Last year, when my mother was recovering from back surgery, she sent me a photo of my father in her kitchen in Sydney, making soup.
To anyone else, it would look like an image of an ordinary domestic moment: my father standing by the sink, crowded with the usual clutter – sponge, vegetable peeler, bottle of Morning Fresh, knife poised above a half-head of cauliflower on the chopping board. But to me it was like looking through a window into another life, one we might have shared if my parents had stayed together instead of separating 30 years ago. Somewhere outside the picture’s frame: my stepdad, who would be playing drums for my father at a gig that weekend, and my two teenage half-brothers.
My parents met in 1983 when my mother’s former high school sweetheart took her to see a notorious underground punk band in Melbourne. Back then, she was a 19-year-old art student with a delicate gothic beauty; my father, the lead singer, asked her out for coffee. The rest, as they say, is history – which, over the course of my childhood, gained the quality of myth.
Of the facts, I know this: in 1989, my parents married. In 1990, I was born. Sometime between my second and third birthday, they separated, officially divorcing two years later after all of us had moved to Sydney. I have no memory of my parents together as a couple. Instead, I have artefacts. Exhibit A: an album of songs my father wrote about my mother when they lived in country Victoria for a time before I was born, where he recorded acoustic demos at home and she painted large-scale canvases down the road in a church they rented as her studio. Exhibit B: an intricate pen and ink drawing by my mother that chronicles the early years and milestones of their love in a series of tiny frames, like stills from an unmade movie. . In one, they drive down the highway to that house in the country, their giant dog Mister Bear taking up the backseat of my mother’s Volkswagen. In another, they return to Melbourne, my mother with a baby in her arms, the sun shining down upon them.
I also don’t remember how, or if, they explained their separation to me, but the reasons would have been difficult for my young mind to grasp: the breakup of my father’s band, the death of their dog, my mother’s undiagnosed postnatal depression. And so, as a child, I obsessed over these objects like a historian, trying to piece together the story of their love and pinpoint the cause of its undoing. I saw my parents as two star-crossed lovers, like the characters in the black and white movies I watched at my father’s house; Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, pulled apart by forces beyond their control. To me, their love was a fabled thing, all the more romantic because it hadn’t lasted.
Now I am older, and have been married for seven years, I know that it takes more than romance to sustain a functioning domestic life with someone – particularly, perhaps, once children enter the picture. But growing up, it was hard for me to understand why my parents’ marriage had failed when it was clear that they had been very much in love – I had the evidence to prove it. Adding to my confusion was the fact that they still seemed to like each other, unlike the divorced parents of several of my school friends who couldn’t stand to be in the same room. My parents spoke regularly on the phone. We spent family occasions like my birthday together, forming an unlikely quartet after my father moved in with his new partner the year I turned five.
This formation would continue to change shape over the years, as different partners came and went. Sometimes, my older half-brother, who was born when my father was 19, would be present with one of his girlfriends. Eventually it expanded to include my stepfather and the two sons he had with my mother, 10 and 15 years my junior. We confused waitstaff at restaurants when we all went out to eat together. To an outsider, it would have been difficult to figure out how we were all related, but it was clear that we belonged together. We were a family.
My parents’ post-divorce friendship showed me that family doesn’t have to be a fixed and rigid composition. Our home wasn’t broken – it was malleable, expansive, capable of being remade. I know it hasn’t always been easy for everyone to find the grace that this requires. These transitions have caused periods of tension, as well as undeniable heartbreak, times when my mother swore she would never speak to my father again. But eventually one of them must have called and the other must have answered.
In each other’s company, my parents are comfortable and easy in a way that betrays an old, familiar intimacy. They laugh often and talk about the past, shared memories from years ago once again made present. It would be easy to mistake them for a couple who have discovered the secret to being happily married for decades.
“It’s good how me and Dad are the same in our hearts,” my mother texted me recently. “Nothing really changed that much.” Nothing – just new partners, new children, new homes built in separate cities. But I understand what she means. Throughout it all, my parents have remained in each other’s lives. My father still performs the songs he wrote about my mother all those years ago, and she keeps that drawing tucked away in a precious place.
When I was younger, I was mystified by love’s failure, but what I see now is all the unexpected ways love can endure – through children, through art, and the stories we tell. These days, I no longer think of my parent’s relationship as an ill-fated romance, but as something closer to a long, ongoing conversation.
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