Everyone has a first memory. Over the years, memories fade and shift, altered as we lose the truth behind them and start to shape them based on our retellings. Earliest memories may fade into still images, as many of mine have, but we all still have them. They linger on. Some are cherished, but not all.
I have difficulty recalling the earliest part of my life. I remember my father taking me to the park, and chasing his cat around my grandmother’s house. That house always smelled like dust and carpet. I recall being taken to an Episcopalian preschool, which I called ‘pitiful school’. Not only was ‘Episcopalian’ a hard work for a four year old, but I hated going. I know I did, even though I don’t remember a damn thing about the school itself.
Then there’s the first vivid memory. That one is different. It’s something I recall in sharp detail and is, for all intents and purposes, my true earliest memory. I wish I could say that I cherish it.
It was gray outside, for whatever reason. My mother pushed open the door of apartment 0, as I would come to remember it. I was four years old, and I wouldn’t stop screaming.
I’m pretty sure the carpet was blue, and the apartment was small. There was a couch and a loveseat which filled most of the living room. That’s what I remember, though I’m sure my mother has a better image. I don’t talk to her about it, because the key part of our first day in Apartment 0 wasn’t the decor. It was my screaming. You see, we moved into Apartment 0 suddenly, and my father wasn’t there.
That’s how the first day went. I screamed and I cried, and I demanded to know where daddy was. Mom tried to console me. She promised I’d see him soon, and she cried so bitterly and angrily. I wish I understood, but a child can’t be expected to. To me, it seemed like she was heartless. She took me away from my comfortable home, which smelled like dust and my father’s cigarettes, but he left him behind.
At four years old, I became a divorce kid. The situation leading to the divorce isn’t important here, and even if it was, I don’t know much about it. I only really know that it happened, and I don’t truly remember a time before it.
Apartment 0 wasn’t too bad. It was part of a block of identical apartments nestled in the wooded part of an upper middle class neighborhood, only a few blocks away from my dad. During some proceedings that I didn’t understand, he gained the right to have me on the weekends. We went to the park and played with ducks, ate chinese food at the mall, and rode the big carousel in the food court. I stopped going to Pitiful School. It became normal enough, and children are adaptive.
My bigger adjustment came within the year. One day, Mom packed me up, put me in the car, and drove me off into the country. The small city of my early childhood melted away in the background, and she took me to an idyllic north Alabama valley, filled with rocky, rolling hills and gentle farmland. It was only an hour away, but to a little child, it may as well have been across the world.
She’d taken me to live in a trailer on my maternal grandparents’ property. Notably, we were not alone. My new stepdad lived with us, too. I don’t actually remember meeting him, either. He just appears in the canon of my youth, like he popped up suddenly in a single frame of a long slideshow. He says that I knew him before that, but my earliest recollection is being asked to move out from in front of the television in the new trailer.
Kindergarten started. Before long, I started hearing the conversation about parents. Kids noticed who had both parents and who didn’t. It led to teasing, especially since my stepdad was from New England. He had an accent and a foreign last name that didn’t match mine, and that was enough to brand me as different.
I got teased for a lot of things, but divorce was the first. By first grade, everyone knew by heart who had ‘normal’ parents and who didn’t. We knew who was going to see their moms or dads on the weekends, and who did or didn’t like their step parents. To be fair, my class was small enough for us to learn these kinds of things. There was no privacy in that breezy little Appalachian town.
On weekends, my uncle and grandmother picked me up and drove me down the long, winding highway to my first home. Dad came over, and we did all the things we used to do. He’d take me to that same park, isolated on a little island in the Coosa river, connected to the mainland by boardwalks. I loved playing with cattails and spotting turtles as they crawled out onto the driftwood. We would throw coins in the water and spot egrets, and I would sometimes ask to ride on his shoulders. He always let me.
Divorce life became a new normal, and it came with ups and downs. I missed my dad and his family. I had friends on their street that I missed throughout the week, and I often worried that the divorce was my fault. Sometimes, adults tried to talk to me about it and assure me that it really wasn’t my fault, but I think it’s normal for kids to blame themselves for that sort of thing.
When it was time to go home on Sundays, I’d cry. I remember hiding in my closet or running off into the yard to avoid going home. When I tell people about this, they sometimes ask if I dreaded going home because I was unhappy there. That couldn’t be less true. I loved my mom and stepdad, and I loved the wide open fields and dense woods around our little trailer. It was a good place to be a kid. I just didn’t want to say goodbye to my dad.
In time, I became aware of how my family used me as a weapon. My grandmother sometimes unlawfully denied my dad the right to see me on my visits if he didn’t obey her demands or meet her standards, though I didn’t realize that was illegal at the time. My dad’s side of the family shamed my mother for how she raised me, accusing her of denying me a proper Christian upbringing, and forced me to attend an abusive church.
My dad had nothing to do with most of this, though sometimes when I needed him, he was nowhere to be found. Only during my teenage years did I learn why, when I directly overheard my grandmother telling him on the phone that his influence would ruin me, and he should stay away if he cared for me. She got her way.
That particular drama intensified when my dad had a daughter by one of his girlfriends. I still recall the uncomfortable visits to pick up my sister, and how visible the hatred between my dad and his now-ex girlfriend was. My sister and I would steal away to the car, talking and giggling while we tried to ignore the conflict. Turns out she didn’t like going home on Sunday, either.
My mom never withheld my weekend visits, but she counteracted my grandmother’s ghoulish behavior by telling me hidden truths about the other side of the family, and discrediting their Christian beliefs and offering Wicca as an alternative. Other feuds existed between them all, but those are mine to keep for now.
Not every divorce story is miserable. While the pressure from being pulled at both sides troubled me, I sleepwalked through it. I didn’t focus my thoughts on it, because I couldn’t bear the idea of one side or the other being the villains. As an adult, I resent the way my grandmother treated my entire family, but that’s a story for another day. At the time, I still wanted her to be who I thought she was.
Part of growing up is learning to view things from multiple angles. Four years after we moved to the country, my little brother was born. Prior to his arrival, no change in my life ever brought me such joy. Now I had a friend to explore those sprawling woods with, and someone to keep me company on the long evenings when our parents worked. I could write an entire essay about my friendship with my brother, or the powerful and positive impact of my hard working, empathic stepdad. As I entered my teenage years and my anger about the divorce faded, I realized without it, I wouldn’t have either of them.
In the past, I sometimes wondered what my life would be like if my parents didn’t separate. Would I have a different set of siblings? Would I have gone to a better school, or would the dilapidated city schools fail me as greatly as the backwards and inept school of the deep country? What kind of friends would I have? What kind of life?
I used to love this daydream, but now I find it foolish. That life doesn’t matter, because it’s not mine. It never mattered, and it never will. Divorce is hard for children, but I came out of it with a wonderful family that I’d never have otherwise. The adults in my life made the decisions they had to make, committed the acts of their choosing, and lived the lives that they built.
I don’t want to be the person that wishes their parents tried to force an unhappy marriage for the child, or who blames themselves for a messy divorce. It’s all over, and none of the speculation matters. The little girl screaming in Apartment 0 wouldn’t understand, but that’s okay. She does now. This isn’t the life I was meant to have, because things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. This is what happened for me, and I cherish my silver lining