On our way to the top floor of my house, my friend Pat and I stopped in my daughter Nicki’s room to weed through girlhood clothes at the back of Nicki’s closet. Nicki had graduated from college the year before and moved in with her boyfriend. Her sister Ella, my youngest, was a senior in high school and would be starting college in the fall. I was readying our home for sale, no longer able to afford the mortgage.
“Look at this! And this!” Pat said, admiring the Renaissance Faire outfits, velvet dresses, and satin-striped pantaloons.
“You’re the memory keeper!” she said as I told her the stories behind each. “No one can ever take these memories from you. The girls will always have the memories you gave them.” I hoped so, and that the good ones would outweigh the bad.
A decade before, my husband of 20 years had had an affair and filed for divorce. I’d gotten the house, but mostly I’d wanted my family back.
As a single mom, I strained to keep life as close to normal as possible. I continued cooking dinner most school nights, and the girls and I stopped whatever we were doing and sat down for a meal. Afterwards, we’d often sing show tunes around my grandmother’s out-of-tune piano.
Nicki had called me “funniest mom on the block,” the kind who made Eyeball Soup for Halloween with peeled green grapes floating in a bowl of vanilla custard. But as the years passed, I grew concerned that being resilient for so long through so much had dampened my spirits.
Letting Go of the Past when Everyone Else has Moved On
Everyone but me had moved on or was about to. Everyone else walked away. I was left cleaning – and confronting my resentment. Forced to leave the nest that had become the symbol of the most important thing I had ever done and the people I loved more than anyone else and the place where it finally and officially crumbled.
When Nicki came by to clean out her room, we sorted through 23 years of girl gatherings. She paused briefly to read a card or letter but otherwise made her selections decisively. I sat next to her, my heart racing as I periodically impeded her progress to see something before she disposed of it.
“I can’t believe you made these for my birthday,” Nicki said, smiling as she unfolded a birthday invitation adorned with glitter, stars, and hand-traced stenciled letters. I was relieved when she laid the invite in her stack of keepsakes. While Nicki’s things were her things, they had also been the most important part of my world.
Friends said selling the house would allow me to reclaim my life. But who was I besides an ex-wife and mother? The only days I longed to reclaim were those with my children.
I suppose I felt like I was letting Nicki go all over again and had suddenly she’d never return to the house she’d grown up in. What if Nicki lost her job or broke up with her boyfriend? Where would she go once I sold the house? Where would I live? And where would Ella go at Christmas during college break?
It had been an exhausting year. Me temping until all hours while Ella attended high school and applied to college. Me cleaning out a four-story house.
Wallowing in Happy Memories
At times, the process wore me down, and I’d retreat to the safety of my best memories and wallow in them. Drag out the cardboard boxes into which I’d organized the girls’ schoolwork from preschool through high school.
Over the years, I’d thrown out some of their papers, but not many, saving most every test taken, portrait painted, and essay and poem written. Even the plastic plates with pipe cleaners and buttons and fake jewels stuck together with globs of Elmer’s glue. At four, Nicki drew rainbows, hearts, flowers, and girls with smiles. Ella sketched manga and girls with straws on their cheeks for smiles. All happy pictures.
After cleaning out Nicki’s room, I moved across the hall to Ella’s.
“I’ll do it myself,” she said, constantly promising “tomorrow.” But she was juggling a full plate and finally agreed I could help. While she was at school, I threw out what was clearly garbage – cans of Red Bull from under her bed, crumpled paper. I gathered up loose items strewn about her room so she’d have an easier time sorting through them.
I Lost Precious Time with my Daughters Because of Divorce
While organizing, I came across photographs I’d never seen before. Ella at her dad’s place with the dog I’d never seen, sitting on a couch I knew nothing about, in an apartment I’d never entered, smiling a smile I’d never witnessed while laughing a laugh I’d never heard.
Like all parents, the more my children grew, the less I saw them. Because of the divorce, my children and I led partially separate lives. Whole chunks of time went unaccounted for in my memory, producing an amnesia-like hole in my brain that threw me off-kilter. Divorce sped up the natural progression of time, thus rendering my children’s eventual departure all the more seemingly premature. Admittedly my girls always returned home. Still, my sorrow lingered.
Another day I found a batch of outdated calendars and thought I’d count the number of days I’d lost with my children over the prior decade. And then I stopped myself. I simply couldn’t bring myself to start. This was a tally best left unknown, in a past I couldn’t change.
It was the same with the photos of Ella in her father’s apartment. I put them down. I never looked at them again. I got back to cleaning. It was time to surrender my hopes and dreams for a future that hadn’t turned out the way I’d imagined.
So I carried the cardboard boxes of Ella’s schoolwork to the dining room table, and let Ella sort through them. The same with Nicki, although admittedly I kept a few mementos for myself.
A few weeks before Ella’s high school graduation, the house was at last on the market.
Letting Go of the Past, Making Room for the Future
With Ella headed to college, I’d have the biggest dose of aloneness I’d had in over thirty years. Before children, my reference point had been me and their father. And after, kids and family, and then just the girls once my husband left. But my reference point was changing again and would soon be just me. And as floor space opened up around me, I began to imagine the space for a new future. I wanted to find joy not only in the changing relationship with my daughters but also in the worlds opening up for all of us.
“Where are you moving to?” people kept asking.
“I have no clue,” I’d continue replying for a long time to come. But wherever I landed my daughters would always have somewhere to call home. And Ella would have a place to come home to at Christmas.
That morning of our first open house, Ella came upstairs while I was smoothing the comforter on my bed.
“Floors are clean and beautiful,” she said, smiling. She’d already mopped the floors and made her bed, all on her own. Executing these tasks with love and grace.
And then Ella left to spend the afternoon with friends. “We’ll get through it, baby,” she texted me while on her way to the subway.
And we would.
I had no clue where my next home would be. “Where are you moving to?” people had asked and would continue to for a long time. Although I didn’t know where I was moving, the one thing I did know was that Ella and Nicki would have somewhere to come home to at Christmas.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection (Post Hill Press, July 2019) by Beverly Willett invites you to join the author’s journey from betrayal and despair to healing and happiness after a difficult divorce. At times painful, this is ultimately a story of finding hope in the ashes when you have the courage to let go of the past and make space to embrace an unknown future. Disassembly Required is available at amazon.com