Separation & Divorce

I have written the following sentence so many times that I hope this is the last:
On New Year’s Eve, 1985, my mother came home and my father did not.

They had gone out with friends to (I think) The Woodstock Inn, which had either made the evening affordable for locals or it was a rare extravagance for them. I was 13 and stayed home with my brother (17) and his girlfriend watching movies and the Times Square coverage on whatever station Dick Clark was on at the time. My mother burst in – I don’t remember whether it was before or after the ball dropped, I don’t remember what she said, if anything – and went to her room in tears. This was the first sign that I had that anything was wrong.

The next day, there must have been a talk with one or both of them about falling out of love, how sometimes people grow apart and become different people, and that they were separating. My father collected some of his belongings and said good-bye to my brother and I individually. I was in my room, in my closet pretending to look for something or putting clothes away, basically, I was pretending to be strong, pretending that it didn’t bother me that he was leaving. What could I have said anyway? It was clear that something was wrong. My father said something about it not being my fault, that really it had nothing to do with me; it hadn’t even occurred to me that I could be to blame somehow, but it was the 80s and it seemed like everyone was getting divorced. In my family alone, Uncle Bert and Aunt Sue S. and Uncle Terry and Aunt Sue K. were separated or divorced by then.

My father got a room at the Queechee Gorge Motel, a room in one of the stand-alone buildings with a kitchen/living room and a separate bedroom. I began to spend weekends with him. He was working at the Post Office in White River. It was, I think, his second year there and he hadn’t built up enough seniority to be on a day shift; he was working from 3 – 11 or 5- 2 or something like that. So I was left to hang out in this totally cool hotel room, sleeping on the couch (or perhaps the bedroom had 2 beds), watch cable TV, which we did not have all the way out in Barnard, eat what I wanted when I wanted it, sleep when I wanted. A rare treat for a 13-year-old getting more freedom and independence. One night I watch A Nightmare On Elm Street, turning the TV off every time it got too scary and then turning it back on again because I was captivated. I searched the cupboards for something to snack on and to check out what was there and discovered a box of Arrowroot biscuits, which have a picture of a baby on the front. I’d never seen these cookies before, except maybe in the store, and Dad had them in a cabinet that didn’t have other food items in it. This was the first time that I realized that my parents weren’t telling me everything.

The real story, the whole story, as I understand it, is that my Dad, who turned 40 in 1984, was going through a mid-life crisis and was having increasing difficulty dealing with his PTSD from being in combat in Vietnam. At my mother’s urging, he began seeing a psychiatrist at the VA for help with the PTSD. Around the same time, the Volkswagen dealership he worked at had to close and he began working at the Post Office. One of the attractions of the Post Office (other than a steady paycheck) was that as a an independent agency of the United States government, any military service counts towards years of employment (but not seniority): his 4 years in the Marines would count toward his pension and eligibility for retirement.

In the short time he had been at the Post Office, Dad had met Julie, mother of twins who born in November 1984. Julie was in an unhappy marriage and I assume their affair began, as most do, with talking. I’m guessing they were friendly, had a few heart-to-hearts, and it just took off from there. The New Year’s Eve that my mother came home crying and without my father, Julie had showed up at the party they were at. I’m not sure what was said and don’t want to speculate, but it’s clear that my Mom (along with everyone else there) was able to figure out what was going on.

In the months following their separation, Dad tried to make things right with my Mom. They went to couples therapy for a while with someone in the Spooner building (for those who know Woodstock), which sometimes began or ended with them having lunch or a drink together at Spooner’s (great restaurant that is/used to be in the same converted barn). Once, I saw them making out in the backyard. Years later, when I talked to Mom about this, she said that Dad did try to patch things up and did stop by the house, but he had to be careful about his visits so that Julie wouldn’t know because she would drive by to check. My mother also started getting phone calls from Julie, most if not all were just hang-ups. This was only a few months into the separation between my parents.

