Divorce? Not.

Divorce was unthinkable for me.  I had no problem with divorce — for others.   Indeed, while Mama was embarrassed about her divorces, I applauded her.

Mama lived in the Bible Belt, where sex outside of marriage was not socially acceptable.  So, marry is what Mama did.    She was smart and could have gone to college.  Indeed, Granddaddy offered to send her—if she didn’t marry my Dad.  But Mama grew up in the romanticized 1950s where the American dream for most working class young women was to be a mother and to stay at home or perhaps become a secretary.  The image of a nuclear family was too powerful of a draw.   I certainly would never fault Mama’s choice.  If she had made a different one, I wouldn’t be here.

Mama didn’t stay single for long; children need a father after all.  But to her credit, three out of four times, she knew when to fold ‘em.   And fold’ em Mama did.

Still, I could not imagine myself as divorced.  The stigma was too much to bear.  But by September 1993, life with Paul had surpassed that burden.  I had grown weary of a life walking on egg shells, trying to avoid setting Paul into a tirade.  Something had to give.

I thought things would improve now that I had a good paying job, but Paul was no fan of change.  My courage was strengthening as my friends, old and new, expressed support and concern.

A brain storm provided the answer.  One evening, I worked my idea into our after dinner conversation: “I think we should go to marital counseling.”  Paul listened to me describe how unhappy I was and why.  He was willing to work on things — but not with a counselor.  This was not the first time we had had this conversation.

I floated my new big idea, with a positive spin:  “How about we separate for a while, and explore with a counselor how to move forward.”  “You want a divorce?” Paul retorted.  “No, I just think that having some space would help us work out some of our problems.  It could even be fun, like we were dating again.”   I smiled and waited to see how this idea landed.

My “hey let’s try this” approach did not land well.  Paul was adamant, you leave and that is it.  Our marriage will be over.

So much for that big idea.


Paul was an anchor in law school.  When I didn’t believe I was worthy to be among my classmates, he convinced me otherwise.  He supported me and encouraged me in all endeavors.  Paul, however, wanted no part of my endeavors.  He rarely accompanied me to events, small or large.  “You go and have fun,” he would say.

Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at Duke Hospital, a job that provided a living wage and good benefits.  It didn’t take long, however, for Duke to become Paul’s new object of anger.  In our home, Duke became the evil institution – a bit awkward given I was pursuing two graduate degrees there.

I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to study at such a grand university.  I loved walking the beautiful, gothic campus, sometimes pinching myself to make sure that this trailer-park girl was really a Duke student.  Sure, I had philosophical differences with the traditional, Socratic delivery of legal education at Duke, which I found to be oppressive.  Yes, I bristled at the excesses and the obsession with high paying law firm jobs.   But I could not relate to Paul’s intense anger.  Duke was, after all, providing me with invaluable training and opportunities, with the means to pursue my calling.

Paul also continued to harbor anger at institutional religion.   Since high school, he had planned to be a preacher.  He was a very good preacher too.  But the Southern Baptist Convention had left Paul behind when it turned fundamentalist, and Paul could not see another avenue to a career as a preacher.

Paul and I joined Watts Street Baptist Church when we moved to Durham, our first church home as a couple.    Watts became a sanctuary for me, a place where I could both worship and be an activist.   Such was not the case for Paul.  Despite sharing the values and mission of Watts, Paul struggled to attend, often opting for his “bedside” place of worship.

Paul was miserable, and as you know, misery loves company.

The First Years of Marriage are the Hardest, Right?

I married my best friend, Paul, on June 2, 1994, a year after we both graduated from college.   He was the first person in my life to challenge me to think critically about my beliefs, and he didn’t shy away from creating stress to force this re-examination.  This process was not enjoyable, but I concluded it was good for me.

Paul was known by those who knew him as an angry man.  There was the righteousness indignation he expressed at injustice, which was admirable, but there was also the anger that was less understood and more diffuse.  We didn’t share many interests beyond intellectual, but he was a nice guy, smart, supportive, a Christian, open, liberal, a feminist.  He made me a better person.

Our first two years of marriage were hell.  Seminary was tough on Paul.  He was angry at the fundamentalists, angry at the Church, and angry at all the annoying things he could not master – from learning Greek to balancing the checkbook.   Paul yelled a lot, but never hit me.  He once twisted my arm and pushed me onto the bed, but that was the closest he ever came.  Paul preferred to take his anger out physically on brick walls.  He would hit them with his fists, creating a bloody mess.  I guess the pain was a release.

We were poor, but the way that students are poor.  You know brighter times are ahead.  We had some good times:  movies, meals out, and things got better.  We bonded in our struggle to survive.

I knew I was settling for a less than ideal marriage, but I had never seen one of those anyway.   Though I would not have admitted it at the time, I didn’t believe I could do any better and feared I would do a lot worse.   I was confident that Paul would never leave me, which I found reassuring.


