(current) Table of Contents A 2013 Resolution: Ancora Imparo Reflection of a First Thanksgiving: The first year in the throes of divorce Reassuring Joy within the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut Ten Hopeful Tokens: a personal reflection of the gifts of divorce and custody Sheltered by Oaks - Rooted in Love
A 2013 Resolution: Ancora Imparo 30122012 By Nancy M. Payne Accredited Investigations social media writer
Michaelangelo once said, "Ancora Imparo." Roughly translated, this means I am always learning. I truly love his philosophy. This adage could be applied to a myriad of life experiences. The maxim begs the speaker to remain humble, to be the student. It has served me well before, during, and after divorce and settling in to single parenthood. And just when I think I have it secure, Michaelangelo seems to remind me, that, ah yes, Ancora Imparo. And so, as the New Year approaches, I resolve to remember this motto more readily; to approach 2013 with resiliency and hope; and to offer a helpful and welcoming spirit to those single parents just beginning these lessons. Before divorce, most survivors of the experience recall a defining moment when each person within the couplehood has this striking, irreversible flash — each knowing the relationship is over; that the end has come; that there will not be a tomorrow with the other. In typical fashion of many divorce cases, that moment came for me when my ex-spouse told me directly he had been seeing another woman and was completely in love with her. Reflectively, I am only now so appreciative of his raw honesty, for there is nothing worse than living with someone who is so distant and has basically faked loving another. Most divorcees would agree that it is very possible to be so blinded by love and selflessness that treachery lies unseen. I sat catatonic on the living room couch; minutes passed. My brain and my heart could not process the words: completely in love with her. With a look of misunderstood interpretation, I know I stared right through him, thinking that this utterance did not come from him, but from some remote shadow lurking behind him.The incessant ticking of the mighty grandfather’s clock in the hall interrupted my thoughts, and I refocused. My eyes scanned the family pictures — a formal Christmas portrait hanging over the mantle; candid shots scattered on the wall above the cherry wood Baldwin piano; framed pictures resting on the coffee table. And suddenly, I understood. For the first time within those minutes I spoke clearly, confirming and gesticulating to the photos: “And so, this has all been a lie…one huge, unmistakable lie.”
He didn’t deny what I concluded.
And I never saw his face within those pictures more clearly than I did that night. Ancora Imparo.
During the divorce process, each partner is always learning, too – learning to listen more and speak less; learning about how the other fights or flees issues such as overall fiscal responsibility, boxes of dishes and socks, a pet, parenthood accountability. There are unforgiving lessons in grief and loneliness, anger and regret. The new teacher becomes Patience; there is a co-teacher named Time. Endurance and persistence are required with lawyers who bill relentlessly; counselors who clothesline discussions in the middle of sessions; judges who slam gavels too soon; babysitters who count the minutes of time to watch a child while the parent works; family members with quite limited understanding, always making suggestions about how to raise a child, live a life. The only healing power is Time. She teaches once Patience has run out. Again, Ancora Imparo.
After the baptism-by-fire experience of family court, mediation sessions, and custody stipulations, the life-long lessons of single parenthood truly begin. Homework is required: self-reflection and self-esteem building are the necessary assignments. Journaling, taking up a new hobby, going to personal counseling, buying a new wardrobe, navigating on-line dating sites, dating someone new for the first time, sitting alone in a parent-teacher conference, breaking up and trying dating again, applying new skills about home maintenance or car repair and feeling confident about this, cooking strategically for one adult, dating someone seriously (finally?) and evaluating whether or not the situation is right, and ultimately learning to parent a child who is also struggling, all define the daily lesson plans of life now. Chin up. Tripping and falling and conquering fears are all part of the design now. Ancora Imparo.
True, I have often felt that unadulterated single parenthood is a lot like rappelling – without boots, a helmet, or knee pads. One learns to navigate the air and the mountain side — one air pocket, one crevice, one breathless, groping moment at a time. It is both a frightening and exhilarating experience.
So, Happy New Year to all new single parents. Be unwearied by Teacher Patience. Invite Teacher Time to instruct you about how to use her wisely – for yourself and for your child/children. Breathe deeply. Don’t be afraid to move down the steep incline and suspend from the overhangs of life after divorce; remember you have the double secure ropes of Experience and Wisdom to sustain you.
