In January, The Guardian posted an article written by 57-year-old Graham Russell, whose parents, in their 80s and well into their retirement had just divorced.
Graham’s immersed perspective on being from a “broken home” – albeit at a much later point in life than usual – is touching; he understood his mother’s plight for “her freedom, her own life”, as well as her regret, and his father’s disappointment.
As written in The Guardian:
“Should I have my bed along here or under the window?” A question I asked my parents numerous times, over the years, as they helped move me in and out of various student digs and flatshares. Now here I was helping my mother move into her very first flat.
It had been a long time coming. Thirty years or more. But last year, my mother finally left my dad – at the age of 81.
Statistically, I suppose I am just another child from a broken home. But I don’t know if that really counts when you’re 57. I flew the nest when I was 18 and my parents have moved several times since then. But even though I now have my own life there is still the child within me secretly yearning for family life to be like those sugary American movies.
Growing up, it never even crossed my mind that my parents might split up. They married in 1955 in a time when “Till death do us part” really meant that.
Mum worked in an art shop in the village, while Dad was a self-employed photographer who spent his days in the photographic studio he had converted from an out building. Both natural entertainers, my parents were leading lights in the local dramatic society and seemed to enjoy working on DIY projects together, redecorating our large, rambling house in the country in wood panelling and floral wallpaper.
I don’t ever remember hearing them row. Except for one night. I was reading with my torch under the bed covers when I heard raised voices below, and loud discordant words pierced my cosy world. The next morning I walked downstairs expecting to witness some kind of devastation, but the cornflakes and milk were on the table and all was as it should be.
I don’t know when the tide turned in their marriage, but looking back I can see the signs were there. I recall muffled conversations about the housekeeping money followed by my mum telling me that she was asking around for a job. One evening I helped her go through all the paperwork for the new house they were buying – one of the signs that their relationship was becoming more functional, like two separate individuals who had agreed to live under the same roof.
Officially I knew my parents weren’t happily married when I was told not to send happy anniversary cards, more than 20 years ago. It was the adult version of finding out that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
By then I was working as a television art director for Brookside and in my first major relationship. Learning that marriage wasn’t for ever hit me hard.
But I still kept their anniversary date in my diary, secretly hoping that one day things might change and I would get the chance to seal an envelope addressed to both of them.
We still acted like a family. I got joint Christmas cards from them (whereas now I get two). But when I saw them, I sensed they were like two ships that had drifted apart, only coming together when I visited.
My mother’s move was more of a relief than a shock, mainly because I knew it was coming. It was no secret that she wanted a different life, because she spoke to me about it all the time.
She talked about a life of freedom. Of being around inspiring people. Of being able to invite friends round, of rescuing animals, of film and theatre. Of having a space of her own.
There was even a “dress rehearsal” of sorts – 27 years ago, she left home for a while and became a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy couple. I bought her flowers for her “new home” and One is Fun recipe book for my dad. But it didn’t give her the freedom she wanted so, after six months, I collected her, packed her belongings in my car as if it were the end of college and drove her back home.
My father seemed to take it all in his stride. His dormant cooking skills came alive and he seemed to enjoy talking about his latest curry or steamed pudding creation. I never knew how he felt as I never heard him complain about the situation. When I asked him, he simply said it was a shame. He silently acknowledged my mother’s decision and let her go.
On her return, they went back to being two people living under the same roof with their own separate dreams and agendas, united by their golden retriever and a rescued cat. Occasionally, joint decisions had to be made but these were done with the minimum of interaction or discussion.
In recent years, I have taken my mother to view various retirement homes and flats. I’ve accompanied her to Citizens Advice, pensions meetings and council offices to make sure her finances were in order, in preparation for her big move.
In those meetings, I could see how much she wanted her freedom, her own life. The one time she was close to finding it, she had pulled back. The hope and disappointment was emotionally exhausting for both of us.
I guess I didn’t appreciate what a tremendous amount of courage it takes to leave a marriage, particularly in retirement.
As an only child, I am torn between longing to be part of a family unit and desperately wanting them both to be happy and fulfilled.
And, after 57 years, I’m having to relearn my role as son – not only as they live apart but because they are getting older. I should divide my time evenly between them, but I admit I haven’t always succeeded. I spend more time with my mum because she is more outgoing; she shares her feelings and her life with me. I could say we are more similar but I don’t believe that is true as I can see the introverted, creative, self-reliant part of Dad in me too.
The morning my mother rang to say she’d found a flat to move into, I could hear excitement, fear, determination and relief in her voice. “Do you think I should take this flat?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question, though, because this time I sensed that she had already made her mind up and just needed my seal of approval.
We viewed the flat together and measured windows, chose furniture to bring and made shopping lists. Within a week she had arranged the removal and moved in. It happened so quickly I wasn’t able to get time off work to help her.
A year on, my parents are settling into their own separate worlds. When I visit, we all stay at my parents’ house for a night or two and then disperse like satellites into our own lives. My mother still keeps an eye out for my dad; she visits most weeks to do his washing and a bit of shopping, then hops on the bus back to her own peaceful sanctuary.
One thing I have learned is that “Till death do us part”, can be a tough sentence when your soul is yearning for freedom. One thing my mother has learned is that she wished she had done it sooner. Much sooner.
Whether my parents are together or separate is not the issue any more.
It’s their happiness.”
Image also via The Guardian.