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James R. Stout

Skipping Stone

            There’s a poignant scene from the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter” where Loretta Lynn’s father is with her at the train station prior to her leaving to join her husband in Washington State. Levon Helm portrayed her father and he remarks that he lost “those young years” of Loretta’s because she got married so young and was moving away. In a sense, I understand how he must have felt, but for a different reason and circumstance. One thing that is rarely talked about is something that happens to those of us who go through a divorce. Oh, we bemoan what “he did”, “she did”, and all the perceptions that may or may not be real which we come to believe were the reasons for the divorce. I know that there are cases of people who almost from day one are not the person they portrayed themselves to be during the dating phase. I’m not talking here about those cases or the abuse cases etc. What I’m talking about is the kind of divorce that comes after many years of marriage and is not directly related to infidelity, abuse, etc.

            I don’t think that I am alone here. We tend to judge the years of a failed marriage based on after things started to go south. I think that many of us simply do not want to have fond memories of the marriage. It means having to face some facts. Maybe both parties were at fault. Maybe one cheated late in the marriage, but the other might have not been the kind of spouse they should have been either. The simple fact is it’s just not a black and white thing. I think a huge part of healing after the end of a marriage is accepting two major things. First, we weren’t perfect even if we weren’t the one who “cheated” or baled on the marriage out of boredom (middle-aged-crazy syndrome). We contributed to the demise of the marriage too. Maybe we didn’t contribute as much as the other person, but we contributed, nonetheless.

The second thing is just as hard to admit and to reflect upon. No matter how bad the marriage got by the time it ended, there were some good times, perhaps even great times in the marriage. For some of us those times were short-lived, but for some of us they lasted for several years. I’ll get back to this in just a moment. But let’s talk about the most common reasons that a marriage goes bad. Finances are at the top of the list. Perhaps things are tough financially early on. Frankly, they usually are. I mean, we were young and inexperienced. But sometimes it draws us close together in those early days. It’s a “you and me against the world” kind of thing. But when the years start to pile on and things don’t get much, if at all, better financially the stress starts to work on us. It can affect people differently. I’ve known some people who just roll with the flow no matter what comes along. But even that can be a problem in a marriage when one person is like that and the other one isn’t. The one that isn’t starts to hold resentment towards the other one for not having more “ambition” or not being “smart enough” to figure a way out.

Another reason at the top of the list is we stop communicating. I was married 27 years. I remember about 6 months before we had the talk and decided to divorce my wife and I were watching TV one night. An advertisement for a new movie came on and my wife made the remark, “I could never get you to go to a movie like that.” I was floored. My first thought was, “she doesn’t really know me anymore”. I actually wanted to see that movie a lot. I might not have 20 years earlier, but I had matured. I had changed. But somehow or other my wife hadn’t noticed. Why? Because we had stopped communicating. It was easier for my wife to continue believing I was the same person I had been 2 decades before than to know the me that I had become. I have no doubt I was just as guilty as she was in some respects. When we stop having meaningful communication on a daily basis, then we start to assume things. We even make them up to fill in the blanks.

            Let me tell you a little story. When my wife and I were first married and for about the first six years we certainly had some bad financial times. But we still communicated. We still commiserated with each other. We still made plans together. Plans that may or may not have worked out, but we were on the same page and were working together. Despite some hard times during those years, there were some great times too. I remember a day in December of 1978 that became very special to us. I’m not afraid to admit that it still holds fond memories for me. But something you need to understand before I go any further is that I am by no means “hung up on my ex”. You would have had to experienced the entire 28 years we knew each other to fully understand why, but the fact is I’ve been divorced from her now for 16 years and while I have fond memories of some of our time together, I am a much happier person today than I was for the last 15 years of that marriage.

            Back to that day in December of 1978. I had the day off and decided to drive up to the old farm. My wife asked me if I could look for a small, perhaps 4’, Christmas tree for the office she worked at. There were only three people in her office, her boss, another secretary, and my wife. So, I took along a handsaw and part of my plan was to find her a tree. Now, given we had a 1977 Chevrolet Nova, it wasn’t like I would be able to drive across the pastures to get to some trees. I had to park at the entrance of one of the pastures and hike a long way to a thicket of trees. Well, I searched high and low in those trees and they were either too tall, too big, or just not good for the purpose intended. Finally, I found a rather full-bodied pine tree the right size. It wasn’t a great tree, but I figured it would do for my wife’s office. Let me say that I fully understand NOW a pine tree is not ever going to make a good Christmas tree. A cedar perhaps, but the fact is there were no spruce trees that I could find.

