I needed lumber, and Charlie was the guy who delivered it, which is how we ended up standing in my garage chatting about hometowns and families until, out of nowhere, we started talking about life after divorce.
Divorce that, in both cases, sliced up our families many years ago. No matter. One word and the mood shifted.
Over the years, I’ve come to think that parents like us have a sort of radar for one another. We are wired for the trigger words that can pop up anywhere – in a checkout line, on an airplane, in a garage on a sunny afternoon. You’re chirping along with someone you don’t even know, when a just-so phrase escapes the lips – my ex-wife ... my son’s father ... it was my turn to have the kids – and faces change in the time it takes you to say, “Me, too.”
Both Charlie and I are in happy, long-term second marriages, but all he had to do was refer to a “broken home” to get my heart pumping.
“Don’t call it that,” I pleaded.
“I just mean,” he said, letting his sentence trail off.
I know. Lord, I know.
We were virtual strangers acknowledging a sad and enduring camaraderie. Once divorced, always divorced. Just ask our kids.
“My wife and I work hard never to bad-mouth my ex-wife,” Charlie said. “We want my son to love his mother, no matter what.” It’s not always easy, he admitted. But it’s what’s right.
It’s also what will keep Charlie’s son in his father’s orbit when he gets to decide where he spends his time. Once our kids are old enough to choose, they’ve got no interest in lugging around somebody else’s grudges.
Maybe it was the way the sun was hitting the changing leaves on the tree near where Charlie and I were standing. Could have been the crisp breeze pinching our cheeks. Suddenly, I was aware of timing. As I listened to him talking about his son, I couldn’t help but think about the annual gridlock that soon will turn otherwise-decent parents into combatants who will leave their children’s hearts in tatters.
Usually, I wait until just before Thanksgiving to write my annual column encouraging separated and divorced parents to make peace over the holidays for the sake of their children. Really, that’s too late.
Autumn is upon us, bringing with it a glorious landscape too often obscured by a new round of anxiety for millions of children who can see trouble up ahead. Now is the time to lay plans that will ease their fears.
No child wants to pick between parents, and feeling forced to do so can haunt them for years, if not decades. Talk to any divorce lawyer and you’ll get an earful about Jekyll-and-Hyde clients who claim superior fitness as parents but see no contradiction in their attempts to use holidays as opportunities for revenge. Their stories are full of raging grown-ups and sobbing children.
Ho-ho-ho and happy Hanukkah to you.
This is an issue that has been close to my heart since December 1994. That year, my 7-year-old daughter suddenly burst into tears as we wrapped Christmas gifts for friends and families. This was our first Christmas as a single-parent family, and she was distraught because she had no gift for me. The more I tried to assure her it didn’t matter the harder she cried. She was inconsolable.
That night, I called a close friend, who volunteered to take my daughter shopping the next day after school. It was a little gift, small enough to hide under my daughter’s coat as she ran into the house, but the smile on her face cautioned me never to underestimate the importance of normalcy for a child living an upside-down life.
So here I am, making my annual plea to parents who no longer live together. The holidays are coming. The sooner you set plans the sooner your children can take a long, smooth breath. Be fair. Be a parent.
Put your kids first and you will always come out ahead.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.