Sunday, March 13, 2011

Breaking Up

My father’s and mother’s marriage broke up in 1949, when I was twelve years old. It was the year of the blizzard on the East Coast. In that year I became part of what was then called a “broken home,” a term I’ve always loved for its simple accuracy. Humpty Dumpty: “…all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

It was a cold, winter night. Snow was on the ground outside.

Inside our home, a yellowish haze flooded from the hallway light, spilling out into the dimly lit kitchen where I was seated. My mother and Father were a few feet away from me, standing in the hallway facing each other, just outside the kitchen. Next to them was the entrance to the basement, which was across from their bedroom door.

They were shouting, screaming. “I’m sick of this,” he said. “I can’t take your goddamn criticism anymore! I’m leaving.” He whirled around, as if looking for a place to go. He stopped. Where?

My mother coolly reached behind him, into the dark alcove space beneath the stairs that led to the second floor. Out of the darkness she withdrew out a large, brown, worn leather suitcase. “I’ve already packed you.” Caught between his pride and her will, his bluff and her ante, he looked at her for a long moment, and nodded. He reached his arm past her into the dark alcove. He took his suit coat from a hanger on a hook, put the coat on. Then from a shelf above the hanger, he quietly removed his favorite blue fedora, grabbing it, as he always did, with three fingers pressed against the front crease. He firmly put the hat on his head and picked up the suitcase. He walked slowly to the end of the hallway, stopped before the door, turned. He looked at her, then turned his eyes slightly toward me. I saw his eyes were dark and soft. A sad smile creased his face. He returned his look to her one last time; a plea more than hope. Then, adjusting his shoulders under the weight of the suitcase, he gathered himself into a singular resolve, lifted his head, looked at her for one last fleeting prideful, dare I say loving, moment, and walked out.

My mother stood deep in the hallway. The yellow glare from the overhead light cast an even softer glow on her than when he was there, making the hallway and kitchen seem like old photo yellowing with age. She was wild, almost animal beautiful. I wanted to shout after him to stay; that I loved him. But I didn’t. I heard his steps descending the porch, slowly but firmly; one, two, and three, and then he was gone. My mother moved silently to the kitchen table, immediately lit up a Pell Mell cigarette, and sat. She inhaled deeply, the smoke disappearing into her throat and lungs, emerging only after a long while, in a gush through her open lips. Then she looked directly at me.

I knew from her look: I was to leave her alone. I went upstairs. I entered my room, lay down on my bed, and stared up at the dark ceiling. Finally, after many, many minutes, I changed into my pajamas, snuggled deep under the bed covers. I turned on the reading light, and picked the book lying next to it: “A Yankee Flier in the RAF.”

I removed the page marker from where I had left off reading the night before. I could hear my mother below, moving about the kitchen, making a pot of coffee. I kept waiting to hear some sound of emotion from her, some cry in the night, but there was none; just the silent, rhythmic and determined shuffling of her slippers moving across the linoleum floor.

I kept reading the same paragraph over and over again, until, hours later, the book having fallen quietly to the floor, I fell asleep. In the morning, the bed light was still on, and life began again. Only it was forever different.


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