Thursday, December 31, 2009

Peace, Goodwill Toward the Old Man

Twas the season.

So, I invited my ex-husband to Christmas Eve dinner.

I figured he wouldn’t have too many invitations, with him fresh out of prison and all. I did ponder it for a few days though, before I actually picked up the phone. I conferred with the kids, they said it was cool, so I called him up.

“Hi Rick,” I said. He picked up on the first ring. He’s always a little jumpy when I call, which isn’t very often. I guess he assumes it’s always bad news. “You know, I was thinking, would you like to come and have dinner with us on Christmas Eve? It’s Pat’s first day in town, and he’s got so little time, I thought rather than having the kids chase all over town, it might be easier on everybody.”

On everybody but me. Or so I reasoned with great hesitancy when the idea first popped in my head. But I knew the issue of, “Dad’s first Christmas since he got out of prison” was looming large on my kids’ minds, much in the same way, I’m sure, it was on the minds of millions of other young adults across America this holiday season. And I knew my young adults were a tad bit preoccupied with it. I knew my Brooklyn son was coming home for a very short visit, I knew he needed to see his father, (for the first time since Rick’s release) I knew I didn’t want my kids in some Denny's or Applebee's feeling like the convict's kids on Christmas Eve, or in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, forced to endure some awkward “let’s pretend this doesn’t suck as much as it really does suck” fake family meal. And, I knew it was the right thing to do. Plain and simple.

I hate it when I know something is the right thing to do but I don’t really WANT to do it. But sometimes my better self edges out my lesser self. After he registered his surprise with an emphatic, “really.....?” when I told my L.A. son, Nathan, I’d invited his step-dad to dinner, (Nate would not be joining us because he’d be in Memhis with his future in-laws) he quickly followed with, “well, tis' the season!"

Christmas spirit notwithstanding, there was a method to my madness; I’d be better off holding the devil in my bosom than worrying about my kids on Christmas Eve. There’s comfort in numbers, there’s comfort in their own home and there’s comfort in tradition; I was preparing pasole’ and tamales for Christmas Eve dinner, in true New Mexico fashion. (Pasole’ is a pork and hominy stew with red chile and if you don’t know what a tamale is, you need to get out more.) There’s only about five places east of Santa Rosa, New Mexico where you can find pasole’ on Christmas Eve and one of them is my house. My gut told me that inviting Rick to share a meal with his kids on Christmas Eve, after being locked up for the past seven Christmasses, was the right thing to do. And if I’ve learned one thing in lo, these many years, it’s to listen to my gut and heed it’s churning. All that was left after he said, “Yes, I’d like that very much,” was to calm it down.

That’s because I swore he’d never darken my door again, and I told him so. People make wild ass statements when they’re angry. We tend to throw down the gauntlet, make threats and present ultimatums that we can’t always back up. Once the TV stations in town had finally unhooked themselves from the intravenous drip of daily Rick reports, (his name was thrown out almost daily for weeks, since there were four men arrested for their involvement with this teenager, one of them was the Executive Director of the STL PRIDE organization, another was a Republican nominee for the state legislature -- every single time there was a filing, a motion, a hearing, or some random person expressing their outrage and shock, Rick’s name would come up again) and once the St. Louis Post Dispatch finally stopped reporting every time he farted in his jail cell, (reminded me of the first season of Saturday Night Live, in “Weekend Update” when Chevy Chase would say, “In this breaking news just in, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead...” ) anyway, when the media coverage finally died down, 14 months after his arrest, on the snowy day Rick was sentenced, delivered straight from the mouths of my friends in the press corps, when ALL that crap finally went away and the hard core reality kicked in of keeping things afloat financially and keeping kids in tact emotionally, I sent Rick a hate letter in prison. I sent him a letter cursing the day he marked his kids for life.

“It’s between you and the kids, what your relationship will be, or won’t be, once you get out. I will neither impede nor intercede. But here’s what I ask for me, and I need you to respect this. I do not want you to contact me. I do not want to hear your voice or see your face. And I do not want you to ever come to my home again. Ever.”

