They had just returned from a therapy session. We knew it was bad news— we could see it on their faces. He asked us to come to the living room for a family meeting, and we could see he was trying to hold back tears. I don’t remember how she looked, but it must have been solemn.
He took my youngest sister, Penina, and held her close to him, almost for his own comfort rather than hers. He said it, tears dripping slowly down his cheeks—he said they were getting a divorce. My older sister’s face was a mess of anger and hurt; Leah had already experienced one divorce in her life, when our mother divorced her father, and I can assume she didn’t want to repeat the experience. My second-youngest sister, ten-year-old Rivkah, whimpered, “No. No, you can’t,” in her dogged way. Penina and Rivkah immediately started crying and clung to my father.
I don’t remember if I cried or what I might have said. I remember what I felt though: utter shock, even though it simultaneously seemed inevitable. I felt very broken inside, very betrayed. I remember just sitting there, and not approaching my parents until my dad drew me into a hug with the younger two, and even then staying partially distant.
It’s not as if my life was paradise before the divorce, but it was all I had known. A constantly tense house is quite easy to get used to, and even screaming can get tuned out if it’s heard long enough. I never got used to the infrequent violence or threats, but perhaps if they did it more often, that would also have faded into the background of my life. And in the moments in between the fighting, I was happy.
But now all that was coming apart. How could my parents do this to me? I didn’t turn against them, as I was never that type of girl; if they said it was for the best, it must be. But why must it be for the best? The stability of a persistently edgy life was getting ripped out from under me, and I had no clue of what might follow. Would it be worse than my current life? Better? Would we ever be a family again? These questions terrified me as I stepped over a milestone that would forever mark a boundary in my life.
I told my friends the next day, although I asked them to keep quiet about it. In a way, that was my coping mechanism. Rather than journaling, focusing intently on school work or hobbies, or discussing the matter with friends as a form of therapy, I found the most comfort in letting the divorce take its course. I was an easygoing person, and after the initial shock had worn off, I simply dealt with the situation. Despite the fact that I was terrified, I let it be, prepared to see what the future had in store.
I don’t remember my sisters’ reactions, however, I feel like they were much louder than mine. I would like to say that the divorce bonded me to my sisters, that we supported each other in our struggles. But really, we all just collapsed, and I landed on the bottom of the pile, crushed by the others’ sorrows. It seemed to me that my feelings were unimportant because they were quiet, and I had to support the louder ones, the younger two.
Rivkah, Penina, and I all agreed on one thing though: we wanted our parents to get back together. Especially after the initial announcement, where it seemed the verdict could be reversed so effortlessly, we all hoped and prayed that our parents would decide not to get a divorce, and that everything would be “happily ever after.” We knew not to try a Parent Trap move, as it would never work, but we dreamed….
Thankfully, my sisters and I had a lot of support during this trying time. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends were all there for me. I know that my sisters may not have enjoyed being pitied and treated like a charity case, but I liked it. I wanted to be in the center of people’s thoughts, not for the sake of attention, but so I could feel the warmth and support of people who loved me enveloping me like a soft blanket.
My parents tried to support us as well, but they were too caught up in their own emotional strife, and understandably so: the divorce wasn’t easy for them either. But while my parents were immersed in themselves, they didn’t realize how much they projected their feelings out loud. In the months immediately after the announcement, before either parent had moved out, the house was louder and tenser than ever before. Ima and Daddy were so angry at each other. It was as if they decided that since they couldn’t fix the marriage, they might as well let it explode in our faces. My parents no longer had to say, “He’s my husband; I must control myself.” Instead, she was his “ex,” and he could yell as much as he pleased.
This certainly did not abate my fear of the divorce. If this was how my parents acted after being “separated” only one month, how would they get along after six months? My bat mitzvah was scheduled to be almost exactly a year after my parents decided to divorce. Would they be able to stop arguing long enough to plan my special day? If we could make it happen, would they fight the whole way through? The divorce seemed to be tearing our family apart more than the marriage ever had.
It was bad enough that my parents couldn’t control themselves in front of one another, but it was worse that they couldn’t control themselves in front of us, the kids. My parents swore they wouldn’t talk badly about the other in our hearing, and they didn’t mean to. But they both had pots of angry feelings in the pits of their stomach, curdling like soured milk and causing them to say things that probably hurt my sisters and me even more than it would have hurt each other.
