Two roads diverged, and somehow I managed to travel both.
My parents, as I said, split up when I was very young. I was born in 1968. By 1970 it was clear they were headed separate ways, and my mother and soon-to-be-stepfather moved with me to Montana the summer I was four years old.
That same summer my father, who had no money, drove thousands of miles in order to see me. Back then, divorce was very different. Women got primary custody of their children almost without exception, and my mother didn’t mean to hurt my father by taking me away. She was my mother, in love with a new guy, and they were moving out west–what was the problem? I think she assumed it would have been easier and more convenient for my father just to let me disappear. And I know a lot of kids whose fathers did more or less vanish, since that was the custom at the time.
But my father didn’t vanish. He always came, driving for days in his green Dodge van, if that was what it took to find me. He was in his mid twenties back then, a bit adrift, just out of business school, floating around, a hippie motivated by some germinating impulse toward stability (an impulse that later bloomed as full-bore conservatism) to get a real job, earn a real salary, and ignore all his deadbeat pals, who were sticking it to the man, marching on Washington, and firing up the bong. He knew, I think, that I was young enough that I might easily forget him, and he didn’t want that. So he always came. I remember distinctly the first year he picked me up. He’d driven from Texas to Montana, and he must have been exhausted. I got into the car with him and said, “Don’t say anything bad about my mommy.” And he took my hand across the gearshift, swore he bore my mother no ill will (I know now that they did resent each other bitterly at that point, which makes it even more exceptional) and drove me into Missoula to see a movie called “Run, Cougar, Run”. (Does anyone know anything about that movie? I’ve never seen it mentioned or shown anywhere since. But my father and I still talk about it, still remember the same parts. I’d love to track it down, all these years later.)
And I remember that my dad, the following year, sent a friend of his (a girlfriend? Perhaps. I can see her now–an entrancing, patient woman who talked to me as if I were a fellow adult instead of a five year old) to Germany to pick me up and fly back to Texas with me, so that he could spend the full five weeks of our visitation with me. Think about it. There’s a kid you haven’t seen in a year, and she’s halfway around the world, perfectly content. You’ve got to pay someone to go get her, and pay both of their passages back. Then, because you have a full time job, you’ve got to find a babysitter to watch your kid in your tiny apartment for most of the time she’s with you–maybe you get a week or two weeks off, maybe not quite that much. You hire someone to teach your kid to swim, because your apartment complex has a pool, and you’re worried its allure is too strong. And just as the two of you are getting used to each other, just as the days have settled into a routine and you have little jokes and phrases and particular activities the two of you share, or look forward to sharing, she’s gone again–at your expense–for an entire year. She’ll come back to you a different person, missing teeth, her hair cut differently, her limbs awkwardly grown, with new expressions and new habits and a new set of things to be shy about, so that all the progress toward closeness you made the year before has to be renegotiated, so that all last year’s hard-won familiarity is, at first, blotted out.
This is what my father went out of his way to endure, year after year.
Five straight weeks, doled out in one big chunk. It seems insensitive now, and in fact it wasn’t so wonderful even then. I’ve mentioned before that the transition was difficult; as I got older, that five week blot on my summer schedule meant I could never go to sleepaway camp, could never hold a real summer job, could never quite settle into a routine in either place, since I knew in advance I’d be spirited away, forced to detach and blend and detach and reattach in a predictable (yet no less exhausting) routine every summer.
I should be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence. But instead I’m telling it with reverence, because it strikes me as both astonishing and perfectly logical–the way love is supposed to be. My father loved me, as simple as that. When I was six, he moved in with the woman who became my stepmother. They’re still married, with three grown children–the eldest hers from her first marriage, the younger two theirs–and their infinite kindness and flexibility, welcoming me into their family every summer until we were all grown up, is another tremendous blessing I would never have known were it not for divorce. But that’s the next installment in this tale of happiness.