(Mary Hastings) I put the last of Denny’s things for the trip in his bag. It was impossible to hold back haunting memories of two years earlier. It began with my ex coming home drunk late one evening. He’d awakened me from a fitful sleep.
“You are a lazy wretch a woman aren’t you? Where is my supper, Mary?” Dennis’ vulgar lips had hissed harshly in my ear.
“Get your own supper, we ate hours ago.” I mumbled, trying to roll over back to sleep. He had grabbed the full length of my hair, throwing me forcefully to the floor.
“You’re useless woman! If you cared, you would have waited up and kept supper for me! I am going out! Don’t expect me back for a while!” Dennis had stormed out of the house. I only speculated at the time where he might be going.
As I sat on the floor shivering from the fright and force of his tirade that night, I could not but help recalling the young blonde woman Dennis had introduced me to at the office Christmas Party the previous year. The shy, fluttering long eyelashes and seductive curve of her lips had gotten Dennis’ attention. He had stolen several looks her way during the party that night, and in the months ensuing, Dennis started having reasons for coming home late. He had an important dinner meeting with a client or business trips constantly took him out of town for days.
I had gotten up from the floor and tried to compose myself. Then little Denny’s cries from the nursery, demanded my attention. I had gently picked him up and sat down in the nursery rocker. As I cradled him, a plan began to form. That night, I warmly dressed Denny and packed for a trip. Finally, I would leave the abusive life I had lived for fifteen years.
Willing myself back to the present, I placed little Denny’s bag along with my own suitcase into the trunk of the car. I settled the baby into his snug toddler seat. Coordinating the GPS with our destination, I pulled away from the dirt driveway. The tree lined lane led away from my grandparents’ quaint farmhouse. Whispering Willows Retreat was about four and a half hours away. I had gotten a brochure from Mrs. Biddle. The charming older woman was a regular from Grandma Ruth’s Thursday afternoon Bridge games. She had given it to me when I first arrived over two years before. Mrs. Biddle’s daughter coordinated the annual single-parent family retreat.
Stopping at a fast-food restaurant to eat, I relaxed while Denny romped among balls in the play land. An hour later we finally arrived at Whispering Willows and were greeted by Mrs. Biddle’s daughter, Crissy.
“I am so glad that you decided to come. Being single for the last five years myself, I know it has not been easy for you. The idea for this retreat began as I worked through my own ordeal. It gave me hope. My goal was to help others see their way through. Hopefully, by the time you leave you’ll have made a few friends. I also hope you will be empowered to move forward.”
That night we all met in the dining hall for a light dinner and proceeded to be split into small groups. Denny and I joined Crissy, three other mothers, a father, and their children at the large lodge. We settled into cozy furniture around a stone fireplace. The children were supervised in a corner with lots of toys.
Crissy introduced herself, “I am the mother of three, Tim, who is 9, Shelly, 7 and Nat, 6. I was married 10 years before realizing my husband would never stop drinking. The last three years of the marriage I visited the ER six times. I suffered a broken nose, twisted wrists, and strangulation among other things. When he went after Tim, I stopped being the enabler. Beginning a support group for divorcees in my community was the seed for my healing. That evolved into this annual retreat. You are with me tonight because you’re beginning a new chapter in your lives…”
We introduced ourselves and told our stories. Each one was heart-breaking. The night ended with hot cocoa and various refreshments. A few stayed to play a round or two of gin rummy. The assigned supervisor took the children to the youth center until we came to pick them up.
A fun breakfast presentation greeted us in the dining hall the next morning. Families had to make their own creation using various sized pancakes and toppings. Each family got their own can of whipped cream. It turned fun and messy when the children all ganged up on the adults. We became the objects being decorated!
When all was cleaned up everyone split into their own groups again. The younger children were taken to the youth room for crafts and games. Adults and older children boarded buses and headed for the river. The rest of the morning and afternoon we would be canoeing. I paired with Mark the single father, and Cindy, a chain-smoking mother of three grown children. She also had five step-children from three previous marriages. Her fifth had just ended and they had no children. “Thank God!” Cindy was quick to point out. This was her fifth time attending the camp.
