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‘How’s your Mom?” my aunt whispered in my ear.
Auntie Lynn had been arranging mincemeat tarts on a festive tray when I arrived, but she stopped to give me a hug and to ask about my mother. I was relieved to know Mom would still be acknowledged. She and Dad might have gotten a divorce, but she was still alive. I did still have a mother.
Death and divorce share a number of similarities – chief among them their ability to afflict families with awkward mushroom-cloud moments that hang – oppressively, wordlessly – over family gatherings as people try to figure out what to say to those closest to the fission and fragmentation.
I was grateful to my aunt for breaking the ice.
“She’s fine,” I said. “Mom’s just fine.”
The truth was my mother was more than fine. Not long after the divorce she had shed more than 100 pounds, was in the final stages of completing her university degree and was dating a new man. Our postnuclear family wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it was, at the very least, fine.
What was less than fine, however, was the grief I had caused her by choosing to eat Christmas dinner with my dad and his side of the family – again.
By 1987 I’d had four years of experience as a child of divorce, but the holiday season hadn’t become any less complicated. It was always a circus act: part tightrope, part clown car.
Most years I was on my own to make choices about the “who” and the “where.” I usually came up with an elaborate itinerary to spread myself around – a little bit here with Mom, a little over there with Dad.
The holiday season had become a source of fear and anxiety for me. As soon as Bing Crosby would start crooning from the airwaves in early December, a decision tree of sequoiac proportions loomed on the calendar, filling me with dread.
In 1987, having been in the thick of the maternal herd from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning, I decided on a midday switch to the paternal side for the all-important feast, skipping my mother’s famously moist turkey dinner. From her perspective, choosing him over her had become my new Christmas tradition.
Try as I might to explain myself and soothe wounded egos, as soon as one parent was chosen there would be emotional consequences for the one who wasn’t.
For children of divorce, portioning out the holidays is like being forced to choose sides for basketball in your worst nightmare: It’s come down to Mom or Dad, who will it be?
The drama swirls through your mind as you imagine kids on the playground taunting, chanting “Choose! Choose! Choose!” And so you do. You pick one over the other. You decide Dad’s killer lay-up is what’s best for the team and you watch the holly-jolly hoo-hah drain from Mom’s season as she slinks away to a quiet corner of the playground.
The schoolyard metaphor is not, I’m sorry to say, an exaggeration. The grown-ups – who are, let’s face it, responsible for their children having to make these difficult choices in the first place – have a tendency to take not being chosen very personally.
For me, the only difference between reality and the schoolyard analogy was that my selection was always based on inverse criteria: In other words, my dad did not have a killer lay-up.
Maybe men fare better after a divorce now, but back then my dad earned a one-way ticket to a basement apartment and was never able to rise above it. To paraphrase Dickens, both the want for the home he’d lost, and the regrets about the choices that led to its vanishing, were things he felt most keenly at Christmas. I simply could not stand the idea of his having to face that alone on Christmas Day.
And so, year after year, I watched my mother walk away, steeled myself against the sight of her being the un-chosen, because it was an infinitely lesser evil. I loved them both, but I chose my dad more frequently, knowing the stronger player would bounce back – that she’d be fine.
When I rejoined my mother late in the evening of Christmas Day, 1987, she and my sister and the great assortment of extended family who celebrated with her had already done the dishes and squirrelled away the turkey leftovers. Unfortunately, the hours of my absence had proven notable and there would be more postnuclear fallout to deal with.
I had fallen hopelessly out of the loop with the whole crowd – who, you see, all considered themselves among the un-chosen – and I found myself skating on the outside edge of all the inside jokes that had been told while I was gone.
Sensing the awkwardness I felt, my sister looked at me sympathetically. She’d stayed with Mom and so remained an insider.
Later, during a brief lull in the Pictionary-palooza that I’d interrupted when my father dropped me off, she turned to me and asked: “So, how was it?”
“Fine,” I said. “It was just fine.”
Michelle Hauser lives in Napanee, Ont.
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