08 June 2023

There was a time when we asked my mother how she fell in love and how she knew that my father was the one she wanted to marry. We were young then, her three blond kids. When my father was late coming home, when he was still out there in the dark night, driving home alone in his car through the forest, we sat in our matching pajamas in the kitchen eating oatmeal or semolina pudding while she read fairy tales, the gruesome kind with wicked stepmothers and gnomes scheming for blood and gold. And my mother was the queen, we were her princesses and her prince, waiting for the king come home.

He was the only one who treated me with decency, she always replied.  I remember my confusion and my disappointment. I wanted to hear her fairy tale. After all, we often watched them embrace and kiss, watched the way he brushed the hair from her forehead, noticed their secret smiles of amusement when one of us did something silly or remarkable. 

Decency. She used the old fashioned word Anstand. Decorum. Chivalry. And so I imagined my father as a dashing and well behaved man who bowed and offered his arm, who opened doors for her to walk through. Maybe wearing a prince's uniform, like the one I had seen the nutcracker wear at the ballet (where I had fallen asleep to my parent's bemused smiles). 

It wasn't until much  later that I understood. Only a couple of years ago in fact. And not because I was ignorant but because I didn't really want to spend time thinking about her and my parents and the way he just walked out on her and how she finally fell apart, something that was a long time coming. 



They were students. There was a chess club, of course there was a chess club. Also, a hill walking club. My mother disliked hill walking for as long as I can remember and I have never seen her play chess but that's the story, that's where they met. At the time and at that university, my mother was the only female student of agricultural science, the only woman not a lab assistant or a secretary or a cleaner. Most if not all of her fellow male students were members of an all male fraternity, who would invite 'girls' to their parties, or some other male network of handshakes and offers of positions and career moves. I still try not to think of what she had to cope, to compete with.


He adored her, I have been told over and over again. By relatives, friends of my parents, acquaintances and so on. He was totally smitten with her. 

I did everything for him, she later told me, full of bitter anger. She trapped me, he would say. I gave up my career for him, she complained all the time. She was the worst mistake of my life, he exclaimed once and only once because I told him that I would not tolerate this talk in my house. I thought he was decent, I thought he was better than all these men, she wailed and I told her to shut up and get on with life.


Colette said...

What a horror it is, when love dies. I'm sure he had to leave, and I'm sure she never understood why.

Pixie said...

Some things, many things, should not be shared with children. I keep my mouth shut about my ex husband and the things he did, my daughter needs to love her father and he doesn't treat her the way he treated me.

Roderick Robinson said...

Even before my parents divorced – I was then a mere 8 or 9 - I had deliberately cut myself off from the activities of adults. Their behaviour was inexplicable yet, simultaneously, uninteresting. My curiosity, which was to become my stock in trade as a journalist, was never aroused even when I could hear what were clearly bitter arguments down below as I lay awake in my bed. If I thought about anything it would have been my resentment at being sent upstairs far, far too early given I seemed incapable of falling asleep before midnight.

My mother finally left us with my father; we (I was the eldest of three brothers) rejoined her in a house that I presume was provided by father. One thing that still bugs me is the length of time her absence endured. I seem to have no concept of time about this. Although this was an unpleasant period I never questioned my mother’s absence; it was just the sort of thing adults did. None of my relations (including my four grandparents) volunteered any comments on our situation.

A year after we rejoined my mother the four of us went on a caravan holiday. She and I took an evening walk and she revealed the fact that she would never be returning to my father. I burst into tears, the first and only emotion I ever showed with regard to this huge disruption in our way of life.

Many, many years later the significance of those tears was made clear to me by a professional. Who also explained certain traits that had developed in the person I had become.

You don’t indicate your age at the time you questioned your mother. The two sets of relationships could be hardly more different. I uncommunicative and, to some extent, submissive; you keen to find out. Some have criticised my mother’s flight. In fact she later became a beneficial influence on my choice of work. Years after her death I even began to share her interest in poetry.

The final couplet from a sonnet I wrote in memoriam:

She wrote, I write, but here’s the difference
No letters, now, to foil my ignorance.

Any lessons? Just the old one, that very little is forever. Things change, even that which we thought was true. We adapt. And, I think, it’s important not to be pig-headed.

Steve Reed said...

It had to be so hard for women in those years, having to essentially choose between a career and marriage. (As many, if not all, did.) My mother used to gripe all the time about giving up professional opportunities for my father -- who then walked out on her. She did at least have a career, but not quite the one she wanted.

ellen abbott said...

I read this days ago but didn't have time to comment. my husband's mother abandoned her five children to their abusive fathers (one by 1st, 4 by second) with no warning, no explanation. one day she was there, the next she was gone. Marc was 9, his youngest brother 2 months. she took up with another man, had two more children with him and eventually left him too. she returned to our lives just when Marc and I had started dating. she told us later that she left to save her life. 1st husband was physically abusive, 2nd mentally and emotionally abusive.

my own childhood was happy enough until I was about 13, parents seemed happy, had a social group, gave parties and then my mother was accused of being the other woman in an affair with the husband of their best friends which she denied though we all know it was her. happy home came to a screeching halt, kicked out of their social group, nothing but fights and anger and resentment from there on out. they stayed together though for whatever reasons I cannot comprehend. they were both miserable until the days they died.

so love blooms, gets stale or hidden personality traits surface and beats it to death (metaphorically). the fallout damages the kids in different ways. am I still in love with my husband? no, and haven't been for many years though he's still in love with me. do I love him? I suppose. our relationship is complicated and intertwined. we get along fine enough for the most part and have a higher standard of living together than we would apart. in that way I guess I'm like my father though my relationship with my husband if far better than his was with my mother. they never really got over her betrayal and then later she accused him of the same thing with the wife of the one couple that stood by them.

Sabine said...

Thank you so much Ellen for sharing all of this. Like yours, my parents were lousy role models. We really deserve respect for the way we made it work.

Sabine said...

Quite an experience! I am relieved to read that you did get the opportunity to speak with "a professional" about it. I would guess that at the time, divorce was not something that happened openly in families.
I would have never dared to question or citicise my mother (or father) while I was a child, teenager, student. I did this much later, when I was safely out of their range and had my own life, my own family far away from their influence where they could never reach me.

37paddington said...

Such a sad story, and yet it is just life in all its permutations. They fuck you up, your parents, in one way or another, and that gives us the strands of experience to shape our own lives, and hopefully to forgive them being human and flawed. I think i fared better than most, my parents were in love to the end, it was rather a magnificent thing to witness, and yet they had their trials, too, and we, their children caught the fallout in our arms. Perhaps it made us more interesting. For me, it made me choose to stick, was that personality or something I witnessed. For my brother, sticking was never a choice. He left many broken hearts in his wake, and yet he is a good father. I know I have also passed on life challenges to my children. I wish I could have avoided doing so, but life does not permit one to be unscathed. Thank you for sharing this heartbreaking yet so beautifully rendered story. Love.

beth coyote said...

I never saw affection between my parents. Never. I heard them having sex once and I quickly scuttled up the stairs. I did see my father throw a cup of hot coffee at my mother. He was gone a lot. And she was left home as a deaf woman with five kids. Lordy.

NewRobin13 said...

When I was growing up we watched TV shows where families all got along, and there was hardly a moment of parents disagreeing, arguing, leaving each other. The real stories though are our lives. My parents stayed together through thick and thin. That didn't make it easy, but it showed us that it was possible with love and the commitment to it.