“My goal is to scare all of you into never remarrying. Believe me; I have had plenty of experience. Marriage is a fairy tale.” Cindy said coarsely while hacking and coughing. “No offense to you Mark, but men aren’t worth the bread they put on the table. That’s my observation anyway.”
The river wound calmly most of the morning. I was enthralled with the beauty of the vast willows swaying in the gentle breeze. Their silently drooping branches mirrored effortlessly on the crystal water. We all pulled in at midpoint and sat down for a picnic style lunch of cold chicken, cornbread, baked beans.
As I leaned against an oak, another memory from the past invaded my thoughts. Dennis had brought me to a local park one beautiful Sunday afternoon. We played Frisbee and ate a picnic of peanut butter and jelly on a blanket. Then he had pulled his High School class ring from his finger and asked thatI be his girl. Blindly in love, I said yes. I never dreamed that I would be held captive from that time on. Crissy roused me from my reverie, “Are you okay?”
“Ugh. Oh yes. I guess I was just daydreaming. I enjoy the peacefulness out here,” I said wiping a tear before it exposed itself.
Walking back to the canoes, I asked, “Do the memories ever go away? I mean will I ever be free of these nightmares? Sometimes I turn and swear I see him with those killer eyes jealously looking straight through me. I just can’t understand how I could have ignored all the warning signs before we got married.”
“Mary, leaving someone for good is a lot like death in a way. You know, an abusive marriage is like cancer. The disease just eats at you and eats at you unless you get treatment. Then there’s no guarantee it won’t come back. Then, finally, the love that kept you with him dies. You want to blame yourself. For example “I could have been more supportive, a better cook, and on and on.” You have the memories, but that is all they are. Just like the cancer survivor celebrates each New Year that comes cancer-free, that is what we as survivors of broken relationships must do. We must build new memories to replace the old. It’s a new experience, and it feels different. We are survivors. Hey, just look at Cindy. Look at all the memories she’s got stoked away. If anyone is a testimony to survival, that woman is.” A sheepish grin followed and then we couldn’t help but laugh.
“Okay folks, are we ready to finish our river journey. We should make it back in time for the bon-fire. I hear they are working on something special with little ones.” Gary, one of the group leaders, shoved his canoe into the river. Everyone else followed.
We saw the orange sun as it sunk into the horizon with a watery line. I thought it looked absolutely beautiful. We got to the end of the journey just before it got totally dark. Boarding the buses again, Crissy and the other group leaders gave each participant a scrapbook and a disposable camera. The bonfire was raging warmly when we returned. The young children waited anxiously for the sight of their parents as each disembarked.
All the families were gathered around the fire. We all waited for pokers and hot dogs as they made their way around. Crissy explained the purpose of the scrapbooks and camera’s.
“We want you to take these record the new moments you’ll experience here and in your lives. I have asked Cindy to share a memory book from one of the past retreats. Experience comes from being here since its beginning.” That got everyone laughing. The group had heard plenty of Crissy’s retreats… and former marriages.
“I should be offended at being the butt of the jokes around around here. I see, however, others who have attended since this retreats conception. My failures have obviously warranted some wisdom.”
“Yeah, we’ve made sure not to get into any more relationships on the rebound,” chuckled one of the participants.
“Okay, okay, laugh at my expense. I can take it. It’s these smokes you see. Every time I go through a demised relationship, I smoke like a ship on fire. Then some doll shows up at the Coffee House, and I can stop smoking. I think cute men become an addiction or something.”
“Sure, excuses, excuses,” piped a group member.
“Better stop going to that coffee house. The place sounds like it’s full of losers,” chirped another.
