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SEPTEMBER 15, 2010 7:29AM

Divorcing Lessons

Rate: 81 Flag

My mother stood at the kitchen counter in her yellow apron when she told me the news. She sprinkled salt and rosemary on the lamb chops as she spoke. We're going to be moving away from your father, she said  and slipped the pan under the broiler. 

 My mother's announcement made me lose my appetite. For years I had hoped we would move away from my father. He frightened me. But I was frightened of  divorce, too.

Divorce was for other families.  Divorce was for the lady down the street. Her daughter and I were in fifth grade together and my mother felt obliged to be somewhat friendly. Jeanette was, as my mother explained in a whisper, a divorcee.  She worked as a secretary and dated her boss. She had cocktails at dinner and she smoked.  I knew my mother thought there was something shameful about her. 

I learned these things about Jeanette when we ate dinner together once or twice a month at a restaurant downtown.  My mother was lonely and needed advice since she too would soon be a divorcee herself. Jeanette was eager to take her under her wing.

 I could feel my mother's uneasiness each time we walked into the restaurant. She faded into the background next to Jeanette's sparkly dress and fur jacket. Jeanette wore bright red lipstick and too many cocktail rings. My mother informed me that one cocktail ring was really one too many. My mother was always defending Good Taste.

We kids got to sit at our own table and order Shirley Temples while our mothers discussed men, alimony and child support between bites of salad. Jeanette drank Scotch from a short glass smeared with her lipstick. My mother sat across from her nursing her one Dubonnet on the rocks.

My mother ordered the same thing every time. "Dubonnet on the rocks." It sounded so sophisticated yet I knew even then, my mother didn't like it. She always left most of it in the fancy glass. Scotch is really a man's drink, she told me.

No matter how much Jeanette schooled her in the art of being single in the sixties, my mother never got the hang of it. 

One night I walked out into the living room to see my mother holding a cigarette in her hand. I'm just trying it, she said. I must have looked as though I'd seen a ghost. She crushed it in the ashtray.

Jeanette had a philandering husband, my mother told me. I looked it up in the dictionary and was surprised to think of Mr. Jeanette with other women. He seemed like a regular dad. My father had not been a Philanderer Dad, though I think it would have been preferable to being a Scary Drinking Dad.  But either way, both women wanted out.

  I worried about my mother. I knew that she would need to learn some other names of drinks to order if she were to be successful at this. I knew she would need to wear high heels. And I was certain she would have to learn to like men a whole lot more than she seemed to.

Not long after she left my father, Jeanette and her daughters moved out of the neighborhood. I missed the girls.  But mostly I missed having Jeanette around to teach my mother how to be divorced.  

While I pictured Jeanette in her new city dancing in her high heels, I watched my own mother sink deeper into bitterness and isolation. She never did learn to enjoy a cocktail or a cigarette. She never dated anyone either. Instead, she talked about how ridiculous the whole marriage thing was anyway and if I never got married I certainly wouldn't be missing anything.

Once before Jeanette moved, she convincd my mother to do the unthinkable. She took my mother to the beauty parlor where she emerged two hours later with something called a "beehive." I thought she looked beautiful. I barely recognized her. She was wearing  soft pink lipstick. Jeanette showed my mother off proudly. I was sorry to hear my mother step into the shower ten minutes later to wash her new look down the drain.

An hour later my mother wiped her hands on her freshly ironed apron and announced that dinner was ready.

Divorcing lessons were over. 


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Scotch a man's drink? Ooops on me.
It always makes me sad when someone like your mom cannot bring herself to just let the beehive and the scotch and the pink lipstick just happen. Divorce can be confining, sadly. I really liked the way this was written Joan. Spare and moving along...
If only a hairdo and a sparkly jacket could get us through those times.
Excellent recall of another time another place Joan. write so so so well. Loved seeing the divorce/your mom/and jeanette through your eyes. Felt your mom's sorrow and the ways she chose to deal with divorce. Sheer excellence in this post, Joan. Thanks. r
This is amazingly well-written. I'm sorry it isn't fiction. Thanks for a thought-provoking read. Rated.
This was fabulous, Joan. It read like a scene that could play out right alongside an episode of Mad Men. You captured the feeling and nuance of the era, where divorce was a prop or vehicle for something else that was going on during that troublesome and shifting decade. And it was. Gorgeous. One of your best.
Great story. Do you remember that Barbra Streisand orders Dubonnet on the rocks in The Way We Were? Your writing here is so great, you shared the pain in the details. R
With your deft touch, this intrinsically sad story had me smiling through the reading. I enjoyed the wistful sound of your words. You are soooooo good at this writing thing, Joanie.

