Poverty of Imagination: Divorce impacts last a lifetime
We ended up at the parking lot across the street from the GE plant, which I didn’t know then was where my dad actually worked, at what was called, for reasons I don’t know, the Turner building, where the relays division of the plant was located.
None of that mattered to me. All I knew was, we were sitting in the car in the parking lot in the middle of the night, and I didn’t know why, though I could tell that Mom was agitated.
Then we saw Dad walk out of the building, I guessed on his lunch break, and a woman walked out with him, and they went to his car together.
Mom said nothing, watched for a few minutes, then we left.
You can see where this is going. It was maybe six weeks later that she had one of her sisters pick my sister and me up at the trailer to take us for the weekend, and when we got back home on Sunday night, Dad’s stuff was out of the house.
I don’t remember exactly how Mom broke the news to us. I do remember my reaction: relief.
Mom and Dad had been fighting for years, and they often took it out on us, never physically, but the yelling and screaming took a toll.
In that instant, when Mom told us that Dad was gone, I felt, Thank God, it’s over.
There was also a good bit of lack of respect for Dad. I had known forever that something about him being gone all the time wasn’t right, and I hated how he spent so much time and money on cars, and so little time and money on us.
I was destined to not go on a vacation – as in, pack up the car, go stay somewhere, like the beach, in a hotel, come back in a few days – until adulthood.
I only had back-to-school new clothes because my grandmother would give Mom money to go school shopping.
It was hit-or-miss every spring whether I could sign up for baseball, because, you know, it cost ten bucks to register, and I’d need a new pair of cleats.
That said, happy as I might have thought myself to be that Dad was finally gone, some major lifestyle changes were to come, and if I thought we’d had it tough before, and we had, well, it was about to get real tough.
For starters, Mom had been a stay-at-home mom for me throughout elementary school. That had to end, obviously, but having been out of the job market for the past decade, and living out in the middle of nowhere, with Dad taking both of the cars, for spite, it wasn’t like she could just walk down the street to find a job.
Her parents loaned her a car, which got totaled, no fault of hers, a teen not paying attention rear-ended her, but that led to more tensions, because Granddaddy never let her forget that, and I mean, never, as in, he brought it up in his rare bouts of lucidity as Alzheimer’s took most everything else in terms of memories away 20-plus years later.
She was able to finally land a job, making minimum wage, then $3.35 an hour, at the Village Market in Crimora, as a cashier.
Our first experiences with the court system would make me decide that I’d want to be a lawyer, to undo the injustice that was being done to us.
Dad had the money to hire a good lawyer, a guy who would go on to be a prominent local judge, and his connections helped Dad post an early victory in the years-long battle to come, the judge’s child-support order requiring him to pay just $10 a week in child support as the divorce case was to proceed, with that amount standing only when school was in session, the $10 being tied to the cost of school lunches, at a dollar apiece times five days in a week.
As I type these words, my blood pressure is rising. The gall to even ask a judge to set child support at ten bucks a week for two kids, and tying it to the school calendar.
There’s a special place in hell for people who would do such a thing to kids, and it ain’t hot enough, truth be told.
You’ll read later that I didn’t speak to my father for the last two years of his life, and I’ll tell you then that if he was still alive, I still wouldn’t be talking to him, and you won’t bat an eye when you think about why.
Doing the quick math back in 1985, then, you have 40 hours times $3.35, plus $10 a week during school, minus a car payment, lot rent at the trailer park, utilities.
It was not going to be easy, is putting it short.
But that would only become apparent later.
Short term, I’m making the adjustment to high school, which brings with it several levels of awkwardness all their own.
The school part was easy. I even signed up for Latin and algebra classes, looking for a challenge, figuring that the algebra thing would be easy, since I’d already taught myself algebra in elementary school, and Latin, well, Latin was the language of the law, and I was going to be a lawyer, on my way to being governor and eventually president.
The first big thing for me in high school was trying out for the eighth-grade basketball team, something I’d been looking forward to for several years, basically since I’d decided that I was going to go to the University of Virginia on my way to becoming governor and president, but first, playing basketball for Terry Holland.
I had felt it was a foregone conclusion that I’d play high-school basketball. My youth-league team had won the league championship the year before, and I’d averaged 10 points a game, and I remember the coaches from the high school being there at the championship game, to watch this stud kid who was a year younger, and who we’d dominated in a double-digit win.
The biggest issue for me the week of the tryouts wasn’t anything basketball-related. It was making sure I had a ride home after practice.
