Divorced...but Not Defeated

September 29, 1991|By Susan Dundon

My father's advice was that Feb. 14 be ruled out as a wedding date. "It could ruin Valentine's Day for the rest of your lives," he told us. We all laughed, my mother, my fiance and I. As it happened, we were married just before Christmas, in 1964. A few weeks shy of our 20th anniversary, he left. "We want different things," he said. "It's no one's fault."

I was alternately sad, relieved and excited. One minute, I would be diligently working on my newspaper column. I'd write a line, a line I liked. I might even be smiling. And then, suddenly, I'd find myself in the bathroom, sobbing and burying my face in the worn, familiar folds of the flannel robe that hung from the hook on the back of the door. By evening, with the best of my middle-aged means, I'd have metamorphosed into the belle of the Personals, ripe for fun, romance and adventure.

In fact, I did feel adventurous. The separation had not been my idea. But even in my more subdued moments -- such as when I realized that on my erratic earnings as a writer, I couldn't qualify for a loan or a mortgage, and that it was only a matter of time before I was Ratso Rizzo, sick, poor and living in a cold, filthy room, dreaming of Florida -- I knew that within my grasp was an opportunity. No matter what, things were going to change. There were only two possibilities. I could take what had happened as a challenge, or as a defeat. I decided it was better not to be defeated.

For support and insight I turned not to "The Road Not Taken," nor any of the other currently "helpful" books, but to Miss Manners, whose "Advice to the Rejectee" better suited my temperament. " . . . the proper behavior for someone whose heart is breaking," she advises, "is to be cheerful, not pained; ungrudgingly forgiving, not accusing; busy, not free to be comforted; mysterious, not willing to talk the situation over; absent, not obviously alone or overdoing attentions to others." Besides which, as only Miss Maners could put it, " . . . a broken heart is a miserably unpleasant thing, making one feel ugly and unattractive, an enormous disadvantage in courting others."

I wanted to be good at being separated. And what may have been an act at first, slowly started making its way under my skin. My healing began with painting the kitchen. To exorcise my husband from the premises, I chose a surprising shade of pink. I forged ahead, spending time with my friends, working, puttering in the perennial bed, and nurturing my youngest child through her last year of high school. Then, just when I was beginning to think fondly of what it would be like to hold hands with a man again, I began dating.

It was, as I had anticipated, an unsavory, if youthful, process. An otherwise mature 40-year-old does not slip easily into the role of an adolescent. It was a little odd, kissing my date good night at the door while my daughter sat up inside waiting to ask whether I had had a nice time. I was not the pliant young wisp I had been at 17 -- which was the good news. Threats of being a "prude" would do little to create an atmosphere of negative self-esteem. Nor would a replay of the statistics -- eight women to one man. If I didn't have a place to sit down when the music stopped, it was OK. The bad news started at the neck and went all the way down. In preparation for one of my first outings as a single woman -- it was a squash game; I had been billed as an athlete -- I spent an inordinate amount of time tracing miles of broken capillaries and other vascular disasters with a stick of Erase. But for all its inherent difficulties and, I have to admit, unexpected delights, dating was one thing; divorce, as I discovered, was another.

One afternoon last September, my phone rang. The familiar gruff but not unfriendly voice of my lawyer said, "Congratulations. You're a divorced woman."

Congratulations. Such an inappropriate word for how I felt. Congratulations are for things one can be proud of. I was anything but proud. I felt emotionally devastated, and ashamed. When the papers came, there was a phrase, "irretrievable

breakdown," printed in the upper right hand corner of the decree. It seemed a rude and incorrect diagnosis that sounded like it belonged to some other couple.

I never truly believed that it was irretrievable. Maybe I, we, let it go. Maybe we didn't try hard enough. Yet, there was something else about that phrase, and the fact of the divorce, that deeply disturbed me, something that would have been the case no matter what the circumstances. I did not like the word divorce, or the image it evoked, though there was a time when divorce -- and divorcee -- had a chic, Wallis Simpson ring to it. Now I was appalled. It was not how I saw myself, as someone who got divorced.

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