Ultimately, resolve to always repeat this mantra: Still, I learn. Ancora Imparo.
Reflection on the First Thanksgiving 16112012 By Nancy M. Payne Accredited Investigations social media writer I can remember the first “single” Thanksgiving after years of “married” Thanksgivings.
My daughter and I, having finally fled the ruthlessness of domestic violence only four months prior to Turkey Day in 2006, were living a numb, bewildered, depressing, and heartbreaking existence that first holiday. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade hummed low from the TV in my modestly lighted and furnished bungalow. My daughter, still in her pajamas and un-brushed hair, played quietly with her Barbies, periodically gazing at the TV screen, mesmerized by the glitter, showmanship, and excitement of the themed floats, featured performers, and balloon characters.
And I wept silently into the apple pie crust I was kneading in preparation for dinner at my sister’s that afternoon. Out of pure helplessness, she had asked me to bake. Clearly, “keep her busy” was the secret code among my family members that season.
I remember the searing pain of loneliness and isolation I felt at what was supposed to be the beginning of the most joyous holiday season. Life as I once knew it was shattered and irretrievably broken due to the reckless and debilitating moral, financial, parental, and social decisions of my ex-spouse. And now that my daughter and I were semi-protected in another state, we were as close to safe. Through tears, I would check in on my daughter playing in the other room – playing the way young daughters do – “speaking” in doll voices for the pretend play at their fingertips. For this, I was most grateful.
Strangely, I remember questioning myself: is this what the Pilgrims felt like that first autumn/winter time? Not knowing the unchartered territory – unfamiliar tastes, sounds? Displaced and alone? I was sure there was a connection between those first settlers and us: longing to be free from a dictatorial regime, an oppressing environment. We had traveled some rough waters and made our way here to this new terrain. Now what?
Dinner was at my sister’s home – a sprawling home with a husband and three, young rambunctious children; a doting aunt; loving grandparents; a brother and his girlfriend; cousins; and my sister’s in-laws.All would be present for the feast. Chairs would be strategically placed around the rectangular dining room table – napkins folded; scribbled paper napkin rings, hand-created in shapes of turkeys and leaves by my two nephews and a niece. Who would sit next to me? Would I be placed on the end? The finality of a marriage — like death, illuminates that while others’ lives move on in the daily grind of life, the grieving and the lost are left to make sense of the senseless; to understand the sudden exits of life; to carry on – ready or not – beyond Thanksgiving pasts.
I was in the throes of sleepless nights, too; and relentless, prayerful supplication that we would continue to be safe. My nine-year old daughter had started a new school in a new state, town, and home; I was also dealing with a severely deranged narcissistic ex-spouse, who felt it was his right to call my home any time of day or night to harass me and then threaten and demand to talk to our daughter, despite the growing restrictions in a developing custody order. Transfixed, my young daughter’s small frame would tremble each time the phone would ring. Making a mad dash to my side, she would cry and beg me not to put her on the phone “with him.” For these issues, I was not thankful. I was angry, scared, hurt, confused, overwhelmed, unprepared. No Native Americans came to assist me in translating this new language. I was lost and very alone.
I don’t recall getting us dressed to go to my sister’s home for the holiday meal, but family photos tell me we were present. I don’t remember passing the gravy or asking for another slice of pie — a store bought pie, since my pie crust just didn’t make it that year.
I do remember the filled-to-the-brim Tupperware containers stacked inside a paper-handled Acme sack handed to us as we left that evening – a token of unspoken love and care from family who knew full well that there was absolutely no child support coming for my daughter and not a penny of alimony for me. Stretching those meals for as long as I could became a race against hunger for my child.
Seven years later at the time of this writing, I am so very grateful for the hardships on my personal Mayflower; the rough terrain of my Jamestown in securing sole, permanent, legal, and physical, no-contact custody; the growing courage to stand on my Plymouth Rock with each passing day, hand in hand with my now 15-year old daughter in the aftermath of wicked domestic violence and divorce.
Similar to the Plymouth settlers in 1621, my daughter and I struggled that first planting season. Since then, others have graced our Thanksgiving table; even I have hosted the favored meal in my own tiny home — family and/or friends, elbow to elbow around, ironically, the Broyhill Gathering Table I own. Laughter fills the meal. Time passes, and now, my daughter and I hold more bountiful harvest feasts each year, after slow and steady, successful growing seasons in our lives. Pass the gravy, please. Yes, I’ll have another slice of pumpkin pie. Happy Thanksgiving.