High school for me was a nearly hour-long one-way bus ride, and even a straight drive from Fishersville to Crimora is a good half-hour on the winding back roads.
Mom’s work schedule at the store varied from day to day, either 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Obviously, when she was working night shift, that meant I’d need to hitch a ride, or catch the activity bus, which shoved off every day at 5:30, whether your after-school activity was done by 5:30 or not.
The Friday before the first tryout, the following Monday, I asked the coach when practice would be over, hoping he’d say before 5:30, and he said, well, probably around 5:45, some days earlier, some days later, which, yeah, that wasn’t going to work for me.
There was a kid who lived in the trailer park on the JV team, whose practices ended around the same time as ours, but for some reason, Mom wouldn’t let me ask him if I could get a ride home with his mom.
I’d come to learn later in life that there’d been some history there with my dad and his mom that I hadn’t been let in on, but in the moment, all it meant to me was, that was not an option.
Mom was able to pick me up the first day, but the whole ride home was a running commentary on how this wasn’t going to work out long term, and why didn’t the coach end practice so that I could ride the activity bus, anyway?
I had no control over when practice ended, but I did over whether or not this was going to be a running issue. I quit the second day, told Mom on the way home, and she talked the whole way back home about how she wasn’t really going to be able to pick me up after practice every day anyway, so it was probably for the best.
I wasn’t destined to be a basketball star, so I’m not trying to say that the world missed out on having the next Larry Bird, because my mom wasn’t able to pick me up after practice.
I did manage to work my way into the competitive pickup basketball scene as a student at UVA, often playing in offseason games with members of the basketball and football teams, and more than held my own against those guys.
Some of the guys would ask me, during breaks in the games, making small talk, where I’d played in high school, assuming obviously that I had played, and I’d say, Didn’t.
I remembered being in science class the next day. The science teacher was the coach. I’m sure he assumed that I was just a quitter, not tough enough to hack it, not willing to run the endless sprints to get in shape.
I sat in the back of the room, holding back tears, wanting to just die, my basketball career over before it had even had a chance to start.
Quick sidenote on the coach: I was preparing to try out for the JV team in ninth grade, and was convinced that I could work around the ride home issue. I showed up for the first couple of open gyms ahead of the tryouts, but word got back to me at the end of the second one, from friends who had played on the eighth-grade team, that the coach was saying that it would be really hard for kids who hadn’t made the team the year before, because they’d be a year behind in terms of knowing the system, which from my recollection, and my adult perspective of that recollection, as a sportswriter who covers high-level college basketball, was not much more than roll the ball out there and play.
Anyway, message sent. I didn’t try out.
So, basketball was one and done, and it wasn’t even Thanksgiving of my first year of high school.
We eventually met the woman that we’d seen Dad take to his car in the parking lot on that late summer night.
She was first introduced to us as Dad’s friend, though it wasn’t long before he took us to his new trailer, in a trailer park in Stuarts Draft, and she was living there, so, apparently, she was a good friend.
She had older kids, only one that I remember interacting with, a daughter who was a few years older, already out of high school.
Mother and daughter resented having to be around my sister and me, for reasons I didn’t understand then, but now make sense, at least with the mother.
For Dad to pick us up, see, he had to interact with my mother, and I’m sure the issue for his new friend was, what happens if he messes around with her, like he messed around with me when he was with her?
The daughter, I’m not sure her issue. All I know is, one day, it all came to a head with her screaming about my sister and me having to stay the weekend, and how she wasn’t happy about having those white trash kids around all the time.
I had to that point not heard that term, white trash, so I wasn’t immediately offended, though I could tell by the context that it wasn’t meant to be nice.
Mom went ballistic when we told her what we’d been called that weekend, and when she asked what Dad had done when the girl had called us that, and the answer was, nothing, which was entirely, and unfortunately, absolutely true.
My Dad’s friend’s daughter had called his kids white trash in his presence, and he was more concerned about offending them by saying something than sticking up for his kids.
Which leads us to, a few weeks later, when Dad dropped us off on a Sunday evening, and had papers for Mom to sign. They were the tax returns for the previous year, and Mom needed to sign since they were still married.
They always got money back, usually a couple thousand dollars, so this was a big deal.
Mom didn’t want to sign until the divorce was final. Half of that money was hers, and when you’re making minimum wage and getting ten dollars child support a week, a thousand dollars is life-changing.
They argued, and Dad started hitting Mom, right there in front of us, and in front of his friend, who retreated to the car, brave woman that she was.