I called my Dad out of the blue in 1988.    We hadn’t spoken in several years, and I wanted him to know that I had started law school.  Calling him was a way of dealing with a nagging burr of unhappiness.

Dad seemed happy to hear from me, which was surprising.   Most of our phone calls over my life were about me needing money and were painful as he explained how he didn’t have the money to give me.   Those were the days when fathers weren’t required to pay child support.   It was a terrible position to be in as a child.

I figured this phone call would be a relief to him, since law school sounds like a ticket to financial independence.   Ironically, Dad was finally doing very well for himself, and for his third family.   He wanted to fly me down to Orlando to see him, a first.

Funny how we adults can suddenly be transported to being a child.  Wow!  My Dad wants to see me.  How cool is that?  I was 26 years old.

Dad and I spent a lot of time on that trip talking and crying.  I expressed my feelings of abandonment, and he expressed sorrow for the pain he had caused.  He wanted to do better, and I wanted him to do better.  But there were a lot of broken promises in our past, so I tried not to get my hopes up, even as we lounged by his in-ground pool.

Dad took me to his local watering hole to show me off to his friends.  Occasionally, he would look at me and say “I can’t believe you are my daughter.”  “And you did it with very little help!” he would add proudly.    The “survival of the fittest” tradition was passed on.

Connecting the Dots

Dad didn’t come around much as I was growing up.   We only lived together for about three years in Panama City, Fl., before Mama left him.  He stayed in Florida, moving eventually to Orlando.   Mama and I headed to Rome, Ga., then Pensacola, Fl., and then back to Rome.   Mama’s home base was Rome because her parents lived there; they were our safety net.   Dad hated Rome, though it was his hometown as well.

I stayed connected to Dad through his mother, Mama Cotton, who still lived in Rome.  Mama Cotton owned a little neighborhood grocery on the run-down side of the railroad tracks, i.e., where the black folk lived.   Mama Cotton was a tough woman, not liked by many — including my Dad.  She lived alone in the back of her store, having run off her fourth husband long ago. Born in 1896, she was always old to me.

Mama was committed to making sure I maintained connection with Dad’s family.  Bless her heart.  When we were living in Rome, Mama would “force” me to go with her to visit Mama Cotton every few months.  Like a normal teenager, I resisted going to sit in an old house in a “sketchy” neighborhood while she and my grandmother talked about people I didn’t know.  Later, I came to appreciate Mama taking me on these forced visits.  Otherwise, I would have never come to know this strong-willed, independent woman whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose hand cast a long shadow over my Dad.

Dad was the youngest of a large brood of kids.  Mama Cotton had given birth to over 10 children, though quite a few didn’t survive long.  Dad was the only child of Mama Cotton’s third marriage, which also didn’t survive long.

Best I can tell, there was nothing happy about Dad’s childhood.  Not only did he grow up poor without a father in a rough part of town, but he was terrorized throughout his young life by his half-brother, T.W.  T.W. routinely threatened to kill Dad, sometimes with weapon in hand.   When T.W. , often drunk,  came looking for Dad, he would run.  Dad jokes about how he was skinny and fast as a kid.  You know, survival of the fittest.

T.W. was well known by the Rome police.  Legend has it that while he was serving time in a prison in Atlanta, he managed to escape and take the warden’s wife hostage.  In any case, years later, T.W. was shot and killed by his own son.  My cousin had enough of his father beating on him and his mother.  The police looked the other way.

Yep, this family history explains a lot about my Dad.

Father Void

I began working for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services in the summer of 1993.    Finally, I had arrived at my destination – public interest lawyering.  As much as I loved being a student, I was ready to settle down.  But for a year and a half break between seminary and law school, I had been attending school full-time since kindergarten.

My family was very much ready for me to settle down.  My birth family had seen me off to college when I was 17 years old.   For fourteen years, every time I spoke with my grandfather, he had two questions: 1) you working? and 2) how’s the weather?   Granddaddy came from a long line of farmers, so I guess those were very important life questions to him.

I was a “good” kid, so I never dreaded Granddaddy’s questions.  I had been working since my freshman year in college, through seminary, until law school.  In law school, I worked only in the summers, causing me to be a bit creative in answering his questions during the school year.  But I was always able to point to something that resembled work to him and almost always able to tell him about the weather.

My husband, Paul, supported us during law school.  He worked full-time as a psychiatric aide at Duke University Medical Center.   I met Paul when I was 19.   He came from a working class family in east Tennessee.  They were union people, having moved from the coal mining country across the border in Virginia.

Paul’s father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm when Paul was just 13, leaving his mother to take care of two boys.  There was little to no life insurance and Paul’s mother had been a traditional housewife.  Literally overnight, Mary was forced into the job market with no college education and no job training.  When I came along, she was working as a manager at a Hallmark store.

As Paul and my relationship became serious, I was sad that Paul’s father was not around.  Both our mothers were single, and, oddly, as I moved through my twenties, I felt the father void in my life more acutely.