Reassuring Joy within the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut 19122012 By Nancy M. Payne Accredited Investigations social media writer A light, steady rain fell on this Sunday – December 16, 2012 – the third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoicing”. Christians everywhere marked this Sunday by lighting the third rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath, joyfully anticipating the coming of Christ, the miracle for the world. The scripture proclaims: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.”
The situational irony of this day was obliquely set by the finality of 26 Newtown, Connecticut lives, most of these, innocent children, snuffed out like flames on the wax pillars of the Advent wreath; lives cut short in the unfathomable tragedy at what appears to be mental illness aiming weaponry at the most vulnerable.
At Sunday’s Mass, perhaps instead of quoting the familiar Gaudete Sunday entrance antiphon above, we should have echoed Rachel’s lament from Matthew 2:18 – “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
For one does not rejoice in light of such unspeakable tragedy and overwhelming sadness at any time, let alone, Christmas time. Weeping and wailing, lamenting and crying are more the raw, emotional reactions of such horrific news. In the days to come, parents will wail at the procession of funerals for their beloved children; a school community will continue to deeply mourn the loss of teachers, students, playmates, a principal, a school psychologist; the distraught mental ill 20-year old perpetrator, Adam Lanza and his mother, Nancy, will be laid to rest, their immediate surviving family members — Ryan — the misidentified perpetrator – and father, Peter, mourning the loss of their family members. Communal grief. Faith in humanity tested.
I was struck by the repetitive postings on Facebook regarding the timeless, neighborly advice for children from the iconic Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
The helpers in the wake of the Newtown school shooting are found in the quick response of the 911 call operator; teams of police officers, state troopers, investigators, rescue workers, and other emergency teams who responded to the desperate call for help; it is in the calming approach and seasoned experience of Gene Rosen, a local retired school psychologist who, upon hearing the staccato of gunfire near his home, gave refuge to 6 children sitting on his driveway who had escaped the tragedy inside their classroom; it is in the selfless acts of Principal Hochsprung and Psychologist Sherlach, both lunging at the gunman in an attempt to protect the teachers and children; it is in the heroic and pioneering spirit of Victoria Soto who hid her students in closets and cupboards so they would live; it is in President Obama offering words of condolences to the grieving and a reminder to all that we have “some hard questions” to face as a nation.
Helpers have been found in the University of New Haven lacrosse players who invited Newtown children to come and play, laugh with and tackle the team on the fields for a while, to enjoy the kindness of strangers after witnessing the worst of humanity. Helpers helping children to be children.
Most recently, help comes from the other side. Krista Rekos found her deceased 6-year old daughter Jessica’s journal on the eve of Jessica’s funeral, complete with a picture and scribbled words: “I love you so much Momma.”
If there is any rejoicing to be had, it is in the noble and altruistic courage of the helpers in the face of such wickedness and inhumanity. Despite the tremendous pain and sadness of the current circumstance, the light of joy cannot be extinguished. Joy radiates and overcomes darkness. Mr. Rogers was right. There are so many caring people in the world. Joy can be found in the comfort and love shared by others – kind words, timely smiles, a hug, a gracious gesture, the erecting of memorials and sharing of memories of those gone before us. And as the Newtown, Connecticut community is finding and will discover in the time to come, joy is found in the most ordinary: surviving children playing and laughing like children should; in comforting lessons from the past: “Look for the helpers”; and even in the extraordinary miracles: messages from the tiniest of angels which bring the grieving a sense of peace, hope, and reassurance that there will be future joys.
Ten Hopeful Tokens: a personal reflection of the gifts of divorce and custody 18112012 By Nancy M. Payne Accredited Investigations social media writer My pocketbook houses many items: a comb, this Sunday’s church bulletin, an overstuffed make-up bag, last week’s food shopping trip receipt, my second-grade rosaries, the now-tattered original envelope and its companion, the time-stamped court order – worn by the countless foldings and refoldings — protecting my child from a lifetime of abuse.
And in the side pocket, just beneath the zipper, is a heart-shaped stone, the word HOPE penned in perfect penmanship on the top of this gem.