Interesting to see this snapshot of that part of you and your mother's life--the fact that she ordered a drink and did not drink it, the new hairdo and lipstick washed away. Like an experiment she had no intention of completing? You were so observant, at an early age--or maybe it was hypervigilance.
oh, if only divorcing lessons really ended that quickly...
Cartouche took all my stuff - this was a really artistic interweaving of details about the time and the fashions and deeply personal insight about why the lessons didn't "take" for your mom.
I just felt a sense of sadness for your mother. It is said if you do not "do the work" you either retreat or just fall into a relationship similar to the last one as it is all you know. You have to embrace the "new normal" rather than shy away from it.
Your writing, unembellished, makes this powerful. r.
The details, the specificity, the complete lack of sentimentality make this a very powerfully written and moving piece. A nonjudgmental portrait of a complex woman in a difficult situation, and the response of an innocent child who just wants, like any child, to have a happy and normal life. This is excellent.
I like what Jonathan said about your unembellished writing style...powerful stuff. Thanks for inviting us into your memories.
Divorce in those times was very different from now, and you capture that time from your perspective. Reminds me of the Sally perspective, from Mad Men. Beautifully crafted, Joan.
I will be back later to answer comments. I have never seen the show "Mad Men" but now I am dying to! The sixties were like no other decade...
Your mother sounds like a strong woman. It's sad that her marriage failed her.
Sorry your mother never found her peace. I do admire her commitment to good taste. I see versions of your mother and of Jeanette in my office all the time - the cultural markers may have changed, but the various coping mechanisms don't look much different.
I never knew anyone that was divorced when I grew up. I knew about gay people etc but I think if I had known I would have been shocked.
We were so sheltered in those days.
Great story Joan and rated with hugs

What Cartouche said.

Plus, that little girl. I can't imagine that she wanted to sign up for that particular set of lessons. She's wanting a mom that feels confident in the world, etc. So the other lessons flow a little more smoothly.
Your mother handled this unarguably unpleasant lesson with the same natural grace and diplomacy that she instilled in her precious daughter. How perfectly you described those fashion styles! I have photographs of my own mother in just such outfits....oh, the teased hair! Yikes!
I adore the way you write. Congrats on the well-deserved EP!
Glad to see this is an EP. Really engaging writing, and a unique viewpoint . . . I like getting to know young Joan through these pieces.
Cartouche and Ann stole my lines, dammit, and I'm afraid to read the others for fear I'll plunge straight into thinker's block. I particularly like the understated ironic ending.
You wonderfully captured the time. I had the same neighbor: "as my mother explained in a whisper, a divorcee".
Years later, turned out my mother needed the lessons, too. But our "Jeanette" had already moved away.
Joan, this was so good, I felt like it was a movie plot. Really. Maybe you could develop it. Well done. R
Beautifully and painfully written, Joan, from the Dubonnet to the virgin cigarette. Very artfully done. One of your better pieces, I think.
My mom was a sixties divorcee also. She suffered through having zero female friends and high maintenance hairdos for exactly one year before marrying up again. Finding a new husband became her full time job.

What a difference three decades made. My divorce set me free to meet myself. I have always thought about this with my mother, timing. How I am living the life she wished for herself, but could not have because of politics and culture. It seems there is this with you too. A long and happy marriage, a close relationship with a wonderful daughter who makes you proud...things your mom could not have.
Henry James said that a writer is 'She upon whom nothing is lost.' Well, he said 'He', but so it goes. I think he must have meant you, though of course he didn't know you. Wonderful insights here, even with so much sadness.
Divorcing lessons.....I'm still learning....even after a couple of years. Thank goodness for the modern age, where I don't feel like a loser for being divorced. Well, sometimes I do, but not like it would have been back in the day. I wonder how I would have felt if I'd been you. My parents needed to be divorced, but didn't until 1985. By then I was out of the house. I guess they spared us the divorced childhood. Hmph.
You are a beautiful writer, a wise & compassionate observer.
with writing like this you could write for mad men--and since you don't watch let me tell you that is a huge, well-deserved compliment.
Betty is the mom that everyone loves to hate--she is all about appearances, and her heart is off-limits, especially to her children. She just doesn't seem to know any other way to be, and it's very easy to imagine her cutting off her daughter if she were to marry outside of her race.
If you watch, you must start with season 1.
jeez can write!
you command small details so well, that the story feels full & real.

