This is a brief excerpt from a draft of my next book, a memoir about my family.
When I was 8 years old my parents separated. While cleaning out my father’s car, My Mom discovered movie stubs for a film she hadn’t seen. He left a few days later. When he left, much of the energy in our house went with him. Not precisely because he was missed, but more that everyone’s energy went inward, away from each other. We all found our corners in that house and those corners became familiar places. my Mom would smoke in the basement, trying to escape the pressures of raising three kids on her own. My brother, sister and I still played together and did the things kids do, but we never talked about was going on. Or what it meant. Even when my parents reconciled three years later, and my father moved back in, we’d often stay in those well worn corners we made.
I was far too young to understand what was happening or what it meant. Kids have no context and can accept almost anything. It strikes me as curious how adults worry about what children will think of certain ideas, images or world news. It’s often the parents fears that are being protected, not the children’s. Children don’t have the taboos adults do. They don’t know being naked is wrong or that certain words can’t be said in front of certain people, and for good reason: what we find offensive or fearful is cultural, not biological. In many ways it’s all just invention. Children are far more accepting and open minded than they get credit for and often they can see things more clearly than their parents do. The question is how brave parents are in giving their children the chance to choose for themselves. Before my father left, my parents had a family meeting where they told us what was happening. This was the right thing to do and I’m glad they did it, but it was beyond my comprehension. My brother remembers it well, but I don’t recall it all: what I couldn’t understand never registered as a memory.
As an 8 year old I didn’t know any other families well. I certainly didn’t know any other fathers.I didn’t know my aunts or uncles or how they related to their kids. For me at age 8 whatever happened in the Berkun household was simply how it was. I had the sense it was uncommon for parents to separate or divorce, but those concepts were far too abstract to understand. In 1st grade I remember my friend Craig crying outside the P.S. 169 schoolyard, feeling sad and alone because his parents were getting a divorce. We all comforted him, but none of us, including him, had any comprehension of what it meant. We vaguely knew it was sad from what we’d gleaned about mentions of divorce on TV or in the movies. But we didn’t have the imaginations to comprehend the scale of the feelings involved, or that it could take years or a lifetime to sort them out, if he or his parents would sort themselves out at all.
During those separated years I did know that my mother, who I loved and knew loved me, was often very sad. And my older brother, who I loved and knew loved me, was sad in his own way too. But I don’t remember feeling sad myself at the time. I was a happy kid. I loved the freedom of the streets and the parks of our neighborhood in Queens. The separation distracted everyone away from me and in that gentle neglect I was free to roam and learn to love independence. Except for my family, those years were good years for me, with friends, and laughter and the discovery, for the first time in my life, that I was good at many things. Most of the pain in our family floated above and around me, like clouds of dust, annoyances to be avoided, but things you knew would pass by. I know now my arrogance was born during this time. I felt a kind of pity for everyone. I felt sad for them. I thought I was immune from it all, that somehow I was made of superior materials. I wanted to help my Mom, and I did all my chores. I wanted to chip in and help make it work, not knowing what ‘it’ was or how ‘it’ was supposed to be. Perhaps all boys feel themselves immune to fears and sadness, I certainly did. It wouldn’t be until many years later that I’d begin to understand the real wounds you suffer are the ones you’re the last to notice. The ones you’ve practiced so well at covering that you don’t feel them anymore.
Among those wounds was the curious absence of my father. It was strange, though I didn’t comprehend it at the time, that I spent more time with him alone during the separation than I did before or after. After my father moved out he scheduled monthly outings with me. He’d pick me up at the house and we’d spend the afternoon seeing a movie or playing miniature golf. Sometimes my brother and sister came, but in my memory often it was just my father and I. Did my brother and sister come less often, or were those outings simply less memorable? I know that when it was the two of us, we didn’t talk much. We hadn’t shared many interests, and he was, as most men during a separation would be, an unhappy man, but out we’d go. Then when I was 11 and he moved back into the house, those outings stopped. I don’t know why. We never talked about it. We all fell into a new routine and the years flew by. My father and I wouldn’t spend another day alone together for almost twenty years. It was almost as if on his return he became just another passenger in the family, sharing the same physical space as the rest of us children, following along on a journey of home life led quietly, and without acclaim, by my mother.
[You can read more about my next book here: Why Fathers And Children Don’t Get Along]