Over a dozen years ago, the pink, glazed face of the stone often rested in my palm while anxiously sitting in an attorney’s office; pacing outside a family court room; waiting in a parking lot; praying fervently in the last pew of church. Squeezing it, I thought, would somehow give me the HOPE I needed – even if by osmosis — during that tumultuous, seemingly-hopeless time in my life.
While some divorce and custody arrangements are amicable, many people, more often than not, do not experience peaceable division. Moreover, the apertures of estrangement can leave gaping holes in lives if there is no hope. But, divorcees may receive many tokens of hope during and after the crisis of separation and the dismantling of family; and, yet, at the time, may not understand or appreciate these treasured gifts until after the hostile and unamicable divorce and custody catastrophe is history.
I had returned home after a long day teaching in the winter of 2008, and on the floor of the front porch, atop the welcome mat, laid a sealed maroon envelope with my name in swirled cursive on the front. I knew the handwriting — a message from a life-long girlfriend, Eileen. The envelope puffed out like a blowfish; I wondered what was inside. Ripping the envelope, reading the heartfelt and encouraging words inside, I held the shiny, pink nugget, followed by a lavender colored one (for my daughter, as the card indicated); tokens of friendship and thoughtfulness from one mother to another. Girlfriends can read each other’s minds; Eileen had instinctively read mine. At that moment, little did I know how significant these trinkets would be: the first of our talismans, our boulders of faith in instances that evening and beyond. Token #1.
That night, my daughter was required to attend the first of three mandatory “reunification” meetings in another state with her biological father. There had been no contact for close to a year and a half. The court system had demanded she sit in the same room with the man who ruthlessly mistreated her and “begin again.” According to the edict, I was not even allowed in the office building of the psychologist’s office where this meeting would take place. I had to “drop off” my child, like a bag of unwanted clothes to an AMVETS bin in some empty, vacant lot. If I did not, I would be sent to prison. The swift work of my attorney had secured an 11th hour concession – token #2: my daughter would be flanked by another life-long friend, Laura, a mother and educator. Selflessly and without reservation, Laura gave a resounding yes to literally be the maternal presence and boldly stand side by side with my child when I, her own mother, could not. Token #3.
The whole week leading up to this horrid event was like a Holocaust death march for my child: the forcible movement away from the Allied forces of mother and family; the inevitable panic; the victim face to face with the abuser. The drive to the office building snuffed the very breath from my daughter; shaking in the back seat, she uttered not a word. And in the rearview mirror, I could see clouds of terror and fear forming in her mental sky. I could see her rhythmically stroking her lavender HOPE stone. Laura’s gentle questioning about school broke the silence. When we pulled up into the parking lot, Laura brandished a tiny mace bottle attached to her keychain, claiming that like Superwoman she would use it, if necessary, in the meeting if a certain someone chose to get out of hand. This made my child nervously giggle. I suppose, when given no other option, nervous giggles from little girls are better than no giggles in the heightened, traumatic and bewildering sense of safety my daughter found herself in that evening. Token #4.
Weeks later, another reunification meeting was demanded. This time, a long-time family friend, Brad, would be my daughter’s St. Michael personified. I was informed to send my child alone; yet, my growing mettle, coupled with Brad’s assistance and nerve, I unequivocally refused. Thank you, Brad, and to your loving wife, Michelle, also a life-long friend of mine. Your stamina and Michelle’s resolve strengthened me and verified token #5.
Reunification meeting number three never happened because I declined to get in the car, cross state line, and submit my child to the distress, trepidation, and horror of reliving and revisiting the nightmare of abuse simply by sitting in the same room with the twisted monster who cruelly stole her childhood. Token #6.
Months later, after a passionate and frightening fight to permanently protect my child’s safety and innocence from further abuse and manipulations, a time-stamped, signed, superior court order – crisp and clean – was handed to me indicating full, sole, legal, and physical custody of my child had been granted to me based on the outcome of the reunification fiasco with her biological father. Token #7.
Name change paperwork for my daughter and me; a private investigator’s tenacious three-year and beyond protection and concern for our well beings and safety; neighborly watchfulness and alertness; a brave cousin Joseph, who took the sole familial lead in helping me secure my annulment; the untiring support and open ears of therapists: MaryAnne, who not only braced me for every court battle but buoyed my child through the choppy waters of divorce and custody; Dr. Crawford, whose calming therapeutic words of wisdom were like dabs of spiritual salve for our wounded souls; Dr. Amy Hoch-Espada, whose keen and experienced insight and therapeutic precision targeted key points in solidifying the custodial piece and safety for my daughter; the diminishing and then absent late-night phone calling from a deranged sociopathic ex-spouse and father -- a welcomed relief in our lives, all confirmed token #8.
