The Things We Carry: A Story of Loss and Moving On
The change of seasons is a time when many people take stock of their lives, both professionally and personally. A good friend recently got divorced and within days started seeing another man. A few women we know commented that not enough time had gone by, and told this woman she was "rushing things," and that she should have at least waited until after the holidays.
"That might be true for some people," she replied. "But that's not the way I feel."
For centuries, women were expected to mourn their husbands for anywhere from a year to a lifetime. But whether the result of death or a simple breakup, people have always had very strong opinions about how much time should pass from the end of one relationship to the beginning of another one.
For several years after my, very ugly, divorce I held on to an antique watch that had belonged to my ex-husband's grandfather. When we were first married, I'd had the watch refurbished, and put a beautiful new band on it. My ex loved his grandfather, and he loved that watch, but in the chaos of his moving out, he'd forgotten it. I wasn't keeping it to get back at him. Quite the opposite. It was something that represented a happy moment for us, and I didn't want to let it go. My friends were eager for me to "get on with things," as was my mother, which surprised me given her own history.
For a while after my own father left following my parents' divorce, my mom and I stayed in the old apartment in Queens. It took some time for her to find a job but after a year of interviews, she finally landed one in the city and decided to buy an apartment there (back then, normal working people could still do that!). On an icy Saturday morning in December, a pair of movers came and went, carrying out boxes of books and photos of our mostly deceased relatives, our tables and chairs, and the pullout couch my mom had been sleeping on in the living room. She packed up some remaining odds and ends, a floor lamp, a few smaller boxes, and our giant snowball of a poodle, and shoved everything into our forest green bug, which was double-parked in front of the apartment building, hazards blinking. On the last trip from the apartment to the car, she took a final glance around the tiny space we'd been living since I was born and hooked her hand around the frame of a large rectangular painting that hung on an otherwise bare wall. It was my father's self-portrait. Why did she want that? How could she stand to look at it?
"Let's go," she said.
"Why are you taking that painting?" I remember asking.
"Because I want it."
We had to drive with the back window open because the lamp was too long to fit in the car. The roads were covered with a thin sheet of ice. A stiff wind shook the bug as we drove across the 59th Street Bridge and I thought it might blow us right off into the East River but mom kept the car on the road, her green eyes focused straight in front of her. We froze all the way to our new apartment but I didn't mind because the car reeked from a bottle of Jean Nate after-bath splash that had spilled because it hadn't been closed right.
My mother kept my father's self-portrait up until she decided to repaint several years later. Everything came off the walls, and, when the work was done, everything went back up, except that. I never asked her why, but I imagine it was because she was ready to let go of it.
After my own divorce, my daughter and I stayed on in our "family home" until I sold it, a little over a year later. The move took place on an icy, cold day in December, just like all those years ago. As anyone who has taken a sledgehammer to their lives knows, divorce is pain. There is the pain of deciding to go through with it, the pain of the emotional, and often legal, hurdles you both have to keep jumping over to actually get through it, there is the pain of the loss of your family unit as you knew it once the divorce is finalized and it's time to "move on." As much as I wanted to after my break-up, I couldn't "move on." I moved through. The loss of my marriage was a death, and, like a death, I needed time to mourn. Memories linger, because however bad the marriage was, there were times, probably a lot of them, when you were happy together. Those things get left inside, like the DNA of child remaining in the mother long after birth.
There was a lot of stuff I chose to leave behind when I left that house. Our bed, our dishes, our dresser, our rugs. There was also a lot that ended up in a dumpster. My wedding dress, our luggage, our CD's, and piles of things I can't even remember. But I took that watch with me, and kept it in the bottom drawer of my jewelry box. Every now and then, I'd open it, take the watch out, and then put it back, the salty sting in the back of my throat every time I did. Eventually, I joined the wider world of on-line dating. I made a big change in my career. My ex remarried. We still fought, but with less frequency, and less severity. And then the day came when I took the watch out, and realized I didn't want to put it back. I was finally ready to let it go.