Eventually one argument came to an end: eight months after the decision to separate, it was agreed that my mother would move out of the house. My mom had found a beautiful house in the same neighborhood, ensuring the adjustment would remain fairly simple for my sisters and me. The house was expensive, and my mother only meant it to be a temporary residence, but it was perfect. The house had airy, spacious rooms with stained glass windows, and there was a swimming pool and orange tree out back. The front yard had a picturesque lawn and to the side of the house was a partially concealed path made of stepping stones.
Yet the beauty of the house could not change the fact that my sisters and I had never moved before, and as such, we were anxious. I, for one, didn’t know if it was possible to fall in love with this house to the same extent that I loved my old one. But my fears were soon soothed because as the five of us settled into a new routine, the divorce settled into a new, stable reality.
Nevertheless, that does not mean the transition was smooth, as along with a new home came a new schedule. My parents agreed that an equal, split custody would be best for the family—they really were trying their best to keep us children happy. We were with each parent for one week, switching houses on Fridays. Our parents were afraid we’d miss them if we had a week with no contact though, so on Wednesdays we ate dinner at my mom’s and on Thursdays we ate dinner at my dad’s, no matter whose house we were sleeping at. The whole family quickly found this way too hectic though—pre-Shabbat was a bad time to be transitioning.
So we switched to a different schedule. While still a week-by-week schedule, we switched on Mondays, at the start of each week. Although this was much calmer, I was still frazzled by the constant adjusting. I felt like a traveler, constantly moving from one city to the next, living out of my suitcase until a week had passed and I had to again move on. But my sisters were happy, and my parents were happy, so we decided a one-week schedule worked best.
Regardless of the new house, the fighting continued. My parents fought about custody arrangements, about bringing us home too late, about how irresponsible the other parent was, about everything under the sun. It seemed to always be about us, but it could just be what I saw at the time. They promised never to talk badly about the other in front of us, yet after a fight, they would say, “Did you see how he acted? How could he?” or “This is why I divorced her!” Worse yet, they seemed to expect us to agree with them, which made us feel like we were betraying the other parent.
As my bat mitzvah approached, I paid less attention to my parents’ squabbles by focusing my energy on my party. When not using the precedents set by Leah’s bat mitzvah, I made the decisions, giving me something important to focus on and a celebration different from my sister’s. It also gave my parents less to fight about.
Every night before I went to sleep, I would see the calendar in my mind’s eye, counting the days until my bat mitzvah. But thoughts drift, and before long, I would also ponder how the day might go. Would my parents make the day about them? Would my extended family members be shooting evil eyes across the table? Would it be weird that my parents were giving two separate speeches?
It was during one of those nights in bed, staring at the ceiling fan go round and round, that I came upon a sharp realization.
I didn’t want my parents to get back together.
A scant year after the night that shook my world apart, the ground I stood on was firmer than ever before. Both of my parents were happier in their new lives: neither feared the anger of the other and neither felt tense with frustration and trepidation. And with their quality of life improved, so was my own.
In fact, upon consideration, their fighting had lessened considerably. I no longer had to worry that when coming home from one parent’s house, the other would toss insults out the door. Perhaps my parents had needed to separate… maybe it actually was for the best.
And I was proven right. Now, seven years after that tearful announcement, I am watching my parents amiably discuss how they will each celebrate my eighteenth birthday. I can’t help but compare it to my bat mitzvah planning—except now, instead of having one miserable party together, we will have two jovial parties separately. My parents’ laughter provide an eerie glimpse into their pre-marriage days, a time before miscommunication and rapidly decreasing respect, and I can’t help but wonder if there is any way their marriage could have worked out.
But the question is irrelevant. Though I do not look fondly upon those tumultuous years, I believe the transitions have made my family stronger in the best ways. If nothing else, I now know that a divorced family is still a family, and a family I love with all my heart. No matter the number of houses I live in or the amount of birthday parties I celebrate, we are a single family, and that will always hold true.
Accompanying Photo: “Flowers” by Aliza Abusch-Magder
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