My ex-spouse’s signature, securing his understanding that his parental rights had been terminated and, consequently, therefore no child support would be granted to my daughter nor alimony for me proved to be token #9, the ultimate blessing in disguise.
Countless tokens of hope have since greeted my daughter and me in the aftermath of the divorce and custody battle, each a memento to treasure. These rest next to kind and reassuring words; the deep, rich, and noble “yeses” to protect a child; the hope stones on porches — gems in the jewelry box of a time when life seemed hopeless and despairing. These are all the souvenirs of my reflectively hopeful and permanently grateful heart — token #10.
Sheltered by Oaks - Rooted in Love By Nancy Payne-Hambrose Autumn, 2017
The oak is the mightiest of trees. A storehouse of wisdom embodied within its towering strength, the oak has long been honored for its endurance. Even the ancient Romans thought oak trees attracted lightning and thereby connected the massive perennial to the sky god, Jupiter, and his wife, Juno, the goddess of marriage.
Our story began under a large oak tree, its impressive crown facing the sky and its heavy body rooted in the earth.
St. Rose of Lima parish sits on 4th Avenue and Green Street, East Kings Highway in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. Both the school and the church share the same sprawling property, the brick and mortar of each resting still and stately, like monarchs on a throne. The church bells peal long and wide, tripping through the town's shop alley ways on Station Avenue -- even as far as Prospect Ridge, in seeming competition with the bells of First United Methodist Church on the corner of 7th and Garden.
Christopher and I first met in September, 1977, standing in line for the first day of second grade, under the expansive canopy of the oak tree on the east side of the church. Small, wiggling children lined up one behind the other among its knotty roots, which broke through the concrete, pinching the sidewalk. An immense figure, the oak would welcome all travelers on Kings Highway - its branches like arms ushering in everyone to take shade under her pointed leaves. She dropped many acorns, the fruits of her labor, which became either stowaways in the trouser pockets of the second-grade boys or victims, cracked underfoot by restive feet at play. Chris was a new face in the class line that year: he was repeating second grade and therefore a year older than the rest of us. As second-grade saplings, Chris and I were planted next to each other in the line and then in class, quickly becoming chatting seatmates, liverwurst sandwich sharing lunch buddies, and silly recess playmates. Truly, I will never forget meeting Chris for the first time on that first day of second grade: he had the most striking blue eyes I had ever seen— Hail Mary blue, like the color of the Blessed Mother’s gown on the statue inside the church. Reflecting, while certainly other classmates had blue eyes, I don’t recall ever being so taken by those as I was with the sheer clarity and sparkle of Christopher's eyes, which through the years I have been so lucky to learn are the windows to his spirited personality, genuine heart, and selfless spirit.
Time passed, and our friendship grew through the grades at St. Rose of Lima. We were either in each other's homerooms, close to the front of the lines for annual May Processions, and/or in the same learning groups for class: you know the ones the teachers try so hard to disguise for those with elementary school learning challenges: Chris for reading and I for Math. By the time we reached the middle school grades, we outgrew our learning groups, and the playground antics gave way to sometimes sitting and talking together at recess, either under the tree or under the stony back of the concrete gym stairs. A shelter from the sun, either space offered a meeting place to talk while drawing in the dirt with our fingers - all without interruption or correction from our teacher. As fitting, we were both selected as The Most Talkative for the class yearbook that year.
Friday nights were spent at St. Rose as well. Chris played for the SRS basketball team, and I was a cheerleader. Stephanie, Chris’ oldest sister was the adored cheerleading assistant. I remember her kindness and patience with the squad as we learned stunts and memorized cheers. Stephanie taught us how to make yarn pom-poms for saddle shoes, planned fun parties, and basically was the admired pseudo-older sister to many of us. After the basketball games, the teammates and cheerleaders would join classmates across the street at Del's, the local luncheonette. Like crisp autumn leaves swirling in a fiery dance on a chilly evening, groups of pre-teens would haphazardly dash across Kings Highway, racing to the front doors of Del’s, pushing in to order and devour mounds of French fries, slurp Root beer, socialize, and play Pac Man or pinball on the one of two arcade games in the store’s dimly-lit backroom. This scenario rounded out a typical winter Friday night in 1982.