“Go ahead, believe it or not. I’m sticking to it. However, that is not what tonight is about.” Cindy pulled out a thick scrapbook and passed it to her left. “I did this one starting my third retreat. I have gotten so good at this, guess what I did? Last fall, I opened a scrapbook shop right downtown in Derby Grove. Several scrapbook groups meet there, including one for divorced singles led by yours truly. I like being my own empowered woman. I think husband number four got jealous of my success or something. Anyway, these books give you a chance to do something with your hands. It is real fun to look at your life through the pictures and journaling. I display all of mine from each retreat at the shop. Right now, I am working on separate ones of each of my grandchildren. It’s a present for them either when they graduate from high school, or I die, which ever strikes first.”
As the book went around, there were many comments of admiration and questions. Then everyone settled down to hot dogs and potato chips. We ended the night by making smores. The evening ended perfectly. I carried a very sleepy Denny back to our cabin. It had been a very lovely day indeed.
Sunday morning welcomed all of us to chapel service beneath a grove of willows. Their dangling branches swayed gently in the breeze as we sat on blankets. Pastor Billings from a nearby town came to speak.
“I came to offer encouragement today. Jesus came to show us God’s love. He first loved us. He loved us before we were even born. He still loves us. We’re merely humans, with our own quirks and imperfections. We may fall short of our own ideal but God seeks us. He wishes us to have an intimate relationship with Him. He will never leave you nor forsake you. I realize that some hearing me are showing a courtesy. You may not be the “church” type. Maybe you went as a child, but God is not apart of your life as an adult. That’s okay, He loves you anyway.”
That got a low chuckle from the group. Pastor Billings continued, “I am not here to see if you are Christians or not. I just want to let you know that He is the best resource available for encouragement. God has big shoulders for you to cry on. God is an expert in divorce. If you have ever read His Word, you will see that His own
children divorced Him.
“You will get through this bump in the road each of you has encountered. For those who chose to believe upon Jesus, He’ll even carry you. Take advantage of the supportive friendships you make here. Attend the group meetings in Derby Grove, and your own towns. Call Crissy, she’ll come help you get one started if it doesn’t exist. Until next time, let us pray.” (Bible references are from the NIV, the Book of Ephesians 5:22-35, Joshua 1:5)
A cart loaded with freshly baked Danishes and sweet breads lay prepared and ready. On a table near the picnic tables were the coffee, tea, milk, and orange juice. Sitting at the tables, enjoying the simple breakfast, Cindy joined me.
“So, have you enjoyed the weekend?” She inquired.
“This weekend has really been nice; I have found comfort, in a strange way, knowing others going through the same thing.” I confided.
“Yeah, and some of us are pros don’t forget,” Cindy responded with a puff of her cigarette.
“I enjoyed Pastor Billing’s encouraging words, didn’t you?”
“I really don’t get that God stuff. It all seems pretty silly to be talking to some unseen powerful being and all. I believe in what I see. That is why there will be no more men for me. Love, you can’t see it or feel it. To me it just doesn’t exist. I have believed in that lie long enough.” Cindy took another puff on what was now just stubble. She threw it down and ground it out with the high heel of her steel blue western boots.
“Anyway, I just wanted to invite you to the scrapbook group I was talking about. It’s next Thursday night at 7:30p.m.”
“Thank you very much, I just might. Grandma Ruth and Mrs. Biddle keep trying to push me out into the community. Can I be a little late? I like being able to get Denny asleep so Grandma Ruth doesn’t have to deal with his bedtime crankiness. You know the terrible twos.”
Cindy gave her a knowing smile, “Yeah, my grandson, Jacob, does it to me every night when his momma has to work. I only get some peace on Thursday’s. He comes with me and heads to the Creative Kids Corner at the shop. It is a spot I fixed up for the mother’s tag-a-longs. I found that if I gave them their own area full of stuff to create, my merchandise stayed intact. Mothers do not end up paying for supplies they don’t want. Then everyone is happy.”
“Sounds like you have a very creative mind Cindy.”
“Yeah, I wish I could be as creative with my time. I have women’s groups all over a three county area calling me. Seems I do more demonstrations than have open store hours. Then there are the weekend bazaars and craft shows. It makes work more exhausting than pleasurable. I opened the shop to do what I like to do, scrapbooking. It seems like the idea expanded as word got around.”