It got savage, and eventually, Mom signed the papers, and he left.
Bloodied, bruised, beaten to hell, Mom ran after their car, grabbed a handful of rocks from the driveway, and threw them at the car driving away.
Then I called my grandmother, and she came and took Mom to the hospital.
Justice being what it was, we were greeted there by a sheriff’s deputy.
Dad had called 911 when he got home to report that my mom had thrown rocks at his car, and he’d wanted to press charges.
The deputy saw this tiny woman, barely five feet tall, a beaten, bloody mess, and didn’t ask how she’d gotten to that condition. He arrested her, and charged her with throwing a missile, fucking rocks, and not big ones, actually, but whatever, at a moving vehicle.
On the way home, Mom yelled at me for not defending her, like it was my fault that this all had happened.
She didn’t need to. I’d already decided that it was all my fault.
Things would get worse. That spring, Mom ended up back in the hospital with another collapsed lung, and this time, I was old enough to be able to process that this wasn’t good, that Mom might not make it through this time.
Oddly, Dad came home with her from the hospital, a brief reconciliation that was no doubt the result of guilt over what had transpired over the past few months.
It wasn’t to last, though it did help to confirm for his friend, who would go on to become my father’s second wife, that he was not to be trusted with being around my mother, the result of this being, weekends with Dad came to be fewer and more distant between.
The backdrop this time was my final appearance in the regional spelling bee.
I was a three-time school spelling bee champion, and the last year, I made it out of the county bee to qualify for the regionals, the final step before the national bee in Washington, D.C.
With Mom in the hospital, my sister and I were back living at Granny Decker’s. She helped me get ready for the bee, calling out words from the study guide every night, then taking me to Leggett’s to buy me a suit and tie so that I’d look like I fit in with the rest of the kids on the stage.
I missed my fourth word, but, hey, they handed me an envelope with a certificate for a $50 savings bond, which I immediately cashed in, getting, I think, $38 back for my trouble.
The grandparents’ house became a second home for us after that, and it’s not overstating things to say that if it hadn’t, you’re not reading this.
My parents never did mature into being parental in any way, shape or form, but instead of lamenting how much they sucked at the job, I feel fortunate that they sucked so bad at being parents that I had the fortune to have my grandparents in their place.
They’re why one of my teachers in high school would say I had an old soul. As Dad shirked his weekends away, and Mom spent whatever free time she had sowing whatever wild oats she had left over from becoming a mom as a teen, and now being liberated, I had two people who had worked their whole lives trying to stay ahead of their own impoverished childhoods guiding me through life.
Their house was one that Granddaddy had built himself, which makes sense, since he was a home builder by trade.
Granny had also worked through her family-raising years, against the convention of the times, the 1950s and 1960s.
They were in their 60s when they in essence took us in, Granddaddy still building houses, Granny retiring from Western State, then getting a job at a convenience store a couple of weeks after retiring, because retirement bored her.
Over dinner, Saturday evenings sitting on the front porch, watching the wind blow leaves on trees, over bowls of vanilla ice cream, with hot chocolate syrup, Granny would tell stories about the Great Depression, World War II, their years in Lancaster, the time she hit my uncle with a frying pan when he came home drunk, the other time she hit a state trooper with his clipboard when he tried to write her a ticket for running a stop sign.
It got to the point where Granny talked to us as if we were her kids. I remember one evening on the porch, she talked about how much she and “your father,” referencing Granddaddy, had worked, and then lamented.
Where did we go wrong?
One of her kids was on welfare. Mom was one of the two going through bitter divorces and foisting her kids on the grandparents to take care of, because they couldn’t. The uncle was a hard drinker who worked sometimes, was out of work most of the time.
Even the good kid lived across the country and barely kept up with the rest, apparently feeling embarrassed at the shared DNA.
We worked hard all our lives, Granny told me, and we raised you kids to work hard.
I took the hint. Back in the good days, Mom used to take us to Granny’s every Saturday morning, which was a highlight of the week. We got there early enough that we usually were around before Granddaddy would shove off to work, on whatever house he was working on that week.
If we got there in time, he’d let me go to the job site with him, and we’d work until lunchtime, before going to Lowe’s for whatever supplies he’d need for Monday, then to the county dump, then home for lunch.
I didn’t do much more than putter around, but the summer after eighth grade, he offered to give me a job, making five bucks an hour, actually working.
I didn’t know until later that he’d put this offer out to others in the family, including my dad, and nobody lasted long, because Granddaddy worked hard, and because he worked hard, he expected you to work even harder.
