Last Christmas I played a competitive game of Scrabble with my mom and dad. My dad was openly cutthroat, groaning every time I landed a double-digit word score. My mom was silently competitive, shuffling her tiles around and making “sacrifices” to open up the board for the rest of us. And I was a combination of both— very good at Scrabble, the one to beat in any game I’m in, vacillating between brash gloating and diffident humility. As I sat there and waited for my mom to take her turn, I felt a sweeping sense of wholeness. These were my parents. These are the two people who created me. I am both of them in equal measure. And look, we all share this same passion for Scrabble! For a moment, I was hit with a wave of remorse. This was how it could have been. This was the snapshot of the Life That Got Away.
My parents divorced when I was two years old. I have no memory of them ever being together, of us ever being a family. My earliest memories were of being shuffled between homes, of double Christmases and double Thanksgivings and the lonely sense that I could never have everything I wanted under one roof. I felt my dad’s envy when my mom and stepdad had the money to buy my older brother and I presents that he couldn’t afford. I felt my mom’s sadness as my dad picked Keith and I up on Christmas to take us to his house. I had to leave my mom’s presents at my moms. My dad’s at my dads. And, whether it was Christmas or Thanksgiving, there was always the bartering. “Well, you can have them on Thanksgiving, but I get them Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.” It was mildly less torturous during the rest of the year, but the holidays activated a territorial sense in both my parents and being the sensitive, intuitive kid that I was, I felt all of it. I felt the regret. The pang of disappointment. The fear of failure. The resentments.
I felt an alliance with my dad. Mom had left and remarried within a year of the divorce. Four years later, she had a baby. Mom, my stepdad, and the baby had a family, a full family. Keith and me were the ones coming and going, coming and going, always coming and going. Two days with mom. Three days with dad. One weekend with dad. The next weekend with mom. Back and forth. Back and forth. There was a rhythm to mom’s home, like Keith and me stepped into a life in progress. But with dad, it was like his life begun and ended with us, as if when we weren’t with him he simply switched off until he was needed again.
So, an alliance was formed wherein I protected my dad ruthlessly. If something happened at my mom’s that I thought would make him feel inadequate or jealous, I kept it from him. I knew he struggled with money, so I was always hesitant to show him what my mom had been able to buy me, even if it was small or insignificant. I never wanted my dad to feel bad and this was exacerbated by the holidays when he was prone to loneliness. He didn’t have the full family or even an extended family. It was just him— Keith and me were nearly his entire life. And I resented my mom for her insensitivity to that, as if going off and creating an entirely new family was of no emotional consequence to my dad.
Because of this, for over sixteen years Thanksgiving and Christmas were always fraught with some sort of inevitable drama. I wouldn’t want to spend Thanksgiving at my mom’s one year or I’d want to leave Christmas early in the morning to go open presents at my dad’s. I was almost always trying to escape my mom’s and get back to my dad’s, which felt like my true home. I wanted to be back in my own room in the house that felt like it belonged to only my brother and me with my dad who wasn’t strict, who let us watch rated-R movies, who took us to Green Day or Nine Inch Nails concerts, who treated us like adults he could trust even when we definitely were not.
While the holidays were always a time of year I anticipated, I also approached them with apprehension. Because, while others may have been able to enjoy this time of year with their families, I felt like the constant mediator to everyone’s feelings at all times. Especially as I became a teenager, it became about mitigating everyone’s hurt or volatile emotions all the time. Would my stepdad have another angry outburst? (He was prone to rages and it was awful.) Would Nick, my younger brother, cry and feel left out when Keith and I inevitably leave to go see my dad? Would my mom give me that look of remorse as we left with dad? Would my dad feel inadequate at the little amount of presents he could give us as opposed to the way mom spoiled us? Dad’s income steadily declined as mom’s steadily increased, so by the time I was in high school, the tree would be bursting with presents at my mom’s and all my dad could afford was a quick shopping trip to Target on his Visa. I never cared all that much about the presents, but I could sense the inadequacies, the envy, and it was an impossible terrain to navigate as a teenager.
When I left for college, the familiar feeling of apprehension always returned when I drove home for the holidays. A sinking pit of nervousness would bubble up in my stomach when I saw I was about 50 miles away from home. We’re grown now. We can all choose who we spend time with and there’s no court-mandated custody arrangements.
Then, something like a miracle happened some time in my early twenties. I don’t remember exactly when or exactly how this came about, but one year for Thanksgiving my mom invited my dad to have dinner with my stepdad, Nick, Keith and me. Or, maybe she didn’t invite him. Maybe I did. Or Keith did. But, however it transpired, we all had dinner together. And it wasn’t awful. It was actually kind of great. By that point, my dad had become friends with my stepdad. There were no more lingering feelings of anger between my mom and dad. It was as if collectively, as a family, we all decided to put pettiness aside and come together before the back and forth ruined any chance of it.
That same year, my dad came over to my mom’s for Christmas. By that point, my mom had bought a house with my stepdad, while my dad was living in a small, two-bedroom apartment instead of a home. Now, my mom’s house felt like home and my dad was living in an apartment I’d never lived in with him. Whenever I visited, I stayed at my mom’s in my old room and would meet my dad for dinners out or to catch a movie.
The holidays were all together from that point on. Dad was always invited over. He would spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with us, unless he had to work. At first, it was strange, then it became nice, and now it’s normal. For the entire decade of my twenties, whenever I did come home for the holidays, we all spent it together. But, it was still cautiously. My dad would come later on a Christmas, spend only a few hours, and duck out. Keith and I would still spend a Christmas Eve or another night celebrating with just him. There was still that division.
Until last year.
Maybe it was age. Maybe it was time. But the first Christmas of my thirties was spent without any noticeable division. I’d never had a glimpse of the life that could have been, because my dad had always spent the holidays with all of us in an attempt to spend more time with Keith and me. That was always the deal. He didn’t want to lose time with us, so he compromised. But last year, there was a miraculous shift. My mom and dad connected as if they were long-lost friends, reminding me that they were once a partnership, all those many years ago. I had never in all my life spent any time with just my mom and dad doing any sort of activity. It had just never happened.
So, while the game of Scrabble seems so insignificant, I was surprised by the feeling of nostalgia I had for an experience that never existed in my memory. I longed for the family that got away. I had a glimpse of what it would have been like to have two parents, one home, a unit, no back and forth, no mediation. I saw what it would have been like to grow up knowing myself as a reflection of them. What it would have felt like to belong in one place. To know where home was and where I could return to.
In their passion and competitiveness for Scrabble— something I never knew about my mom or my dad— I saw myself. And that was such a unique experience because I had never been able to see where I had come from. I had never perceived them as my parents. Only mom. Only dad. Singular. As if I had been willed into existence from nothing, instead of created from two people.
It was a bittersweet moment. And a miracle that this ragtag family of six can come together as one. I was nostalgic for the life that could have been. But, also grateful for the life that was happening then. The coming together. No more back and forth. Just the one family. Finally.