“Have you thought about getting someone to help?”
“Well, no I hadn’t. Being so tied up in the fifth melodrama of my life has kept me busy enough…”
We were dismissed to group discussions before lunch and a final dismissal. Everyone shared contact information and well wishes before departing. I once more put our belongings into the car. Denny was securely in his car seat and a soft lullaby in the CD player to help encourage him to nap. I headed back home to Grandma Ruth’s, strengthened by the encouragement of the retreat.
Monday morning dawned cloudy and damp. Despite the heaviness of the air, I felt rejuvenated and refreshed. I tied my shoes and started down the country lane. My morning jogs had become a peaceful reminder of the latest retreat. Now I spent the hour reflecting on the present. No longer did I feel like a failure. This morning’s drizzle held potential and promise. Returning to Grandma Ruth’s house, I showered and dressed. Little Denny greeted me in the kitchen, ready to go with “Granny’s” help.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Denny went to St. Luke’s Pre-School. I was now working at Cindy’s shop. On Thursdays I did any demonstrations that were with church groups and Denny stayed at the shop playing with Jacob. Cindy insisted that it was no bother. I worked until noon on Saturdays, joining Cindy at any bazaars or craft shows if it was necessary. Denny, now four, loved these outings, especially when Aunt Cindy took him around to the cotton candy vendors. I tended to be rather strict with his diet. He had a chance to sample sweets other than fruit wondering around with Aunt Cindy. Occasionally, “Granny” made some sugar cookies with apple sauce just for him.
I helped Grandma Ruth harvest her apple orchard in my spare time. Once a tangled mess of weeds and worm infested fruit, I slowly nursed it back to health. I had begun the project when first arriving. It kept me sane during those stressful trials of the resulting divorce. I took time to converse silently with Grandpa Jonathan, whom I imagined guiding me in the orchard. Another year and we would have a full harvest of delicious old time apples good enough for market.
Cindy had helped me with a business plan. Cindy owned the entire building where the scrapbook shop was. She had remodeled the upper level into one giant condominium style apartment. It even had a floor plan so that one part could be closed off to make another separate living area if necessary. Her scrapbook shop occupied one half of the main level. I was fixing the other to open a quaint shop of hand-made and home-made items. Grandma’s Orchard would be a guaranteed contributor. I had made many friends through “Granny’s” bridge group, Crissy’s support group, and the ladies at Cindy’s workshops. Several of them had their own knack at making quilts, crocheting, sewing, cooking, and canning. They even enrolled the support of their contacts. My little store was shaping up to open the coming spring. It would be right before Easter so I could drum up holiday business. Everyone who contributed products would receive a percentage of the sales. A beautiful arbor decorated with green vines would adjoin the two businesses so I could still work in Cindy’s shop and vice versa.
The retreat’s organizers sponsored a great holiday gathering held at the Holidome. The kids loved their Secret Santa gifts. Adults enjoyed conversation around the pool. We all got to tell everyone how our scrapbooks were impacting our families.
I eagerly shared my experience. “I found something tangible to look at whenever tempted to draw back on the failure of the past. I realized on every turn of the page, that Denny and I got to do and experience things that we never would have enjoyed before. Believe it or not, I also discovered that Cindy’s bark is worse than her bite. She gave me a job and even suggested I start mine. Thanks to all of you and your endless contacts, that realization will be fulfilled with the opening of “America’s Simple Pleasures” in March. Thank you so much for inviting me to that first retreat Crissy. And Cindy, thank you. You are the best aunt Denny could ever have.” Denny and I returned home late that night refreshed and happy.
“How was the party dear?”
“Wonderful Grandma, it was absolutely wonderful. Those swim lessons you paid for really were a help. Denny wasn’t afraid at all. Thank you for that gift Grandma.”
“You’re welcome dear. What are you going to call it a night?”
“No, I think I will go into Grandpa’s study and put some pictures of tonight’s party in my new Scrapbook.”