Alysa Salzburg lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman and a cross-eyed cat. She blogs on Open Salon and is editor-in-chief of Beguile, a literary and arts e-zine. Alysa is an Open Salon blogger friend, and she kindly consented to let me post this piece here. I love this essay, not just because it’s beautifully written, but because it flies in the face of this era’s divorce backlash. Sorry, Judith Wallerstein, you doyenne of perpetual divorce doom, but “children of divorce,” even of bad divorces, can and do grow up to find love, friendship, meaningful work, and a zest for life. Just read below.
“I’d rather learn from one bird how not to sing
than teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.”
I love her, but I have to admit my mom has never been the most truthful person. Some of her lies have been horrible and life-altering, like covering up the affair she’d been having for years with her boss. Others, though, were magical. As a child, I didn’t just get money from the Tooth Fairy; I also got letters on small, unmarked stationary paper. I think sometimes the paper was a soft pastel shade, but I also recall missives in white. The handwriting was what was most remarkable. In her role as the Tooth Fairy, my mother used a loopy, sprawling script that looked nothing like the penmanship on the grocery lists and notes for teachers that she wrote in her role as “Mom”.
When my parents divorced, I was in sixth grade. My mother was a wreck. I’d realize later that she really had had no idea what being divorced implied; in a way, her tendency to bend the truth might have been a sign that she didn’t have a good understanding of how the “real” world works. Now, all of the daily decisions, the handling of money, the social obligations, the parental duties had to be fulfilled by her alone. Most single parents assume these responsibilities as best they can, but my mother sort of cracked somewhere in the middle. That Christmas, she confirmed to me that there was no Santa, and asked me to help her do the gift shopping for my sister and brother. I think it was because she’d never done anything like that on her own.
My sister and I always got a porcelain doll on Christmas Eve. It was a useless tradition, especially since we didn’t really care about it very much. We loved dolls – Barbies, paper dolls, stuffed ones – our house overflowed with them. But we couldn’t play with the porcelain dolls. They were “collector’s items”, and stayed held up by wire stands, cluttering our dressers. The year of the divorce, while we were shopping for my brother and sister’s Christmas presents, my mother told me to choose my porcelain doll.
Maybe it was a way to comfort myself, to keep myself in a world that was more magical than the actual one, but not for the first time, and I know not for the last, I found a tie to the unreal: I privately called the doll I picked “The Last Doll”, a reference to my favorite book, A Little Princess. I was Sara Crewe in my own way, with this doll as a reminder of my former life, a life that would grow more and more distant as my relationship with my parents changed, my mother’s bad financial choices made money scarce, and our house and yard fell into neglect.