On a snowy evening in January, after a basketball game and a quick Del's visit, Chris asked if I would run back with him to the school. I said yes. He stopped me under that large oak tree by the church, leaning in to kiss me. He caught me off guard. From his coat pocket, he pulled out a small bottle of perfume --- Love's Baby Soft - and handed it to me, wished me a Happy Birthday, and asked if I would be his girlfriend. I said yes. I thought Chris must have made arrangements with his mother for this birthday gift, as Mrs. Maryann Hambrose was the friendly face at the Clover cosmetic counter where such perfume was sold. Whenever I earned enough babysitting money, I would make a visit to the department store and buy a new strawberry Bonnie Bell Lip Smacker and a small Love’sBaby Soft perfume. It was Mrs. Hambrose – who, while seamlessly juggling multiple customers – at ease from her seasoned experience of managing seven children - also selflessly shared her demure smile and inviting, maternal kindness, helping me with my purchase.
Years and years later, I would find Miriam digging through my hope chest, just as little daughters do. Underneath the folded prom dresses, aging diplomas, and tattered school report cards, the Love’s Baby Soft perfume bottle found its way into her tiny hands, and she would ask about the birthday trinket. I would tell Miriam the story of my first boyfriend – Christopher Hambrose – and about the cold, snowy night when I had my first kiss. She would ask me to locate Chris in the worn school pictures, so she could see what he looked like. From that moment on, every time she revisited the hope chest – and there were many -- Miriam would find the perfume bottle and ask me to repeat “the birthday kiss” story. Enthused, she would listen, and over time, she herself became well-versed in the story and could parrot back pieces of the account like she could a favorite bedtime narrative.
Chris and I "dated" - whatever that meant - through 7th and 8th grades. Spin the Bottle and other such birthday party games took place at classmates' houses; note passing and lunchtime talks continued. Phone calls - on the house lines, of course – and on which older siblings could eavesdrop and then tease us -- soon followed. Sometimes, we would visit each other's houses: Chris usually came to my house to swim with my siblings and other neighborhood friends. Sometimes, I would follow my beloved father to the Hambrose home on the corner of 7th and Green where an occasional handyman chore needed to be finished. It was during these visits that I would hear stories of the oldest Hambrose son, John, away at college, making everyone so proud. I remember Chris telling of an adventure: a long bus ride “all the way to college” to see his oldest brother! It was also at these times that Chris' youngest sister Nan and I would sit on the curb and watch the neighborhood boys play street hockey. And I recall Jim, Chris’ third older brother, mentoring younger neighborhood street hockey players about the finesse needed to score a goal. Soon after, when Jim went away to college, Chris cried genuine tears of loss that his older playmate and friend was not there. Of course, the head of the clan, Mr. Jack Hambrose – with his baseball cap, round belly, and brown-rimmed glasses encircling his laughing eyes, became the neighborhood station wagon chauffeur, whisking Nan and me to and from the Harwan Theater to see the movie “On Golden Pond.” Mr. Hambrose would call me “Molly” and wink at me whenever I jumped in the car. To this day, his light, paternal silliness towards me remains a cherished snippet of my childhood.
Once we were old enough to ride our bikes all throughout Haddon Heights and Audubon, Chris and I would watch the Fourth of July fireworks from Hoff’s Park at the base of 8th Avenue. On July 4, 1983, we attended the fireworks display at the baseball field. After the performance, Chris and I walked back to the swing sets where we had stored our bikes. I suppose oak trees do attract lightning, because under the quarter-moonlit oak trees, a sulfur-scented vapor still lingering in the air, Chris kissed me again, and then took off on his bike into the woods to meet friends.
High school began, and I experienced a devastating loss at the start of my freshman year: my idolized older brother John tragically passed away. I felt my roots decay; my branches wither; and my leaves quickly and prematurely fall from my tree that autumn. John often talked of the times we would spend together as brother and sister at PVI– he, a senior, and I a freshman. Sadly, these times never came to be. I entered high school without my beloved sibling at my side. It was Harold, Chris’ fourth oldest brother as well as friend and classmate of my late brother, who noted my sense of loss. Harold selflessly directed me around high school those first few weeks, making sure I found my way. Other senior classmates mirrored his altruistic action. I have never once forgotten Harold’s sense of quiet loyalty to my brother -- unspeakably etched like initials in the supportive and protective bark of a tree -- in his genuine care for me, so leafless and empty -- at a time I felt so lost and most alone.
