The first time I learned what divorce meant, I was seven and a half. The year was 1955 and it was my first trip to New York City. My parents had dropped me off to stay overnight with my divorced Grandpa Eddie and his new wife Henrietta. The next day my divorced Grandma Annie would pick me up to take me to her apartment in the Bronx.
When I arrived at Grandpa’s, I didn’t expect him to have three chins and a jelly belly. Henrietta was at the beauty parlor, so while we waited for her to return home, I explored Grandpa’s big house. It had a basement and was three stories high. We didn’t have stairs in my house in Pacoima, California, so I sat on the carpet runner and bumped, bumped, bumped my way down to the bottom and then ran back up to do it all over again. There was a dreamy pink bedroom on the third floor with a soft chenille bedspread, just perfect for me. I knew I was going to love staying here.
I was on my last two bumps down when Grandpa said he had something to show me. So I jumped off the stairs expecting a present. He took out a black velvet box with a snap lid. “Look what I bought Henrietta at Tiffany’s. Do you think she’ll like it?” He let me hold the heavy gold bracelet with lots of diamonds. And then he whispered, “Not a word. It’s a surprise.”
When Henrietta came home, I didn’t expect her to be so beautiful and young. She had bright red hair and purple eye shadow with sparkles. I asked her if I could have some purple eye shadow. She said, “No Betty, you’re too young, but I’ll put some rouge on you. And here, have a little spritz of Chanel.” I loved her immediately.
Grandpa called out, “What’s for dinner? I’m starved.”
“Eddie darling, I just had my nails done. Let’s order Chinese.”
When the delivery boy arrived, Henrietta had him set the bags down. Grandpa paid him and said, “Here’s a fiver for your trouble.” I thought, Holy cow, my allowance is only six cents a week and I hang up the laundry, iron Daddy’s shirts and hankies, wash and dry the dishes, and scrub out the toilet.
After dinner, Grandpa said to Henrietta, “I’ve got a surprise in my jacket pocket, but it’s gonna cost you, my little Buttercup.” When she opened the Tiffany box, she kissed and kissed him and Grandpa said, “It’s time for Betty to go to bed now.”
I grabbed my suitcase and headed up the stairs to my pink bedroom, but Henrietta called out, “No Betty. You’ll be sleeping downstairs in the parlor.”
I had to go downstairs all by myself. The parlor smelled moldy. It was the ugliest room in the house. I got into my pajamas and climbed between the sheets on the itchy green davenport. It was the first time in my life no one had tucked me in. And today was the first day that Grandpa had met me in person and he didn’t even give me a gift.
When Grandma Annie rang the doorbell the next morning, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Henrietta said, “Betty grab your suitcase.”
I asked, “Isn’t my grandma going to come inside?”
“No. She never comes in.”
Grandpa said, “Let’s go, Betty.” He carried a long skinny book with a green cloth cover. I followed him, dragging and bumping my suitcase down the steps to the front door. Henrietta remained upstairs.
When I stepped outside, the sight of my grandmother instantly embarrassed me. Her hair was a mess and when she smiled I could see red lipstick on her little teeth. I wondered if she owned a mirror and a hairbrush, but then she put a pink Pop-Bead necklace around my neck, and hugged me and kissed me. I felt ashamed. My grandma smelled of Ivory Soap and I felt so loved wrapped up in her arms.
Then my grandfather cleared his throat and Grandma Annie released me.
He counted out fifteen one-dollar bills into Grandma’s outstretched hand. One of the bills fell on the ground. Grandma stooped to pick it up. I stared at her heavy beige stockings rolled below the knees and her swollen ankles bulging over broken down old oxfords. The knuckle of her clawed second toe poked out through a hole in the front of each shoe. She recounted the bills, put them into her pocket book and snapped the cheap clasp shut. Without a single word exchanged between them, Grandpa held open the green cloth book, handed her a pen, and she signed. Grandpa closed the book. As I hugged him goodbye, I wondered if I was hurting Grandma’s feelings. But I also wondered while Grandma hugged me if it had hurt Grandpa’s feelings. I loved them both, and Henrietta too. But nobody liked anybody.
Grandpa walked inside without another word. I looked up to wave goodbye to Henrietta, but all I saw was the curtain fall back over the window.
Grandma picked up my suitcase and said, “Let’s go, Betty.” As we walked to the Lexington Avenue subway station, she began to laugh.
“What’s so funny, Grandma?”
“You want I should cry instead?”
It turns out Grandma Annie did pretty well with her fifteen dollar weekly alimony.
The second time I learned what divorce meant, my mother was awarded one dollar a year alimony from my father.
The third time I learned what it meant, I got zero alimony from my ex.