Our series of personal essays by contributing writers has, so far, delved into the topics of breasts and travel. The next few essays will center around a theme that, for better or worse, everyone can relate to: parents. Here is Una LaMarche, whose parents’ divorce did not go down as her Disney-loving kid self might have imagined…
Like so many kids of the analog 80s raised on repeated viewings of the same beat-up VHS tapes, the movies I owned as a child helped to shape my understanding of the world. Walt Disney’s original 1961 The Parent Trap was my favorite, and best, teacher. I knew most of the lines by heart and took its plot points as gospel (for instance that everyone in California travels on horseback, or that 12-year-old girls are naturally great at cutting hair). I didn’t care much about the parents themselves, because to my pre-pubescent eye they were unfathomably old and boring, but I took the film’s overall premise — that divorced people could fall back in love extremely quickly if presented with just the right series of delightful pranks — completely for granted.
I was able to swallow that fairy tale ending with conviction because I grew up with relatively stable parents. I say “relatively” because for a while my mom had a job making magic wands, and my dad wore a Speedo on family vacations, but other than that they were mostly normal, and very affectionate, both with me and my sister Zoe and — much to our horror — with each other.
“Ew!” we would exclaim if they started kissing. They loved it.
“Don’t you want your parents to want to kiss?” they’d ask coyly, doubling down with a tight embrace.
“Not! In! Public!” I would hiss, my breath whistling through the rainbow-colored braces adorning my clenched teeth.
When they argued — which they did with about the same frequency as the kissing – it was a steady simmer rather than a full boil. Mom was possessed of a more volatile temper (having reportedly once thrown a full bowl of pasta at Dad’s head before I was born), but I never saw much worse than the exchange of curt sentences, heavy sighs and loaded pauses over the kitchen island. And so even as the years passed and I learned the hard way that some of The Parent Trap was a blatant sham — my long-lost twin was not awaiting my arrival at Quaker sleep-away camp in rural Pennsylvania, for example, and a pixie cut ended up making me look more like Velma from Scooby-Doo than Hayley Mills — the movie’s central hypothesis remained untested.
It happened the summer after I turned 25. Dad called a meeting with Zoe and me, just the three of us, which was suspicious and caused us to speculate as to whether he might secretly be dying. When we arrived at the house he had set out wine, even though Zoe was still underage, and an artful tray of pita wedges surrounding a mountain of baba ghanoush.
“Mom and I are separating,” he announced, filling our glasses. My sister looked at me; I looked at the pita wedges. It was better than dying, but worse than most other things. Dad sat stiffly and cleared his throat. “We just can’t do this anymore,” he said. The living room seemed to sag, heavy with silence, and I all I could do was gulp my wine. This was not supposed to happen. We were supposed to be the Swiss Family Robinson.
Afterwards, Zoe and I went upstairs to her bedroom to tell each other meaningfully that Everything Was Still OK. We lay on the floor, listening to Neil Young on an endless loop.
“When one door closes…” I said, in a shell-shocked attempt at profundity.
“What?” Zoe asked.
“Another one opens,” I said, “Isn’t that the saying?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I guess.” Zoe was more weary than surprised; she had been the one living in the house for the past five years as their marriage unraveled, while I was off at college. “At least we’re grown up… kind of,” she said, frowning.
My parents had been married for 27 years, and we were all — technically, if not emotionally — adults. By that time, DVDs had replaced VHS tapes and Lindsay Lohan had taken over The Parent Trap franchise, anyway. Nothing would ever be the same.
It never occurred to us to try to get them back together. Because the thing about divorce that comes into focus when it happens is that it’s not a whimsical bad decision, like bleaching your eyebrows. You don’t make such a hard, life-altering choice unless you know it’s the right one. The only way in which my parents’ divorce even came close to the Disney version, ultimately, was that it felt for awhile after the split like all of our identities had been mistaken.
Dad rented an apartment, started playing tennis and bought a lot of sherbet-colored furniture. Mom poured herself into work and cleansing the house with a smudge stick. I moved in with my boyfriend; Zoe went to college. We were venturing out into the world as new people, setting off to find ourselves and a sense of belonging, at the exact same time. It would have made a great John Hughes script if not for the age difference.
There’s no tidy ending to any story in real life, no swell of music and closing credits. But ten years later, we’re all doing fine. I have channeled my neuroses into a writing career. Zoe is a NICU nurse. My parents are at least as happy apart as they were in their best times together, and have fostered a pleasant friendship that luckily didn’t require the setting of any traps. And even if I’d wanted to trick them into liking each other again, who has that kind of time?
Some of us have movies to watch.
(Illustration by Kristen Solecki for Cup of Jo.)