If I’ve learned two things in lo, these many years, the second thing would be-- never say never. It’s not that I’m an unprincipled woman or that I lack backbone. I’ve got enough backbone for a couple of broads. But our home, my children’s and mine and our dogs’ (Pete, who has gone to his great reward in a ceramic urn on my mother’s pine hutch in the family room) and, Libby the replacement dog, our home is a haven of love. It’s a fucking haven of love, with a history of more tears and misty-eyed optimism than the Little White Chapel on the Las Vegas strip. In the ten years since, by the grace of God and a sympathetic banker, I bought this 82-year old bungalow, this old house has cradled more love and celebration of life than all the other dwellings I have occupied in my life--in my life, all of them, put together.

And so, if your home is about love, how can you hate? If our home is the historical backdrop for the knobby fabric of our lives, doesn’t it make sense to start the thread of the next chapter here? There’s some kind of nauseating closure to this concept. But, I’m no fool, first of all, I think closure is a joke. I think the best a person can do is learn to live with the holes of a pock-marked life and try to enjoy the breeziness of it. Secondly, we have untold issues yet to face. And it’s not like I’m planning to invite Rick over for canasta on Fridays, even if I played canasta on Fridays. This was simply a gesture of peace, goodwill toward that man.

And you know what? It was just fine. It was all, absolutely fine.

It’s not like I had a date or anything on Christmas Eve. So we ate and laughed and talked and looked at old photos. At first Rick was a little tentative, but after a while, the kids and I began to see glimpses of Rick the person he used to be, not the inmate, not the shameful, broken, apologetic person he’s become. Despite what he’s been through, and as I’ve said in earlier posts, I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating his journey of the past seven years, but in spite of whatever he experienced, he still has a sense of humor and a hearty, resonating laugh. He’s got such a great voice, the man was a news anchor for like, 20 years, and all our kids, even my daughter, inherited his good pipes, (that's broadcast code for good voice.) He hugged Lauren and congratulated her for being on the Dean's list. I tried not to bristle as I thought of the college debt. He and Pat talked politics, while I kept my contempt in check, silently taking credit for Patrick's thorough indoctrination in all things liberal. He and Sean drew pictures, like they did when Sean was a little boy. Sean, the art scholarship kid, who I pushed and prodded through college applications, portfolio reviews, talking him down off the ledge when he almost quit his second semester. Yet, he most assuredly did not inherit his artistic talent from me. Watching the two of them doodle was an interesting revelation of some subtle, yet undeniable truths about paternity. Try as one might to “Do Not Acknowledge,” one cannot undo DNA.

Things were winding down, and the kids stepped out of the room for a moment, when Rick's eyes welled with tears.

“Jean, I just wanted to say, I’m so very know, about everything.”

“I know."

He left a few minutes later, thanking me again. When Pat walked back into the kitchen after walking his dad to the door, the four of us broke into spontaneous applause, I swear to God. It was like the first clap of thunderous applause after a command performance, instantaneous and exhuberant. It’s not that we were clapping because Rick was gone, not at all, we were applauding each other for a job well done. The thing we’d all been wondering about, fretting over, even dreading, for seven years, had just happened and there were no tears, no yelling and nobody threw up. It was all just fine. We, were all just fine. Seven years ago, weeks before Christmas, we were thrown into a cold, dark, smelly well of shame and heartache, with the bucket tossed in on top of us. But we climbed out. We climbed out, sometimes by our fucking fingernails, but always with someone pushing us up from behind, one slippery brick at a time.

When their father was sent to prison, for crimes some consider more egregious than even murder, I told the kids, "the world might turn against us, so in our home, we have to be for each other. We have to take care of one another and, you guys HAVE to behave!"

It was more a prayer than a command. And it’s not like there weren’t a few episodes when they failed to obey. There were a few nights with no bodies under the blankets at bed check, a few incidents of too many bodies under the covers at bed check, there was that minor shoplifting issue, one kid who spent a night in jail on a bench warrant for failure to appear in traffic court, one kid I had to spring from jail at 3:00 A.M. for getting busted at an underage drinking party. You get the picture, and trust me, this is just the highlight reel. But by and large, we stayed out of jail, we got along, we moved on, we moved mountains, we fell in love, we fell out of love, we made good grades, good friends, sometimes good money and good progress. Seven years later, we sat on the side of that deep, dark well, flicking off the mud.

