Our divorce story begins with my parents telling my sisters and me that they were getting a divorce while we were sitting in the backseat of our hot car, outside of the county fair, in our small Indiana town. We went in anyways. Afterwards, those crispy Midwestern pork tenderloins, hot and slathered in cheap mustard, between hamburger buns half the size of the meat, did nothing to settle our stomachs. Nor did fried dough and powdered sugar. In my memory, this was the time my Dad threw up in a trashcan after staggering off of the tilt-a-whirl, but that was a different time, years later. I must want to ascribe to him, on that day at the Wayne County fairgrounds, a physical manifestation of grief.
Dad moved down the road, and still came over for Christmas for the first three years or so, until both parents remarried and traditions changed. New families took shape, more children were born, and the three-to-four house holidays became, and remain, old hat.
Dad had the advantage at making time feel special, by virtue of having less of it. He moved into an old schoolhouse owned by my Mother’s mother, and it seemed both magical and haunted. My sister and I would slide across the hardwood floors in our skate-socks; we weren’t old enough to understand that the practice of wood-skating was not ours alone, made up in that strange half-house. Dad’s bed was small, with wooden posts and a blanket with the Cincinnati Reds’ insignia, choices that would not have stood in the house he and my mother had shared. We would clamber onto the bed and wake Dad up, every other Saturday, even though I thought the bed was haunted by the old scary story monster Tailypo, since it was the only wooden bed I’d ever seen. We would eat fish sticks, canned beef stew, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. If we stayed over on a school night, Dad would send us to school with bag lunches consisting of Bob Evans brand sausage patty sandwiches and extra Oreos.
On the weekends, we would keep the pull-out couch folded down. Dad would make us popcorn, heavily salted, with more melted butter than it seems we allow ourselves once we’ve grown. Accompanying the popcorn was red “fruit punch,” and old creepy-crawlers on TV, mostly Kevin Bacon running from flesh-colored worms, erupting out of the ground. Popcorn still doesn’t taste as good as it did when Dad made it for us.
Weekdays were spent at Mom’s house. Once we outgrew our babysitter, we would head home to assemble our own after-school snack before Mom got home from work. We would mix two ramen noodle packets, chicken flavor, in a big Tupperware bowl, and the three of us would gather around it and share, eating off of the coffee table in front of the TV. We were pepper freaks, and by the time we reached the last noodle, we’d have to throw out the rest of the black-flecked broth. I guess we still ate dinner afterwards, when Mom got home, but I have a better memory of what that built-in kitchen table looked like, before she got remarried and we moved up the road. I often think of a gruesome picture of my sister sitting at that table with a startling black eye; she had fallen, hard, on the sidewalk, and I had never seen Dad so scared. I haven’t since, either.
I would later notice darker shadings to these instances, like how I always preferred Dad’s elaborate bag lunches without appreciating the ones Mom had to make me four times more often. Or like how, when I was in college, I was ashamed at the jealousy that I felt about Mom cooking at home more often for my little brother than she did for us. We see the flaws that are convenient to see until we feel like adults ourselves; one parent is shuttled into the role of the active agent, and the passive parent becomes the one you long for. Even under the best circumstances, separation is as hard as it is common. I wonder if there’s a better way, a better language, to acknowledge how we come together in honesty and intention, and fail anyway. When we are young, we are all broken by something; we are unformed. It is through this breaking that the world opens up, and the space for possibility is created.
I’m nearing the age where new traditions will arise, just as the old ones have cohered seamlessly. Christmas is one of my favorite days of the year, because I always travel back home, and I feel so in unison with all of the moving parts of my family, who rarely get to occupy the same rooms at the same time. I have five siblings, and some are still young enough that their personalities change from visit to visit. But, on Christmas day, I feel assured that everything will take a known shape.
The day will start early, opening presents at Mom’s. My Stepdad will score the event with a Christmas playlist, saying little, but snapping picture after picture. My little brother is ten, and uncomfortable with the brunt of the attention placed on him. He will smile shyly if approving of a certain present—often the one labeled “From Santa,” the best one. In photos, he will look almost angry, unless he’s caught unaware.
We will have coffee, wearing our new flannel pajamas, opened on Christmas Eve, and Mom will make us cinnamon rolls, like she does every year. We will eat one, balancing it on a napkin, biting in while it’s still too hot and getting the sticky icing on our fingers. We always demand cinnamon rolls, even though we eat brunch as soon as we get to my Dad’s house. When we were younger, we’d head over in our pajamas, but we feel too old now for such a luxury. When we get there, my Stepmom will have made egg casserole with sausage and cheddar cheese, an annual delicacy, in my mind, and a lighter option too, usually the broccoli quiche. Even though absolutely nobody cares, I will try to be secretive about it when I eat a second piece of casserole.
Again, presents will be opened, but the stockings are the best part; my Stepmom wraps each stocking stuffer individually, beautifully. We will take our time with these, trying to savor them, but I’m never the last one to finish unwrapping. In the last couple of years, we’ve started opening a bottle of wine a little earlier, a sure acknowledgement that some of us are now fully formed adults, visiting, but not staying. We will soon travel back to our own homes, in different states. The later part of the afternoon is dedicated to absolute sloth, abject relaxation. I will get as much talk in with my younger sisters, now in high school, as I possibly can, hoping they will tell me secrets that will make me feel like I understand the daily rhythms of their lives. I will wonder if they see me as “cool,” or strange, or vaguely maternal, a self-consciousness that I imagine is priming me for the social anxiety of parenthood.
Eventually, though we won’t quite be hungry, we’ll devour all of the staples of a holiday meal: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Mom will make dinner too, and we will eat at both houses. There will be more wine, and more rum. There will be peanut butter pie, and red berry pie, and more pumpkin pie. There will be movies on cable television. There will be more turkey, salted, stacked on rolls. There will be too many people, growing hot, in a small space, like that day in the car outside of the Wayne County Fair. We will want to stay anyway. There will be more talk, until the middle of the night, when everyone is quiet, and my brother-in-law has fallen asleep on the couch. Then it will just be me and my sister, drunk and totally full.
Katlyn Williams is currently a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Iowa, studying contemporary American literature and culture with a focus on the identity politics of science fiction and fantasy works of art. When she isn’t reading or writing, she enjoys watching horror movies, eating popcorn, and trying to explain how it is possible to be both an avid feminist and a horror fan. She urges you to tweet her your pop culture recommendations @katy_earl.