My mom had always promised herself that she would never get a divorce. “Til death do us part” was serious business to her. My dad had told her he wanted a divorce, but he couldn’t get her to agree or sign the papers. No matter how drunk, unruly or mean he got, she refused. He finally told her that the Smiths were getting a divorce too, and he wanted to be with Mrs. Smith, my mom’s best friend. My mom was devastated. Not only was she about to lose her husband, she had just lost her best friend as well. He wasn’t just asking for a divorce. He wanted her to say that she wanted the divorce. I don’t remember why that was so important to him, but it became his mission. According to my mom, he kept her up for 3 nights straight, talking to her, and telling her she had to do it. It was psychological warfare, and it worked. She signed the papers.
I had known my mom’s best friend – we spent many times at her house. I thought she was a very nice lady. Her and her husband were best friends with my mom and dad. We even spent some holidays together. I didn’t care for the husband too much, but I really liked her.
Even after the divorce, I still liked her. But I didn’t like the way she and my dad snuggled with each other the few times I visited him at his new apartment. It felt very wrong to me. It was much too soon for him to be able to wrap his arms around another woman in my eyes. He eventually moved in with her. She got to keep her house after her divorce, and then I was visiting him at her house, which felt very strange. She was also his nurse/receptionist at his practice. I don’t remember if she was there first, or became his girlfriend first, but she ended up working for him until the day he died.
The situation of Bev and my dad living together was all accepted without question. It was their life and they were clearly going to do it their way. But one day I learned that things had changed between them. It wasn’t the change that affected me so much as the way I learned about it that broke my heart.
I went to visit him due to some holiday obligation, and I was playing the piano at their house. I was particularly drawn to the two goblets that were on the piano that hadn’t been there before. They were beautiful with jewels and engravings. I asked where they got them. No answer. I asked again. No answer. I was clearly being ignored. My dad stayed glued to the football game on the TV. I knew he heard me. I knew everyone in the room heard me, but they acted like I was invisible. That was nothing new. What was odd, was my persistence. I really wanted to know about those brass-looking glasses. My brother John finally came over to me and said, “those are bride and groom glasses.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, when two people get married, the bride and the groom. They were special wedding goblets.”
“Who got married?” I asked. I was perplexed why they would have them, instead of the married couple. Then it crossed my mind that maybe they were planning on getting married!
He looked at me stone silent. I never knew a moment that he couldn’t speak. I waited.
“Dad and Bev.”
“What?” I didn’t think I heard him right.
“They got married.” He walked away.
I was in disbelief. My dad got remarried and I didn’t know about it? Not only that, but my brother, who was only 18 months older than me knew about it? Everyone seemed to know but me. No one told me. No one invited me. I had no idea when they got married. Had it been the other day? Was it last month? Last year? I was crushed. I really liked Bev. She was now my stepmother. But no one told me she had become my stepmother. I felt so unimportant. So not considered. My mom had said many terrible things about Bev, but I never agreed with her. I knew that was her battle, not mine. I took everything as it appeared according to me, not what someone told me. I didn’t let anyone tell me how I should feel about anything. I never took sides. But this moment told me that there were no sides to take. I didn’t belong to this family. My dad did not care to include me in this new set up. I left the room and never spoke a word about it. But I certainly kept the significance of the “not telling me” close to my heart.
No telling what my mom’s anguish was after those 3 nights of hell and signing the divorce papers. Her eldest son moved out to live with his dad, who was a terrible influence – allowing him to do drugs and party, her husband made her do what she promised she would never do, and she lost her best friend. But there was another blow that came soon after. She got a phone call that made matters even worse – her mother had died.
It was Halloween, and my sister, brother, and I just had one of the best times of our lives trick or treating. My sister was 12, my brother was 9 and I was almost 8. My sister took us out so she dressed up too. We laughed the hardest we had ever laughed – probably needing the release. And I bet my sister enjoyed being a kid again.
Mom came to pick us up – we were in a neighborhood that had a lot more houses and kids running around than our dead end street. Once we got in the car, we were loud – yelling at each other – hyper from all the sugar we had eaten. My mom told us to be quiet, but we kept on. She lost her temper and yelled, “Shut up!” We were silenced. She never said “shut up” to us – that was against the rules in our house. She said she had something to tell us. She seemed very grave.
“Grandma Koopman died.”
“What?” my sister gasped. “How did she die?”
“She went to sleep during her nap time and never woke up.”
We were in shock. Grandma Koopman always took a nap every afternoon. I could imagine her lying down with her arm draped across her forehead, like she always did, not knowing that this was the last time. It was a peaceful way to die, but she was fairly young - 74 years old. The Halloween celebration was definitely over. We were silent the rest of the way home.
The funeral was a few days later. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone dead before. It was surreal. She laid there in a coffin, peaceful, and yet, didn’t seem like my Grandma. They had put all sorts of make-up on her that she never wore. I was sad, but I didn’t cry. There were lots of extended family there, but I didn’t know most of them. I was either too young when I met them and didn’t remember them, or I just never met them before. My mom was the youngest of 5 children, so some of my cousins were already in their 20s. We rarely got together with this side of the family.
My brother John came up to me with a look on his face that said, “Julie! You’re never going to believe this.” He very quietly whispered to me that he overheard our aunts and uncles talking. They said that one of our cousins found her in the closet. She hung herself with a pair of pantyhose. I didn’t believe him. He always made up stuff. I thought it was a rotten thing to say, and it creeped me out. What a terrible image he put in my head. I clearly stated “That can’t be true.”
“No, it is. Jimmy found her – he wasn’t even 16 years old yet. Can you imagine that? It could have been one of us that found her!
He knew I still didn’t believe him. I knew I definitely didn’t want to believe him.
“Mom wouldn’t lie to us.”
“I think she did.”
Now I was beginning to wonder if it was true. That’s not something he would have said very easily.
It wasn’t until months later that I found out for sure. John asked Mom in front of me if Grandma died in her sleep. He told her the story he had heard at the funeral home. She admitted it was true - she didn't die in her sleep. Her mother had hung herself.
“You lied to us?!” I couldn’t believe it. I thought my mom never lied.
“I thought it would be easier for you.”
Here’s another significant moment for me as a young child gathering data: ‘Note to self: Don’t believe anything anyone says. Trust no one.’ It’s amazing how an experience like this, when the mother was trying to protect her children from a horrific situation, turned out a lot worse than what she was trying to protect them from. This formed into a belief that no one will tell me the truth all the time; and I’ll never actually know for sure if it’s the truth – no matter how well I think I know them. This was a tough one for me, who felt the truth was very important – it meant integrity and trust. I also saw it as “she didn’t think I could handle it.” Well it was a lot harder handling it finding out the way I did, and I had to handle that on my own. This was another experience of having to work out things that an 8-year old shouldn’t have had to work out.
It came out a few years later that my mom thought it was her fault that her mother committed suicide, even though she was clinically depressed for most of her life. The timing of her death made my mom believe it was because of the divorce that she did it. Or at least the divorce contributed to the suicide. My grandma took care of my brother and I overnight on the weekends at least once a month once my parents separated, whereas before, we stayed there maybe once or twice a year. We got to know her a little better, and we really enjoyed our time together. The last time I saw her she gave me a harmonica. She never gave us things before. I had no idea this was a parting gift, but it was clear she had planned on it. Maybe we were too much for her? It never occurred to me at the time, because she always made us feel welcomed. God bless Grandma Koopman.