It's a Saturday afternoon in January. I'm sorting through boxes of stuffed animals and doll clothes, toys and gadgets, a detached smudgy Barbie doll head, a frayed kite string, a wrinkled joker from a deck of cards. I'm getting dizzy and overloaded with all the stuff and the question of whether to keep or toss.
"You think Elsie would notice if this Barbie bit the dust?" my boyfriend Ben asks me, examining his 8 year-old daughter's naked, shorn-haired Barbie that's been living in this box for months.
"I think it can go," I say.
He tosses it to me. The overflowing black plastic bag of stuffed animals he's saving teeters and nearly topples as I toss the Barbie into the garbage pile. I'm helping clear out the room that used to be Elise's before the renovation he started on his house shortly after his wife left. The renovation was completed in the fall but some of the stuff, moved to make room for the deconstruction and re-construction, hadn't been put back nor sorted through. As I touch and toss Barbie's and Golden Books and mangled forgotten rings, I recognize how identical they are to things my ex and I bought our own three children. A simultaneously comforting and discomforting familiarity rushes over me. It isn't easy digging through each other's stuff. Between his renovation and my moves and both of our recent divorces and the inevitable reconfiguring and re-evaluation of the stuff inhabiting those spaces, the digging and sorting through came with the territory.
Two months before, Ben and I were in the garage of my ex-marital home, a few months after my divorce was finalized. I hadn't taken much when I left, mostly because I didn't to want to strip the house of memories. I put off sorting through the stuff I left behind until my ex moved out and we had tenants moving in. As soon as Ben and I drove up in his truck and his two kids spotted the tree house my husband built for our son, their eyes widened, they jumped out and romped into the yard with delight, exactly like my kids had done over the years. I was happy that they were happy and felt a sharp pang for my own kids.
Just outside the garage, Ben and I stepped over the cement slab where my children, my ex and I stamped our hands when we renovated. I stumbled over a box, found a photo of my son at 18 months on his dad's shoulders, in matching red bandanas for Halloween. I held that picture in my hand, the soundtrack of my boyfriend's kids delightfully squealing in the yard and I thought, my ex and my son were smiling at me taking the photo. I must have been smiling back, happy to see them happy, and I felt myself tear up. It's easier to be angry at my ex. Easier to rationalize leaving when I catalogue the things he did that hurt or upset me. When we came down on opposite sides of issues and life choices. When I tell myself neither one of us was happy.
Puzzling over the photo reminds me of the photo collages I made every year we were married that lined the staircase walls. Before I left, I studied them daily, trying to pinpoint when things changed from "I'd do anything to keep my marriage together" to "If I stay I will lose all respect for myself." I never could find that picture. There were good times. There were bad times. There were exciting and dull times. Times we dreamt of the future and worried about the present. We ebbed and flowed, ebbing more towards the end and almost imperceptibly, we grew apart. I'm working hard not to trample the past for all of our shared sense of dignity and history. It couldn't have been all bad, or I wouldn't have stayed more than two decades, had three kids, and the matching red bandanas wouldn't make me cry.
Ben was looking at the pile of discarded lawn tools in the garage when I said, "You think Elsie would want this wig?" holding up a long red-haired wig that I remember both of my daughters wearing.
He glanced at the wig, raised one brow, curled the opposite lip and cocked his head in mock horror. I looked back down, saw it was tangled and matted and ratty.
"I have plenty of that stuff in my own house," he said. We both laughed.
We were learning what and when and how much of each other's past to take on. The wig didn't make the cut.
By the time I'd made a small pile of things to take, including my middle daughter's mod purple flowered rug I thought would look great in Elsie's new room, Ben's kids were having so much fun running into the play attic and back to the tree fort, they didn't want to leave.
I felt another pang for my kids as Elsie said, "I wish we could live here, Daddy."
That night, he and I and his kids were at his neighbor's house, chatting and laughing when an unexpected wave of emotion hit me and I thought, I'm a middle-aged mother of three who spent most of my life married and devoted to my family and I'm in a strange kitchen with someone else's kids, the conversation mostly about people I don't know and I feel un-anchored and confused about how I landed here. My two oldest live out east (one graduated from college, the other in college) and my middle son was with his dad. But still, I wondered, where are my children and why aren't we all under the same roof? By the time we got back to Ben's house, I burst into tears.
He held me without being upset by the tears I was shedding over my failed marriage. He articulated what I couldn't, that I was grieving broken hopes and dreams, the family structure I imagined would go on forever. I'd held him through moments when waves of grief washed over him. It was a potentially volatile journey we'd undertaken, the uncoupling of both of our long-term family-centered marriages overlapping with the excitement of creating something new together. Not one for the faint of heart and most certainly ill advised in the dating after divorce manuals. But we managed to navigate that fine line between being supportive but not over-entangling ourselves in the other person's grief, not taking on too much old stuff. We gave one another space to deal with our own messes and memories, the good, the bad, the uncategorizable in between. Many weeks one or both of us welled up in tears unexpectedly. Miraculously, in the midst of the emotional tumultion, we ran and did yoga, threw parties and laughed a lot. We got to know and delight in each other's families, celebrating the holidays with all 6 of our combined kids and his mother and an assortment of his, mine and our friends. We created our own new rituals and fell deeply in love.
Later that Saturday night -- on the day in January we sorted through his children's stuff -- Elsie pulls me up the stairs like she does sometimes to talk and read before bed.
I sit next to her in bed. "Do you ever feel like the world is just smacking you down?" she says.
I nod. "Of course I do. I hate that."
"That's how it feels lately," she says. "And my room..." she stares up at the ceiling. "Feels different. Like the roof blew off."
I nod, thinking, the roof did come off during the renovation. They all hunkered down on the first floor while the dormers and skylights and windows went in, the floors were redone, the walls were re-plastered and painted. But I don't say that because I feel she is speaking metaphorically and it's touching and beautiful and wise and mind-bogglingly accurate. I feel her loss, her sense of vulnerability.
"I get it. It feels strange. But it will feel less strange over time," I tell her and myself, still trying to reconcile how I can simultaneously feel both happier and sadder than I have in years.
I remember the day the roof literally came off, last summer, a few days before I was throwing a birthday party for Ben at his house. He and I laughed about the fact that we were having a party in the midst of all this mess and chaos, the stray nails and sawdust not deterring us at all. We agreed it was a perfect parallel for our relationship. How we'd managed to live and thrive together through the deconstruction and reconstruction of both of our lives. We took guests up to show them the open roof, joking the roof should stay off, so all future parties could be held on the open deck. As daring as it was to expose the house to the elements, it was awe-inspiring to stare into the open summer sky, the moon and stars, feel the air brushing our cheeks, blowing our hair. It felt as if we were closer to the sky and that we believed we would be safe from the elements for whatever duration we were exposed.
By the time that memory passes through my head, Elsie is done talking and ready to read another chapter in "How to Train your Dragon" in her warm bed, my daughter's purple rug underneath, the new skylight and roof solidly over our heads.