Ultimately, my Mom decided that the relationship couldn’t be saved and my Dad decided that he wanted to be with Julie. Dad got an apartment that spring on High Street, a few houses down from Aunt Freda1, who is really my grandmother’s sister and therefore technically my great aunt. Another neighbor was the Watsons, who were both in my mother’s class at WUHS and who’s daughter, Sudie, was in my class and a friend. The closest neighbor, right next door, was the Barry family, with two boys who were ahead of me in school. I mention this because it becomes important to an event that happened the following winter.

My brother graduated from WUHS in June and went to UVM in August. I have a picture that I should scan of Dad, Devon & his girlfriend, Me, and my Mom that was taken at the house right before we drove him to Burlington to get him settled in his dorm. When Devon turned 18 in February of 1986, technically custody/visitation and support for him became moot points. And from August on, they’d just have to agree (or let my brother chose) where to go on vacations and for the summer. I was the remaining thread tying Mom and Dad together over custody/visitation, support, and health insurance.

Mom and Dad were amicable, still friendly if not friends2, and so when Dad got the apartment on High Street, I spent Friday and Saturday with him and weekdays with my Mom in Barnard. At first, this was a dream come true for me. To live in downstreet3! To be able to hang out at the library as late as I wanted or walk to the movies or go swimming in the river under the iron bridge or in the pool at the Rec Center, all without having to convince one or both parents to drive me there. While Dad lived on High Street, I also discovered boys and parties with older kids, parties with drinking and (probably) pot (and probably other things), but I didn’t get quite as involved in all of that as I would later.

On night in the fall or winter of 86-87, Dad and Julie had a night off, a Saturday probably. They had plans to go out to a party or a bar. They began drinking (and probably smoking pot, as I would discover later that Julie did that often) before they left the for the party. When they got home, at 1 or 2am, not only were they plastered, but they were fighting loud enough to wake me up. I don’t remember what the problem was, just that they were loud, slamming doors and throwing things.

The back window in the door to the apartment was broken in the course of this fight. At a certain point (probably the window breaking) I got up and got dressed. I was terrified and was going to run out the front door and get away, to anywhere but there. Dad managed to get Julie inside the house, since part of the fight had become about her wanting to leave and go home, and so he caught me before I could get out the door and told me to go to my room and wait it out.

Julie got riled up again, managed to get into her car, and in trying to back out of the driveway, which went up hill toward the back of the house in the shape of an upside down J, miscalculated and backed her car into a corner of the Barry’s house. Literally: the car hit the corner of the house, dented the corner wood support beam, and cracked some of the clapboards. I remember tow lights, Mrs. Barry (who I later worked with at the Creamery) and Mr. Barry probably came out, but I’m pretty sure there were no police. I’m not sure how that’s even possible in a town as small as Woodstock, so I’ll chalk it up to everyone wanting to mind their own business and not get involved.

I was ashamed, terrified, and stunned that someone could actually be like that, exploding in anger and completely irrational. I never knew about any fights between my parents because they both use the penetrating, stony silent method of dealing with anger, calming down before they talked about what was bothering them. To see this irrational tantrum rocked my world and not in a good way. I asked Sudie at school that week if she had heard anything; her whole family woke up and was trying to figure out what was going on.

Dad forgave Julie though. Having had an alcoholic mother, it makes sense that he would be able and willing to do that. That spring or early summer they bought a house off route 12 on the other side of Barnard, close to the Bethel border, and got married in the summer of 1987 on the lawn at that house. In time, I forgave both of them too, but I should have taken it as a warning of what was to come.

Got Footnotes?

  1. For Woodstock people and family, she and Fred Doubleday were cousins and were both named after their grandfather or great grandfather.
  2. They would have remained friends if Julie had not been insanely jealous and insecure, afraid that Dad would get back together with my mother, a hope that I gave up on in 1990.
  3. Old(?) New Englanders say this instead of downtown.

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