"I knew that she would need to learn some other names of drinks to order if she were to be successful at this."

I agree with Cartouche. This does seem like an episode of Mad Men. Rated!
I love the way you told this just the way it happened, no frills. So frightening stepping into the role of 'divorced' family, so poignant the role Jeanette played and the contrast between her and your mother. So sweet and sad your mom's 'just trying it' and the knowledge that no matter how she tried she couldn't, leaving her only bitterness and isolation. So telling that you found her beautiful and she couldn't wait to jump into the shower to wash it all off. You've done it again Joan, delivered something gritty and powerful so softly and gently.
Oh and I love the irony of the title: 'divorcing lessons', so much like 'dancing'.
I love the way your beautifully crafted words soften the deep sadness that is at the heart of this. It's heartbreaking for a child, no matter what age, to have to worry about her mother.
Loved this on so many levels. Sure brought back some nostalgia for me about my mother, her aprons (god, I loved her aprons) and her special enduring relationship with my dad. Your mom was a stud and admirable for her healthy decision to divorce. That was huge in the 60's and quite brave. My mother donned a bee hive once as well; short lived. It was a real shocker when she bleached her perfect auburn hair to platinum blonde to please my dad. How could he let her do that?! Oh well, divorce lessons don't come very easy, especially since we, nor our parents, ever took marriage lessons. Both are equally as daunting. Loved this!
I totally know a Jeanette. These people used to scare me, but now I kind of appreicate their fire. Everyone has a purpose. This post is fabulous, as always. Congrats on the EP!
What a great snapshot of those times. Your mother was actually very brave though its a shame she didn't really get back into enjoying life. Lovely writing taking the reader back there with you. R
The beehive hairstyle worked for me. I've been married 8 times.
lucky me. i got here after both cartouche and ann nichols. ditto.

go watch mad men from the first episode of the first season. it's incredible. and enlightening. and more. xo
Linnn, thank you. I never thought my mother looked prettier than that day she came back from the beauty parlor. She couldn't be someone I guess she wasn't.
Rita, yes, I think she knew those things weren't going to change her life in any way.
Persistent Muse, I appreciate that you could feel her unhappiness in spite of her efforts.
Alysa, thank you for reading and commenting.
cartouche, thank you so very much. You bet I'm going to find Season 1, episode 1 of Mad Men. The decade defined me and re-defined me as a child growing up in it.
Bea, I saw the movie, but don't remember the drink.
Lezlie, I thank you for such kind words. And I'm glad it made you smile...
sophieh, "Like an experiment she had no intention of completing?" Yes! I think she just did not know who she was, but did know that this experiment was not for her.
Reinventing oneself is a difficult task. No matter how hard we try, the real "us" always finds a way to take back control. Divorce is hard on so many levels and everybody in the family suffers. Beehives and pink lipstick can make you look different but they can't change your mindset.
Great writing (AGAIN!), Joan!!
That Jeanette sounds like my kind of gal. ;-)

This is another great piece of writing. How do you do it?
You did a great job keeping Young Joan's perspective & understanding consistent throughout.
As I read your piece, Joan, I forgot I was reading. I was there and I could see it all happening before my eyes. So much was different then. At least if felt different, especially if you were the little girl watching, listening, worrying, hoping. You take me back and make that world real for me again. You seem to write so effortlessly because your words are so natural and real and raw. Thinking of you as I read.
As everyone has said, this is a moving and excellent piece. I was the little girl watching from the stairs and the knock-down-drag-out fights continued as they kept it together "for" the children (God, I wish they hadn't, but I would have chosen my dad). In the '60s, more kept it together badly than risked the whispered divorcee title and taunts. My mother wouldn't have known how to be either.

