By Danette Vernon
I clearly remember coming home from school one day and shyly telling my mother that I had experienced a moment of distinction that day. I have to admit though, that it doesn’t take much for a second grader to feel that the stars are aligned like firecrackers in the night. That particular day stands out in memory, as I had been so pleased to find myself to be the only one in the small, rural, third-grade class of 20 students, in 1967, who could say that their parents were divorced.
Yet, upon recapping the day with my mother, I suddenly felt the converse. My mood turned dismal even. My mother soothed my uneasy feelings for having reveled for a moment in the family laundry as best she could, but it would be my father’s family that would find a way to turn the taint of divorce into a profound message about love, an ideal that I would carry into adulthood.
To wit, family reunions on my dad’s side of my family back in the 1970’s involved deviled eggs, horseshoes, playground equipment at the local park that undoubtedly wouldn’t meet any set of modern safety standards — and ex-wives.
My dad was one of four brothers. Three out of four ultimately divorced, some more than once. The slightly extraordinary thing was that the “ex-wives,” under the ideological umbrella of my grandparents, still came to the family reunions. They came with their new husbands and new step-children. One of my aunts was the family reunion treasurer for years after she was no longer officially a member of the family. My grandparents believed that once you were a part of the family, you were always a part of the family. They had pictures of all of the family, even the ex’s, proudly displayed in their homes as long as they lived.
About the time my parents divorced, a study that followed 60 families for five, ten, even fifteen years began. Judith Wallerstein, who originated the study, wondered what the effects were to be in the long term for the children in my generation. It was commonly believed when I was child, even in academic circles, that after a year, or maybe even two or three years, families would heal and children would heal. Who hasn’t heard the homily, “time heals all wounds?”
The one thing Judith felt sure about, even at the outset of the study, was that the post-divorce child, who would one day create a family of their own, would be wholly different than the adult they might have been, “for better or worse, for richer or for poorer…”
Her study, and subsequent studies, attempt to answer the question that each person involved in a divorce from the immediate family to the wider community of people that make up each family’s “tribe” have asked: What now?