How to keep a family together

Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach, detail

I’m meditating now because it slows down time and I only have 14 more weeks until both my kids are at college. When Z is reading on the couch, and Nino is reading next to him, I pull up a chair and meditate with my eyes open because I don’t want to miss this moment.

I told Nino he has to be my friend. He can’t keep coming to our apartment three or four days a week while saying he wanted a divorce because he can’t stand me. “You have no friends and no family in the entire world. I’m the only person who loves you. How can you not love me?”

Earlier I thought all that mattered was the kids saw their dad. Now I want the kids to have a family to come home to, which means Nino and I have to function like a family. Also, what will I do when the kids leave? I don’t want to find a new most-special person.

After a week of thinking about what I said, Nino comes to visit our apartment building but we meet in the common area so he believes I really want things to change: if he doesn’t love me then no hanging out in our apartment.  Nino cries, but I have seen him cry so many times that I’m unmoved.

He says he wants to do what I want. He doesn’t want to make anyone unhappy.

I do not say, “Then you shouldn’t have left us.” I’ve said stuff like that for fifteen years, and even the kids are sick of it. But, to be clear, we couldn’t watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because in the first episode her husband leaves her in the exact way Nino left me. My kids were shocked when both Nino and I agreed the show is unwatchable.

Nino says he’s not good at these types of conversations. He says this is like me asking him to play beach volleyball.

The next week I bring him a list of things I want that he can give me. I cannot ask for money, which is truly what I want from everyone I know. He is not good at earning money. But he’s really good at being interesting, and I miss spending time with him that is unmoderated by the kids’ preferences.

We agree to have friend time each week. The first meeting he has found an art gallery with an exhibit on sense of place. We walk along the harbor which means winding around docks and parks, and we take twice as long to get there.

The gallery is closed. If I had made the plans neither of us would be surprised the gallery is closed. But Nino is a god of logistics, so he checks back to the site and says the site is wrong. The gallery is wrong. It should not be closed.

After knowing him 20 years, I can recognize the pain in his voice. “It’s okay,” I say. “I liked walking here. And we can see the exhibit through the window.” I wish I had been this forgiving from the start. But we would have never started dating if I had been so kind.

If I had been this kind from the start, I would have married someone who is accustomed to kindness. I can’t imagine that, really, because now that we are friends he comes to the apartment like always. And often I don’t look up when he comes in the door, because people annoy me, and I can’t be dismissive of the kids, so I’m at it again with Nino.

If I’m not going to be happy he’s here, why do I need him to be my friend? Fifteen minutes after he walks in the door, he’s sitting in a chair across from me. I ask, “How was your day?” This is the most caring, engaged question a person can ask, because the answer will be boring; our days are monotonous and if they aren’t we say so unprompted.

He tells me not much happened. Then he thinks and he says, “I saw Faith Ringgold died, so I requested a bunch of her books from the library. I saw she has a book of protest posters.”

“Protest posters? I didn’t know that.”

Nino knows I have an autographed first edition of Faith Ringgold’s first book. Nino was the only person who ever admired me for my minimum-wage bookstore jobs. I thought of the book as a savings account in case I was ever starving. But when the kids were little we needed money for food and I didn’t sell it.

For Mother’s Day Nino gave me a present. He hasn’t done that since we were divorced. He said, “It’s not quite a present, but I think you’ll like it.”

He gave me the books he requested from the library.

A feeling of happiness runs though me. It’s a gift to feel known by someone.

Then he says, “I read them. I thought you could read them too and then we could have book group during friend time.”

14 replies
  1. JenX
    JenX says:

    It’s been such a long time. I was thinking of you recently and reminiscing about all the posts and years. Of course Nino loves you. It’s so obvious.

  2. jane carnell
    jane carnell says:

    This is so beautiful and precise.
    BEING KNOWN –is what we get from our friends and lovers and if we are so fortunate, ex-lovers. Or, as a poet once said, “only liking lasts.” Thank you for that reminder.

  3. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    It’s all relative. A homebody, like a classic rural English literature heroine, feels as much excitement in her life as someone living in Los Angeles.

    My married grandparents lived separately (for fear of house fires from smoking). but visited on regular afternoons. Grandpa was visually impaired with a white cain, Grandma was deaf and blind. During their quiet lives they found things to talk about.
    As for non-married regular folks, I don’t think they can commit to a permanent social schedule in these modern times. Hence my book discussion club has imperfect attendance.

    At post-supper coffee I ask my handicapped client, “How was your day?” and he likes to tell me things about him and relatives. I tell about my day, in “my so-called life,” and sometimes I tell first, because I care to tell. (Because we are social equals—I don’t patronize) Maybe me caring about my life is a developed skill.

    I remember a poet, living with her sweetie, being surprised, saying, “I never do that!” when I said I store away something funny in the morning to tell when someone comes home in the evening. If folks don’t talk or write about such skills, then I guess skills have to be learned by exposure to role models. Which requires getting out of the house. Even though the default is to cocoon at home. For me, perhaps children and poets have been my models for how to be in the world.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I appreciate how you notice patterns. That’s one of my favorite things about coaching a lot of people — how patterns emerge which lets us take time to see the special details of each person who is part of a familiar pattern.

      • Maree
        Maree says:

        Also one of the most interesting things about being a family lawyer. So many men have almost whispered, conspiratorially, that they are concerned about their female exes having serious mental health issues. And then the women so very commonly tell about abuse and alcoholism. All of it likely true. Astounding to me that we think ourselves so very special and yet seem fated to live out the same stories over and over.

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I learned the week before last that my friend Alice had died. We were email friends for the most part, although I’d driven out to see her a few times over the last 20 years; she lived about 5 hours away. She was an inner-circle friend, someone to whom I’d tell anything, and she felt the same way about me. She really knew me, and I really knew her. We were as close as friends can be. We resolved the question early on of why we weren’t a couple, and it’s because we would in no way have been compatible living together. It would have been awful. We loved each other, but we were never going to be a couple. We were good with that — what we got from each other was pretty damn good and we chose to be satisfied with that.

  5. Angie
    Angie says:

    This is a lovely piece to read. Relationships change and evolve. Maybe we just need to let go of categorising them or expecting them to stay the same when as humans never stop changing.

  6. Susie Dekker
    Susie Dekker says:

    Thank you for this interesting article sent to me by one of my wonderful daughters.
    My husband and I separated but continued to share a household for many years, initially for the benefit of our adult children but as life progressed for financial reasons.
    When I moved out I had never in my life lived alone, and now he visits me every day.
    We share family responsibilities and celebrations, he helps me all the time, takes me wherever I need to go. We have lunches together and get on well most of the time.
    Now after a 45 year relationship our kids are all happy to see the way we live and support each other, which we will continué to do in peace and harmony.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I love this story! And you wrote it in such a simple, beautiful way. Thank you for making me feel like I’m on a good path. And please tell your daughter thank you for knowing that you and I would relate to each other.

  7. Mailman
    Mailman says:

    You sure you’re not just starting to bend a good thing until it breaks?

    No divorce is one sided. And it sounds like you half want to punish him with remarks and guilt, including in this post, and half want him to make it up to you. Neither half is a good place to be. But, and I’m just guessing here because I know neither of you, his experience of the last 15yrs or whatever is probably not believing himself to be a villainess piece of crap who is also a nice guy and good father, which is mostly what you convey to me in your posts about him. I think you might get farther if you get out of your own head, and into his.


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