A new planting season was upon us: high school. Time moved quickly, and like others, Chris and I were busy: homework, sports, extracurricular activities, first jobs, and meeting new people. Family dynamics changed. Half-way through high school, Chris and I amicably parted ways. I finished my time at Paul VI, and he completed his high school days at Haddon Township High School. The advertised and much-talked about felling of the aged oak in front of St. Rose of Lima Church made way for additional parking spaces. I often wondered if the removal of that tree caused a break in our connection -- a man-made attempt at uprooting our story. Our young adult lives took separate paths: college, work, and later - marriages, children, jobs, going about the business of living lives, experiencing great losses and overwhelming joys. Many years after high school, we did see each other briefly at a St. Rose School reunion. We never did get a chance to properly say goodbye that evening.
Miriam and I returned to New Jersey in 2006. Under the state’s superior court protection, we fled our previous life. I divorced, reclaimed my maiden name, changed Miriam's last name to my own, and secured sole, legal, and physical custody of her, becoming her only parent of record. All contact, all paternal and parental rights had been permanently terminated with her biological father/my ex-spouse. Life moved forward and we began again –sprouting fragile roots and then twigs that birthed pale, new greens. I bought a small home in Audubon, with a young oak tree in the yard. And thanks to Pop-Pop, a tire swing soon appeared, which became a joyful and shady space for Miriam to play and grow. Dad and I took turns giving her pushes while lounging in wicker summer chairs in the yard, accepting buttercups Miriam would pick from the grass, philosophizing about life and love, tinkering in the garage, constructing a clothesline, watching the planes overhead. The selfless ‘Dad time’ he gave to help me raise her, his pure life experience wrapped in simple wisdom, and his genuine dedication to God, all resonated within me. It was my father who reestablished our delicate roots, who restored a sense of belonging for us. And when his work was finished, he passed away. The yard, that tree, and the tire swing all became sacred space for Miriam and me to sit quietly and wonder what life had in store. Sometimes, I would find Miriam alone – silent and pensive under the oak, her little body looped through the tire swing, fingers tracing in the holy ground, seeking the deep and invulnerable bonds between a first grandchild and beloved grandfather. I knew not to disturb her then.
During this time as well, I attempted to plant some seeds in the dating field. Looking back, those years were met with stunted growth. Admittedly, I met and dated some deadwood, for sure. I underwatered and overwatered relationships. Most of all, in self-reflection, I could not thrive when I was deficient in tending to an open-hearted readiness to ever trust anyone again. So, it was through the coaxing of some friends and the encouragement a wise, elderly neighbor that I tried the on-line dating process. I begrudgingly took a two-hour character test, filled out the never-ending screens of questions, wrote and rewrote a profile, and then submitted my picture. Hopelessly, I closed the computer. I received emails from possible interests, but none of these contacts felt right. I decided to simply give up and promised myself that in the New Year, I would remove my profile and never give the dating issue another thought. I was generally happy; Miriam was thriving; what more could I possibly want in life?
And then, one day in mid-December, 2013, I saw an email indicating: You have a 92% match.
I guffawed at cyberspace! I rolled my eyes. In curious disbelief though, I clicked on the email. It directed me to the dating website. A few clicks later, and my fingers froze: Authentically familiar Hail Mary blue eyes stared back at me. Standard actions followed: I shook my head, rubbed my eyes, looked away, and then looked again. In awe, I thought: Of the millions upon millions of people to meet through cyberspace, how on earth has Christopher Hambrose ever become my match? Like a deep carpet of pressed, wet autumn leaves sleeping close to the earth, the synchronicity of this profound reality rested under all the layers of details racing through my head and heart. In thatmoment, I could not see the forest for the trees.
I quickly slammed the computer and paced the house, refusing to recognize the reality in front of me. Many hours later, I worked up enough courage to check the dating website again, just for clarification. I shared this crazy news with Miriam. Her first response?: “You mean ‘the Love’s Baby Soft birthday kiss’ boy?” and off she went to the hope chest to locate the perfume bottle…the only tangible connection she ever had with understanding the moment in all its rawness and disbelief.
