I meant to write something deep this month. Really, I had all of these ideas about my daughter’s growing sense of her own family history, anecdotes about some of the sadness she’s been feeling. And believe me, in life, if not on the page, I’ve been very focused on the complicated and somewhat unexpected emotional fallout that T. has experienced since my ex-husband’s move back to the town where I live with my current family. But see, there’s something that keeps getting in my way when I try to write the deep essay.
It’s a vase—a yellow ceramic vase with a matte glaze and cream-colored swirls, designed and made by an artisan potter based in Massachusetts, purchased to fit the built-in bookcases in the living room of the first house I owned as an adult.
And a rug—a graphic Oriental with deep burgundy and bold blue accents that I bought a dozen years ago from one of the vendors in Washington DC’s Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, not far from the apartment where my parents lived when they were in their twenties, the first home of my life.
Oh, and a carved wooden box designed to hold betel nuts, purchased during an incredible vacation in Thailand, a marble ceiling light fixture from a little store near the Delaware River Gap. and two antique table lamps from a shop around the corner.
I picked all of these objects over the years and loved each one. Now they are all in the living room of my ex-husband’s new house, beautifully displayed and integrated along with his stunning new couch, brown leather chairs, impeccably painted walls and well-appointed throw pillows. And his wife. And, far more often than ever before in her eight years of life—my daughter.
I know there’s a deep essay in here somewhere if I could only focus on something that mattered—say, the wife and the daughter. But all I can focus on is the stuff. And, pardon my selfishness, but it’s my stuff. If George Carlin’s famous line about one person’s stuff being another person’s shit could only be true in this situation, then I would be running through my ex’s pristine new house right this minute with a wheelbarrow, carting away everything I ever chose.
Alas, it’s too late. My past life has become part of someone else’s brand-new décor.
Five years ago when my ex and I split, I was mature and selfless in letting him have all of the stuff he wanted. At the time, I understood that if we fought over objects as we dismantled the life we had built together, we could lose sight of the bigger picture: the need to rise above our anger and bitter disappointment in each other to keep our daughter as safe and loved as she could be given the circumstances we’d forced upon her. After we sold the house that had been ours, he and I spent a total of just one hour going through every room with notepads and pencils, recording who would take what. Other than a single item from the Thailand vacation that I loved beyond reason (a painted folk-art statue of a Burmese peasant with two heads: one woman, one beast), I allowed him to choose anything he wanted. It seemed to matter so much more to him and it seemed so worthless to me to argue. I just wanted the whole mess of divorcing and dismantling to disappear.
The stuff disappeared too. My ex didn’t have room for most of it in his New York City apartment so much went into storage. And that which was present at his place was haphazardly thrown together, thing piled on top of thing. His apartment was too cluttered and messy to display anything to its best effect. When I came by over the years to bring my daughter for visits, I barely noticed anything that once belonged to me. It became, Carlin-esque: my ex-husband’s shit.
So the first time I brought T. to the new house that my ex now shares with his wife, my heart almost stopped when I saw that beautiful yellow vase prominently displayed on the mantle. And yes, I’m fully aware that fixating on the fantasy of carting away my vase is clearly a less-fraught substitution for my fantasy of carting away T. herself, for refusing to leave her for overnights in this beautiful new home that belongs as much to her as to my ex and his wife.
What I had wished for since my divorce had finally come true: T. was now in possession of two happy parents within blocks of each other, two secure homes that, while never ever a replacement for her permanent loss, would at least provide that bigger picture of safety I wanted back when I refused to argue over the stuff. But the surprise, the shock, of seeing that stuff again five years later has forced to the surface my latent selfish desire for my stuff that I was too mature to indulge in when T.’s father and I split up.
Weirdly, to me, I can accept the ambivalent and intensely complicated feelings that come with sharing my daughter and with seeing her struggle to understand that she has two families, not one. Yet I can’t accept my belated wish to run through my ex-husband’s house wielding a machete and screaming, “Give me back my stuff or I’ll chop your pretty new furniture to matchsticks!”
That two-headed Burmese statue I kept has more meaning than I imagined. She is me, half-woman, half-animal, conflicted over my primal need to claim my territory. She stands in my own living room, integrated into my own new family, new husband, new stepdaughter, new décor. But now I look at her two faces with both of mine and think—we have long memories.
Perhaps this essay about stuff turned out to be a little deep, after all. Perhaps by mourning the loss of a yellow vase, I’m finally allowing myself to mourn the loss of a marriage as well.
Read last month’s column: Across the Universe: Musings from the Evil Stepmother.
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