“It all washes off,” said Patrick, retrieving a screenplay from his backpack. His latest passion project is an independent film he’s producing. He held up the script, like it was the Good Book. “It’s a line of dialogue in this script,” he said. But to him, it's a credo, subscribed to in a way that only fortunate people understand. “This is my favorite line in the whole movie, it all washes off.”

If one has never been stained, would one even recognize the freedom that comes from washing it off?

I didn’t intend for Christmas Eve to be a “teachable moment,” one of those hackneyed phrases from parenting manuals I eschew. But this particular evening, was indeed, one continuous teachable moment. I learned a lot, watching my kids, seeing them begin to fill in the gaps on seven of the most formative years of their lives and then, tentatively starting to pick their way through what’s next. They don’t really know what’s next. They don’t know how things will turn out. They’re adults now and they’ll have to figure it out. Nathan, of course, wasn’t in town for this unlikely little reunion, and he’s got a whole nother’ point of view on this sordid little chapter in the family history. Nathan was an innocent five year old boy when I married Rick, hoodwinked right along with his mama. There are fields there yet to plow, which he might well turn and then leave fallow. Being the oldest of four, Nate was keenly aware of the toll this took on me.

Maybe it's time for me to step away from the toll booth, to hang up my uniform and surrender my badge of courage. I’ve found an odd sense of safety, familiarity, sympathy and support in the process of earning it. Not that I put on airs, hell, I was too damn tired! I mostly just plugged along, doing the neccesary, and sometimes through the grace of God, the remarkable.

But maybe now, I can set the car down. I can begin to let it go. I can evolve into the next iteration of myself. Hey, that would be a new challenge --maybe a new challenge for a new decade, I dunno, I don't have a shit ton of decades left. There’s a whole big world out there, my kids are grown and I’ve done the best I can. The old man’s out of the clink. He’s done his time and I’ve done mine.

Later on Christmas Eve, after Rick had left, I sat in a heap in our family room, my feet on the ottoman, worn completely out from the cooking, the cleaning, the stress and three margaritas. My daughter’s boyfriend, Jeff, who’d met “the dad” for the first time that night, came in and sat down.

“You’ve got a big heart, Jean,” he said, with his sweet Irish smile.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said, half conscious.

But maybe, I thought, maybe I’ve just got a wise heart. If I’ve learned three things in lo, these many years, maybe that third thing is-- bitterness is a killer.

Happy New Year, ya'll.


  1. Jean,

    Thanks, I needed this. As someone who went through some serious family issues myself, you hit the nail on the head. Your kids are wise beyond their years, but, maybe it's cuz they've got a wise old lady. Thanks for the encouragement on a new time, a new day. Peace to you and your family.

  2. Everyone can learn from that story, Jean. Moving, well told, important. I'm reminded of a lyric from a Leonard Cohen song, "Anthem." It goes:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in.
    In your story, Jean, you have shown how the light gets in.

  3. So good to read a real story of real Christmas spirit. Sounds like the motives were mixed - as they always are in real life -- you did for him, you did it for the children, and in the end you also did it for yourself. Afterwards, I suppose each of us should just ask "Well, did that make the world a better place?"

  4. The Dude Abides in you! You are remarkable and oh so real.

    Happy New Year to all y'all!

  5. Beautiful story beautifully written. A glimpse of your soul shined through - also beautifully.

  6. Joyce Herrmann HarteJanuary 10, 2010 at 10:49 PM

    ANOTHER GREAT STORY.You have amazing talent Jean and I see that you are indeed heroic in what you have accomplished as a single mom and a human being. As trite as this may sound, you are truly and inspiration.

  7. I understand your story so well from a place so very long ago when I once had a husband in jail.
    I never could articulate my pain or shame. Well done!
    Happy New Year, Peace, Joy and Love Abundant!