To my surprise, I had an email from Chris! He was reaching out to say hello, echoing the same shocked amazement I was feeling from this unbelievable reconnection, giving me his cell number, and asking me to please call him so he could explain.
So, I did what any normal, rational woman would do: I ate a gallon of ice cream (mint chocolate chip, of course), stayed up all night with the phone in my hand, the original Love’s Baby Soft perfume bottle from the hope chest, sitting patiently on the coffee table, waiting for me to make a move. Frozen, I was playing out every possible scenario in my head. Ultimately, I knew I had to call Chris. After all, even the oak trees knew our secrets.
I finally called. Relieved, we talked and laughed uninterrupted for three hours about personal and shared histories, our current lives, families, and single-status situations. He asked if I would like to grab coffee sometime, so we could talk in person and see one another. I said yes. We made a coffee date for a week from our conversation, reconnecting on a snowy December evening, a few days before Christmas. We sat in a local Starbucks and talked for hours, unaware of time, closing the café. We both agreed that as bizarre as it sounded, in that moment our hearts felt like they had finally come home. Walking me to my car, Chris leaned in to kiss me -- once again, under snow-laden oak trees lining Kings Highway, this time in Haddonfield. I kissed him back. We laughed, remembering we had experienced similar moments under other oak trees, long ago and far away.
The second time we saw each other at the same café was my birthday, two weeks later. When Chris walked me to my car through the blowing snow, he pulled from his pocket a familiar gift: a bottle of Love’s Baby Soft perfume. In a hug of gratitude and moment of silence between us, I gazed up through the stark oak branches overhead and into the black strip of sky full of twinkling stars, and whispered thank you to Mrs. Hambrose.
Chris and I kept in touch every day after that and made plans to see each other as often as life would allow. Slow and steady, these times then involved Miriam: ice skating, going to the movies, walking in the park, sledding down Dead Man’s Hill, making dinner, visiting Nan and her wife, Ronny in Maryland, and reuniting with all the Hambrose siblings, meeting their wonderful spouses and children. Our times together involved a lot of talking and healing – processing personal situations, releasing negative people and events – trimming away all the overhanging, twisted, and decaying branches of our experiences. We retraced – literally and figuratively - our shared childhoods, and vowed that no matter what the future might hold, we would help each other move forward in positive, hopeful, and loving ways. Our moments together also involved a ton of laughter – recalling memories from school days, looking at old pictures, and most importantly, planting and creating new moments with the wisdom and grace that comes from growing older and gaining a sense of peace in the presence of a true companion.
Over time, we began to talk seriously in terms of always and knew we wanted to become a family. And so, Chris applied for the paternal adult adoption of Miriam in the state of New Jersey. This process required the paperwork from years ago regarding my sole custody of Miriam. Resurrecting this paperwork revealed the most profound Godwink of them all. Thomas, Chris’ second older brother, at the time a deputy court clerk for Camden County, had actually been the assigned notary to certify Miriam’s name change and sole custody documentation from years ago. This surprise left us utterly speechless. It was as if years and moments before Chris and I would ever reconnect – perhaps on the first day of second grade in 1977, or on a random rainy afternoon as a little girl rummaged through her mother’s hope chest - that something much larger than the immense canopy of an oak tree was encasing us, protecting us, ushering all of us toward each other.
On the day of the adoption, May 24, 2016, our attorney, Sara deCelis-Little, – knowing our entire history together - handed us a torn piece of paper, her desk calendar quote for that day: We are all just walking each other home. Chris, Miriam, and I stood there in awe, silence, and gratitude, rooted in the belief that our souls and the world around us found ways to communicate through something long established and profound, perennial, and Divine.
This past Fourth of July, Chris asked me to go for an early morning walk through Haddon Heights. He led me to the same large oak tree in Hoff’s Park where he had kissed me in the sulfur-filled air thirty-four years ago. This time though, from his pocket, he pulled out an engagement ring and asked me to become his wife.
For us, love has come softly under the leafy shelter of oak trees in our lives. This December, in abiding resiliency, friendship, and love, Chris and I will stand facing each other to become husband and wife, warmly embraced by the intricate network of branches we call family. We love you all and are eternally grateful for your part in our story.