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My Divorce Made Me Realize Our Home Was Never Mine

05/06/2015 05:17 EDT | Updated 05/06/2016 05:59 EDT
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In 1981, James Taylor released a song called "Her town too" in which he expresses regret that his ex-wife has been assigned outsider status in the town where they'd had a life together. When relationships end, it is a sad fact that people take sides, assets are split, and someone, if not both parties, must relocate. Taylor alludes to another type of collateral damage that I'm calling Geographies of Divorce. It's the shifting of boundaries, the renegotiation of territory, the displacement, isolation and the staggering trauma of homelessness that accompanies divorce.

In my case Sweet Baby James needn't worry. The neighbourhood I shared for almost five years with a man whose town it always was...was never my town. But the geographies of divorce have tentacles that are still able to reach out and squeeze the breath from my lungs from time to time.

Case in point: Recently my daughter accepted an invitation from her old high school band conductor to play at the school's spring concert with other alumni. I was proud of her decision because she left that school midterm, under unhappy circumstances five years earlier when my marriage to her stepfather ended.

Indeed, returning to that high school stage as a beautiful young woman, a feminist, an activist, and university graduate did symbolize a victory cry in response to the four and a half excruciating years I watched her trying to make life work in that town. Between 2006 and 2010, we tried valiantly to blend two families whose values and roots were as disparate as it gets. On April 1st, 2010, the decision was made for us ...and we abandoned our efforts.

But while it was closure for my daughter, sitting in that high school auditorium this past Friday night reopened some old wounds for me. I was jettisoned back in time to the fall of 2005 when I attended the New Parents' Information Session in that same auditorium. My daughter's acceptance at this prestigious Catholic arts school had been a coup. I was about to remarry, pack us up and move us from our lovely home to a new home in a new city -- the city and neighbourhood where my fiancé had lived for decades and was the local politician. It was his turf and his children's turf, and I was determined that my daughter would start out on equal footing, despite having no history, no networks, and no friends in that neighbourhood. Thus I felt it was important -- and so did she -- that she attend a different high school than the one her older step-siblings were already attending.

But it was a Catholic high school and my lifetime involvement with my own (Protestant) church was not enough for her to gain entry to the school, even with her obvious musical talent. Hence we had no recourse but to ask my soon-to-be husband to haul out his baptismal certificate -- proof that he was a Catholic, though he could count on his fingers the number of times he'd been to Mass in the intervening 55 years. That was the beginning of the erasure of our identities.

On that parents' night in 2005, the principal stood at the podium and announced conspiratorially to the audience that one of the new students was the daughter of "our local councillor" and therefore the school was in good shape to get the traffic problems at the nearby intersection addressed. Ten years have passed, and I can still remember seething with anger in my seat. When did my daughter become his daughter? We hadn't even married yet. She wasn't even his step-daughter.

By availing ourselves of his baptismal certificate, I'd apparently ceded my role as the person of greatest significance in her life. I'd been a single mother to her since she was three years of age -- juggling work and graduate studies around what I saw as my primary purpose in life: raising my child -- but all that was vaporized when she was declared the daughter of "our councillor." Her own biological father, although living in another country, was a critical part of her life, but he too was rendered invisible by the principal's words. But most importantly, my daughter's talent as a musician, the fact that she'd aced her audition and earned her admission into that school -- yes, even that -- was erased by the sudden rise of skepticism in the audience that she'd been accepted on her own merit.

And so it went. Regardless of what I did on my own strength or of my own volition, my identity for the next five years was subsumed under his. The first summer that we lived in the new house that we built together, I signed up online for a tai chi course in the neighbourhood park. I enrolled using my own first and last names -- the only names I've ever used -- but the confirmation of my fee payment was addressed to Mrs. HisFirstNameHisLastName. I was shocked. Through some address cross-referencing process, an office employee decided to rename me completely; or perhaps they arbitrarily assumed I'd want to exercise some clout with the local tai chi instructor at Parks and Rec.

Even the house itself never belonged to my daughter and me, though it couldn't have been built without the proceeds of the sale of the lovely little home we gave up to be there. For reasons I no longer care to call to the surface, it was never our home. There was never enough oxygen in that house for us to breathe, and we were visitors there, unwelcome guests for four and a half years in a home we helped to build.

I got a job up the street teaching an undergrad course at the satellite campus of the university where I was a doctoral student. I planted a garden and put up Christmas decorations. I brought meals weekly to an elderly neighbour whose wife passed away. I found a church. I cycled through the streets with my daughter. I frequented the local corner store. I shopped at the farmers market in the summers. I've voted in elections at the school and the church around the corner. None of that mattered. I was invisible for those four and a half years. It was never my town.

In the five years since we've been away from that neighbourhood, my daughter and I continue to celebrate the many ways in which we practiced subversion to avoid being completely erased in that geographical setting. When that short-lived and tragically doomed marriage came to an end, we moved to a new neighbourhood where -- like bulbs brought up from the basement and replanted in the spring -- we've been able to stretch sun-ward again. And now, with my daughter planning to travel the world before graduate school, and with a one-year sabbatical for me beginning shortly, the time has come to relocate again, even further away from that neighbourhood, perhaps very far away indeed.

When I remarried, 11 years after my marriage to my daughter's father ended, I was very taken with the story that Vikings burned their ships when they arrived on new soil to prevent them from being half-hearted about their commitment to the new geography. Like the Vikings, I was resolute that retreat was not an option. But real life tends to choke out mythology, and my advice to my daughter and every other young woman embarking upon a merging of households will be: If you choose to burn the ship, be sure you know how to build a raft.

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