hadn’t expected.
I spent the first two years after my marriage ended just breathing and being with my daughters. I had no desire to date; I wasn’t yet ready to let the testosterone in again. A calm fell over our evenings, an unhurried feeling, a synchronicity that was obstructed before, in our marital struggle for airtime from which I eventually withdrew. Now there was space for pause, for contemplation, for listening and being heard. We didn’t talk about that, about what it felt like when four became three, but I sensed a collective sigh of relief when dinner was no longer a competitive sport. I came to acknowledge that Jon and I living under the same roof wasn’t fun anymore; that we could actually find a better way to be a family.
I met Jon in college when we were 18, and we spent the next thirty years together. When we had to tell the kids we were separating, it helped to be able to say that we had been together for more years than most marriages ever last. Thirty years is a long time. When Jon left, I had to figure out who I was, untethered, no longer a wife, no longer defined by the gender roles we had fallen into, almost without thinking. Sometimes things just happen, without a plan, and before you know it, you’ve drifted into a life you don’t recognize, or one you didn’t create with intent. I got swept up in the patriarchal dynamics of marriage and kids more easily than I would like to admit, looking back at who I was then from where I stand now.
I think I unconsciously absorbed from my mother what she had learned from a culture that praises women (but doesn’t reward them) for being nurturers and care-takers. She is a wonderful mother to my sisters and me, and she was the primary care-taker of her mother and father as they aged and became needier, while her sister pursued her career from the opposite coast. When my sister’s husband died unexpectedly, she slid seamlessly into the care-taker role for my sister and her three young children. ‘Take care of everyone else before thinking of yourself,’ is her mantra. She has always been my model of how to be a good person.
So I learned from the best, while also having a husband who was busy building a media business and traveling around the world as a DJ when he wasn’t at his film studio. He said it would help his brand, give him the necessary cool factor. My job was to be the good wife and mother, a role I slid into in the way women often do for the greater good in marriages. It was almost unconscious. There were needs and I filled them. Besides, care-taking, it turns out, came naturally to me and I was good at it. For a long time, it felt right, and then, seamlessly, it became who I was. I didn’t allow myself to ask, “What else do you want?” even as somewhere deep below there were murmurings that this might not be enough.
Looking back now, I don’t recognize myself in the woman who was clutching onto a marriage in which I had lost my voice and spirit. I was living in a patriarchal fog so thick I couldn’t see what might be there for me in the distance. My desperation to maintain normalcy, to keep the fairytale alive, was impressively strong in its hold over me. But when Jon left, the fog lifted so suddenly that the clarity was almost blinding. I felt at home again in my body; grounded and light at the same time. I thrilled at the possibility of peeling back layers of me to expose the woman I had lost. I felt strong again, and optimistic. It shocked my friends that I didn’t need more time to mourn. It shocked me too.
When this spring rolled around, Izzy and I flew first to Ohio, (with Jon, his girlfriend, and their new baby), to attend Lily’s college graduation and then left her in Columbus to study Thai massage while she ran out the lease on her house. My ceremony was next. As the date of my graduation approached, I lamented that Lily wouldn’t be able to attend, as she was busy with obligations and the flight home is expensive. I had envisioned both of my daughters being there to witness their mother launching herself to an entirely new place after five decades. I wanted them to see this braver side of me. At least Lily was sweet enough to call me the night before to see how I was feeling on the precipice of this new beginning. “Are you excited?” she asked. “Yes! But I will miss you,” I answered. “But yes, very excited!”
What I didn’t know was that Lily was actually calling me from a taxicab, on her way home from the airport. My friends had secretly arranged for her to surprise me. When the doorbell rang minutes later and Lily was there I thought I was hallucinating, then I screamed with excitement. Izzy, also surprised, came running down the stairs at the commotion and we all burst into tears and hugs. I felt so grateful to my friends for this amazing gift, but most of all, I felt a completeness, the three of us locked in a hug, all in the same boat, in shifting tides but on an even keel, navigating toward the future.
Weeks after my graduation, Izzy walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma. The triad was complete. Then, in August, the three of us took a road trip to drive Izzy to college. I wanted her to see where she was going; to experience the changing landscape between the home of her childhood and the place where she would grow into herself. We hiked in the Blue Ridge Mountains and drove on the Skyline Drive. I told them about the time Jon and I had traveled that same road, though the light was very different that day. We stopped in Etowah, Tennessee to witness the total eclipse of the sun through our protective glasses. And one night in a hotel room along the way, we talked about the end of my marriage to their father. “I think we should talk about why you and Dad split up,” Lily blurted out. Now, years after we separated, they wanted to know why. They wanted the details we had never discussed, though I had wanted to one hundred different times.
I told them what happened, answered their questions, but in the end, that wasn’t what really mattered. We had all come through the wrenching pain and then the surprising liberation of Jon’s and my divorce. We had been through the darkness and reemerged to see ourselves and each other in a new light. From this new vantage point, we were able to reflect for each other what womanhood can look like at 18, 22 and 54, surprising in the similarities, the possibilities, as we celebrated a commencement: the time when something begins.
all family photos courtesy of the author