You triggered a great many memories dear heart, a high compliment!
Wow, your way of telling your tale from your child's mind's eye is just so brilliant. Your stories leap lively off the page...
My Mother defended Good Taste endlessly...I thought even then she might have been envious she couldn't pull off a more dramatic look, so she wrapped herself that judging cloak.
Joan, what an interesting perspective on divorce, and that time/women's roles/style.
One of your best, Joan. Very well told from your child's perspective. ~r
What an observant child you were, to be able to write this (so well) years later.
Joan, I think this is one of your very best pieces. Superbly written, and of a time. Just perfect!
I'm sorry that she became bitter, but at least she didn't try to be something that she wasn't confortable with. This could be a short story.
It's all been said. Always love your stuff.
Loved this Joan. The child narrative tone. Your Mum getting advice from a divorcee. We're the same age so the tone of the language you conjured up is bang on. Your Mom with her beehive hairdo being demolished in the shower. The trying of drinks -- reminded me a bit of my Mum and the one time in her life when she had a Tom Collins. I agree with Rita on the excellent "recall of another time and place."
Oh this is such gorgeous writing about such a horrible "lesson." Another thing we have in common. But I so wish she'd tried again and found love as my mother did. As you did.
Although these stories about your childhood are so painful, Joan, I love how you write them through your young girl's eyes. It really should be a book.
It depends on where you come from about Scotch being a man's drink. But, I do realize that many here in America believe this to be true although I can drink Scotch just as well as any man and not be drunk. Most likely because the women in my family drank it.

This helped me to understand some things since I am really considering divorce. On my street, I do not think things have changed much. I am sure if I get divorced that every tongue will wag and my children will be embarrassed although they are miserable now and my son the other day begged to not have me pick his father up before we went to out to eat.

Why does life have to continually give us such heartache I wonder. You know although I grew up with drinking being a given. I hardly drink anything now. I think the suburbs does that to you. It makes you a little mellow.
You evoke that time so well, Joan. Women who were divorced or, godforbid, worked were just so...whispered about. And I will never forget the day Francis McCarraher's mother wore pants to Church. I just love how your piece has made my mind go back...
very vivid images. It plays like a movie in my head.
This is beautifully written Joan with a painful undertone. How difficult it must have been for you as a young girl and how difficult it must have been for your mother back in that decade. You mention a Scary Drinking Dad which reminds me of my own father - my mother hung in there - but I would have preferred if she hadn't - for her own sake. Congratulations on the EP. Well deserved.
My mother was also that odd fish back then. I think she rather relished being able to do as she wished (with constraints of children, of course). She certainly never made even the hint of a suggestion of considering changing her status.
Oooooo, your mother and my mother should've gone out for a drink together. Except my mother never drank. Or "let her hair down." Maybe she should've. But she sank into bitterness and isolation like your mother did. And that is probably why her daughter went so WILD out there in the world once she left.

Just joking. But...watching her retreat did have a lot to do with my choices in life, to be sure. So her lesson to me...was not to let loss steal my joy.

Your lesson to me is that remembering our mothers, warts and all, is sacred, healing business...

Thank you!
sorry i got to this so late
an amazing piece of writing
your words are soft and raw and so fitting
so talented, my girl, so talented
Joan - outstanding as usual. Too tired to comment. Goodnight.
Hm. No wonder your mother remains so bitter that you remain so happy in your marriage. She is clearly so concerned about "appearance" that she put "happy" in the trash. Your dad was no doubt handsome or popular when she married him, yes? Now you've gone and made a happy life for yourself with a BLACK man? *gasp*

Good for your daughter she has you to teach her life lessons. And to demonstrate them for her. ~r~
Wonderful piece. Such evocative details.
I hope I don't seem callous by focusing on the writing instead of the sentiment, but this piece is such a well-crafted slice of 1960's life and the conflicted roles of women that I wish you'd consider expanding it a bit and getting it published elsewhere. Excellent, excellent, excellent!
Joan, I don't know what to say. It is so easy to run out of superlatives with you. R
I really got an image from this period...My mother was a bad divorce role model...she never dated again...I wish that she had had a Jeanette.
What tender memories, you write so well expressing them.
rated with love.
I can see by the #s this piece touched others as much as it did me. I haven't read comments, but I imagine all the good ones have been taken, so I'll just sit here and appreciate your excellence in silence. ::pressinglipstogether:: (ih wz wndrfl)
You certainly weave quite the tale. rated
had the same impression as cartouche: like something out of Mad Men.
I enjoyed this. Reminded me of my own 'divorcing lessons' from my mom.