Not Civility, but Just Damned Good Luck: on Divorce and Friendship
Last night, Victoria took us out to an elegant dinner at Mozza Osteria, a rightly well-regarded Mid-City Italian restaurant.
“Us” included me, my children, and Eira, their mother. All enjoyed a splendid multi-course meal, my fourth and fifth wives split a bottle of wine, and we made much of he who was the reason for the occasion. David turned 10 yesterday. (The Bonnie bunny boy’s chief birthday present will arrive this summer, when he goes to a shelter and picks out a dog of his very own.)
I posted the requisite photos on Instagram and Facebook. Folks wrote nice comments, and invariably remarked about the relationship between Victoria and Eira. Eira and Victoria danced together at my wedding to the latter; as different as they are, these two wonderful women are not just allies but genuine friends.
There is a family tradition at work here: my own parents were good friends over the 33 years between their divorce and my father’s death. My mother and my stepmother enjoyed – and still enjoy – each other’s company. Eira’s parents also divorced when she was very young, and remained very fond of one another until her papa left this world.
For years, when describing the end of my parents’ marriage, I declared it not only to be one of the more amicable separations on record, I called it “the civilized way to divorce.” Over the years, I’ve returned to that adjective again and again – and used it again last fall when I described the way my entire family embraces both Eira and Victoria and the way these two women delight in each other.
Just recently, I have come to realize that one does not have to be especially woke to recognize that paeans to “civilized behavior” can be cruel and hurtful to those who do not -- or cannot -- share your particular post-marital arrangements. There are plenty of people who wish their parents had been able to get along after a bitter divorce, and I’m keenly aware it adds insult to injury to suggest that if only their progenitors had been better bred, everyone would have gotten along swimmingly.
Manners exist, my grandmother said, to make other people feel comfortable. That’s how it should be, anyway – but in reality, manners are often deployed as a weapon to make those who did not grow up with certain advantages feel small. Manners, wrongly used, can be exclusionary. (I am told they can even be a tool of white supremacy.) If I say that Victoria and Eira are “ever so civilized” in their mutual cordiality and sincere affection, I imply very clearly that the inability for current and ex-wives to get along is some sort of moral failing. I am not sure that’s a fair conclusion to draw.
The other problem with describing Eira and Victoria’s friendship (or the enduring closeness between my mother and stepmother) as “civilized” is that it suggests that these women are enduring something for the sake of appearances. “Civilized” connotes a duty and an obligation rather than a choice and a pleasure. It reduces something real to something performative. It presumes that these women are playing parts rather than acting upon authentic emotion. (One might point out that to suggest that playing a part is incompatible with real happiness is to posit a false dichotomy. It’s possible to take deep pleasure in playing a prescribed role, and both the ladies at the country club and the kinksters down at the BDSM dungeon can affirm this truth!)
My mother and stepmother deserve credit for their relationship. Eira and Victoria are owed the same. When someone says, “Your family is so civilized,” I’ve learned to reply, “I don’t know about that. I do know that we’re ever so lucky.” It is always better to attribute to a stroke of good fortune, and the freely-offered generosity of loved ones, what others might attribute to virtue.
I offer no criticism, overt or implied, of those who cannot get along with their exes, including the other parent of their own children. And while there is an undeniable family tradition of both divorce and post-marital cordiality, it is not a sign of superior breeding. It is simply damned good luck.
There is an old family custom on my mother’s mother’s side. Before the birthday flames are blown out, those who wear rings should place them over the lit candles. This adds to the power of the birthday wish, and it ensures that all those who put their rings over the candle will gather again at the next birthday. David had only one candle on his gelato last night, and Eira’s rings, Victoria’s rings, and my wedding band all encircled it.
And here we all are.