No matter how many times I asked where we were going, my mom didn’t answer. I watched her face as she turned the steering wheel of our old gray Plymouth sedan down each street and
around each curve, and I noticed that each time tears started to pool in her eyes, she batted them away. Her lips trembled but she held her chin high. Even though I knew she was upset, there was
a look of determination in her face. Every minute or so, she looked in the rear view mirror.
She patted my leg, smiled at me, and I stopped fidgeting in the front seat, stopped asking questions, and just settled back in the dark automobile to watch the streetlights as we pulled onto the highway and listen to our suitcases rattling in the backseat as we turned the curves. At some
point, I fell asleep with my head in her lap, her arm across my shoulders, and Patsy Cline on the radio singing about being crazy.
I awoke the next morning to Mama’s voice. She was standing between the beds talking on the telephone.
“I left him. I took Kathy and left. No, I’m not going back this time. I know no one will understand. Daddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disgrace you, but I’m not going to change my mind this time. I’m not going back. Daddy, he’s killing me, a little at a time.”
I sat up on the big bed and looked around. I saw the wide window and the little card on the back of the door. As I realized we were in a motel, I got so excited. As an eight year old, the only time
I had stayed in a motel was the one time my dad agreed to let us go on a vacation. We had gone to Florida for three days, and we ate in real restaurants, something my dad did not do when we were at home because they cost too much.
My mom hung up the phone when she noticed me standing in the doorway in my cotton pajamas covered with kewpie doll faces. She sat down on the plaid couch and patted the place beside her.
When I sat down, she brushed back her hair from her shoulders into a ponytail and said, very matter-of-factly, “Your dad and I are getting a divorce.” I closed my eyes, pulled my knees up under my chin, and said a silent “Thank you” to God for answering my prayer. I had gotten so tired
trying to get to sleep at night with all the yelling going on in the house, and I had begged God to make them stop fighting.
My mom pulled my face up, looked at me and asked, “You crying?”
I laughed and crinkled up my nose.
“No, I’m sweating. It’s hot in here.”
She got up and switched on the window air conditioning unit and cold air began to fill the room. I must have looked surprised because she turned and said, “We can run the damn air conditioning now anytime we want to.” I giggled, ran, and stood in front of it, stood there until my ears ached from the cold air, and my mom made me go get dressed.
We had breakfast at The Pancake House. I didn’t know how to order off the menu. It had all these pictures of plates of food and all of them looked good to me. The waitress said, “What’ll you have, kiddo?” I pointed to one of the pictures on the menu and my mom told her that I’d
have bacon and eggs, eggs scrambled, with cheese. Cheese! I get to have cheese!
“Uh, can I have chocolate milk?”
“Sure. Bring her some chocolate milk, too.”
I looked closely at my mom. She had put on a pair of checkered pedal pusher pants, the kind Daddy never let her wear, and she was wearing red lipstick. Red! Daddy had said only bad women wore makeup.
The vinyl booth seat had a split in it and the cotton was sticking out, but I thought this had to be the most beautiful restaurant I had ever seen, with the sun shining in on my mama’s brown hair
and shiny red lips. The windows had checkered curtains, the waitresses had little white aprons, and there was a big neon jukebox sitting in the corner.
Mama saw me looking at it and dug in her change purse for a quarter.
“Three for a quarter!” she said. “What song do you want to hear?”
“You mean it? Uh, I don’t care. You pick ‘em.”
Mom got up and walked over to the jukebox. She put in a coin and came back to sit down just as Tammy Wynette started singing that her D-I-V-O-R-C-E became final today. I knew what that spelled. It meant my mom would not be crying at night anymore. It meant she could go out
shopping and buy herself a new dress to wear to work without having Daddy screaming at her to take it back. It meant I could leave hominy on my plate if I hated it without getting a lecture about how only spoiled little girls waste perfectly good food. It meant we could stop at the dime
store without Daddy asking why we had taken so long to get home. It meant Mama could be paid on Friday and not have to hand it over to Daddy as soon as she got home.
When the next song came on, my mom pulled me to my feet and we both began to giggle and laugh as we danced in the middle of the diner to Chubby Checker urging us on, “C’mon baby, let’s do the twist!” Mom twisted her feet, turned her hips back and forth, and said, “Like this!
Do it like this!” She reached down and held my hands and we twisted together while the waitress smiled at us and people sitting at the stools turned and watched.
I know some kids think a divorce is an ending in their lives, but in mine, in 1965, it was a beginning. It was the beginning of my mom’s laughter, of my sleeping at night without being afraid, and of both of us dancing together for the first time. I got cheese in my eggs, chocolate milk, and air conditioning. Everyday if I wanted. And Mama wore red lipstick all the time.