It’s memories of the old days being harder than they were talking here, but I only seem to be able to remember the days that were mid-90s with 100 percent humidity, on job sites out in the middle of nowhere, no music, because Granddaddy didn’t like music interrupting his thinking, just heat, extreme heat, quick water breaks every couple of hours, lunch, dinner, then bed.
One day, Granddaddy, not anywhere near as introspective about things as Granny, surprised me as we ate sandwiches at lunch.
You see how hard I work? he asked me.
Every day like this for the last 50 years. This is hard work.
He didn’t need to tell me that. I wasn’t qualified to do much, and to this day, hammers and me, and my fingers, don’t get along, meaning I was mainly there to lift and move heavy things, because any idiot can lift and move heavy things.
You’re a smart kid, he said. You get straight A’s in school. I hope you’re learning something out here.
Actually, I wasn’t learning much, except that I didn’t want to build houses the rest of my life.
I didn’t dare say that, of course. I just listened.
But, that was it.
What I want you to learn, he said, is, keep doing good in school, and you can make money with your head, instead of with your back, like I do.
I keep those summers in mind whenever somebody tells me, looking at what I do work-wise, one newspaper guy writing once about how I was the most prolific writer in Central Virginia, that I’m this hard-working guy making things happen.
No, I don’t work hard. My grandfather, building houses for 50 years, by hand, laying the blocks, putting up the frames, touching everything in those houses, that man worked hard.
He took me not making the basketball team harder than I did. He’d played for the team on his Army base back during the war, literally the only thing he ever told me about World War II, again, to my regret, and after working all day on those hot summer days, he’d park the work truck out of the way so that we could shoot hoops at night.
At the end of the first summer, he gave me the greatest gift I would ever receive: pouring concrete in the backyard of our trailer lot to put in an outdoor basketball hoop, state-of-the-art for the time, with a breakaway rim, as if I was ever going to be able to test that, but still, then trucking a load of sand from a work site and grading it out in a semi-circle 25 feet around.
It was the finest outdoor basketball court I would ever see. They had to bulldoze that hoop down when Mom finally moved away years later.
In the meantime, I had my escape from the world. I never did make a high-school team, but I hoisted hundreds, thousands, probably millions of jump shots on that hoop, hours upon endless hours after school.
I shot in the rain. I shot in the snow. I shot in the morning before school, in the evening after school. I’d turn on the backporch light and shoot at night.
I was always thinking, as the calendar got close to tryout time, this will be my year, but then Mom, sensing where my head was, I’m sure, would remind me that her work schedule was what it was.
Finally, senior year, I had my own car, a $400 jalopy held together by spit and tape, but it ran. The senior players started making noise in the walkup to the start of practice that we might need some depth this year, and I let one of the guys, one of my close friends, know that I wanted to play, even if it meant just being a practice player.
Word got back to me, again, well, coach says we’d prefer guys who know the system.
One year, in college, I went to the local Y over the Christmas break to try to find a pickup game, and it happened that the star player from my high-school team was there.
Another kid from the nice neighborhood, on the good side of the railroad tracks, good player, a little stiff on the handle for a point guard, but he put up decent numbers.
I made it a point to work my way into his game, on the other team, and played like I was high on cocaine, diving for every loose ball, hurtling through the air for every rebound, shooting the lights out for the next hour-plus.
It shouldn’t have been anything personal, and I’m sure it wasn’t to him, but it was to me.
I mean, yeah, it wasn’t anybody else’s fault that I lived a half-hour away from school, that the coach didn’t set his schedule to accommodate the activity bus, that my mom wouldn’t help me figure out how I could get rides home after practice, that I couldn’t afford the $100 shoes and the $250 summer team camps.
The world didn’t owe me a damn thing because I had teen parents who had gotten divorced and my mom made minimum wage and my dad didn’t pay child support.
To me, those kids had every advantage, from the stable families who cared about them and wanted to see them succeed, to the money for shoes and camps, and rides home, but to them, that was just how things were supposed to go, that you were supposed to expect that things work out in life when they needed to.
Like I did that day, making sure to worm my way onto the other team at the Y, to prove my point to the kid from my high school that maybe I should have been on the basketball team, too, and would have been, if things had worked out the way they were supposed to.
I had come to learn that I had to create the opportunities that came naturally for other kids for myself, and I also came to learn that what set me apart from the other kids in the trailer park was that I saw the need to create those opportunities for myself, and they didn’t, or couldn’t.