            I cut that poor tree down and proudly walked back to the car with it. The car was a hatchback and when I laid that tree in the back, I noticed that the trip from where I cut the tree back to the car had been rather hard on that now “not-so full-bodied” pine tree. Well, it was getting late and I needed to get back to Houston and drop the tree off at my wife’s work before they closed at 5 p.m.

            I got to her workplace a little before 5 and went inside to proudly tell her that I had their Christmas tree out in the car. So, wifey and I go out to the car and when I lifted that tree out of the back there were more pine needles on the floor of the hatchback than on the tree. I was horrified. I looked at my wife and she suddenly burst out laughing. In fact, she was laughing so loud and hard that it was drawing attention. Attention that I didn’t particularly want at that time. After she finally got calmed down, she said, “It’s a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree!” Another 5 minutes of laughter ensued, this time we me joining along. I had to admit it was the quintessential Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.

            A felt like I was walking a gauntlet carrying that tree into her office. It was a big place with a lot of employees in other offices. It was closing time which meant that most of them were filing out to go home. The looks ranged from “What the heck?” to huge smiles and snickers. I carried that tree into her office and the secretary that she worked with started another round of laughter. Well, I have to give them credit. They decided to make the best of the situation. From what I was later told many people from neighboring offices came to see the pathetic Christmas Tree with its limited decorations that sagged several inches on the few branches that were left. But you know what? We remembered that tree for years and always thought about it at Christmas time. Now, that was not a bad time at all. As I recall it actually endeared me to my wife at the time.

My point of telling that story is that even though the marriage eventually ended and there were some really bad times along the way, there were also some good times from that marriage.  Something I don’t ever like to hear is for someone who is now divorced to say, “I don’t think I ever really loved him/her, or I don’t think he/she ever really loved me.” I’m man enough to admit that I loved my wife. But finances, lack of communication, some hard times, a lot of worrying, and the reaction to these lead to the end of the marriage. I chose to deal with it by hoping things would eventually get better. Let’s call it the “Ostrich Effect”. She chose to find comfort elsewhere. I don’t hate her. I don’t even dislike her. We have limited interaction, but we do have 5 grandchildren together with one on the way.

            I started this blog entry talking about that movie scene and the “lost years”. Perhaps one very hard thing to deal with after a marriage dies is the fact that there are some lost years. I’m not talking about all the years we were not a team and had lost the “you and me against the world” mindset. I’m talking about the good times. Sometimes those years get tossed out with the bad years when the marriage is over. That’s a sad thing. Those good years shouldn’t be lost. I’m not going to write them off just because of how things turned out in the end.

            Not long ago my oldest granddaughter was visiting, and I was looking for a picture of me when I was in my early 20’s to show her. We set there as I was going through a briefcase full of pictures. She picked up one of the pictures and said, “Is that you Paw-Paw?” I looked at the picture and it was from that Christmas of 1978 at my parent’s house. The extended family was there with some cousins and my grandmother. The first thing that I thought of when I held that picture was that 6 of those people have passed on. My mother, my father, my grandmother, my aunt, my uncle, and my sister Barbara. The second thing I thought of was how young we all looked and how happy we all were in that picture. Everyone was smiling and meant it. My granddaughter stared at the picture and asked who that “girl” was standing next to me. I said, “Well, that’s your Grammie”. The look on her face! But there we were in the picture with our arms around each other and cuddled up the way young married people do. My granddaughter said, “What happened Paw-Paw? Why didn’t ya’ll stay together?” Well, I didn’t want to go into the whole thing and frankly it wouldn’t have been appropriate. So, I just told her that sometimes things don’t work out and when she’s older I’ll explain a little bit more. She was satisfied with that answer. For now.

            To all my friends and to anyone reading this that has gone through a divorce. I urge you to dwell on the good times rather than the bad times of that marriage. Maybe you have a good reason to feel betrayed or hurt. But I’m willing to bet that there were some tender moments in that marriage. Some happy times when you loved each other. Remember those times. No, don’t get hung-up on your ex, but try to accept what transpired and choose to remember the good moments instead of the bad moments. Get past the bad times and move on with your life. But when on occasion you think back on that marriage, try to remember the love that you once shared. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement for a “Summer of Love” CD collection, but love all you need. No, you won’t forget the bad times, but let them be like a stone skipping across a still lake that finally disappears beneath the water, never to be experienced again.

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