When My Parents Divorced In The 70s, There Were No Secrets

Growing up in the 70s, I was a nosy little kid who wanted in on the action.

70s parents, living UNAPOLOGETICALLY in the way of spilling secrets and abuse Peopleimages.com - YuriArcurs, andresr, Jason_V, sdominick | Canva

When I was twelve years old, my parents’ marriage was like the Titanic heading into the mist.

Nothing could stop Mom and Dad from hitting that giant iceberg, and it was a matter of life or death for us, the kids. My brother died, but that was later. Everything’s connected.

My parents’ divorce involved all of us, not just the two of them.

We’d always had it pretty good. Family dinners every night at the table. We talked — no cell phones! We laughed, told about our day at school, and had private jokes we kept from our parents. Even now I remember the dinners Mom made. Mac’n cheese, homemade. Pork chops and applesauce. Spaghetti with salad. Sweet 'n sour meatballs with rice. These were Mom’s standards.


Then, for dessert, we had ice cream, or she made rice pudding with raisins, sugar, and cinnamon. We ate that hot with milk, kind of a soupy, old-fashioned dessert. Mom did everything to take care of us and seemed happy. I figured out later it was day in and day out for her. All work and no play, and we lived on a family farm. Not only that, but her in-laws were right down the dusty country road.

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My grandmother was an angel, but Grandpa rode his bike down our lane and wanted long coffees every day, with Mom serving and laughing at his jokes. He liked being waited on, but Mom didn’t like it. Not one bit. Mom grumbled to Dad, and he got impatient back. There was stress.


Then Mom got a job. It was the beginning of the end. 

I really don’t blame her. I’d hate to be at home with kids all day. At that point, we were in school — ten, eleven, and twelve years old. Mom had worked between high school and getting married, and she wanted to go back to earning money. She sold jewelry for Zales in downtown Portland and lived in a city apartment on SW 13th. It was an exciting life.

Now, again, Mom wanted to buy makeup and pretty clothes and have a reason to get up in the morning.

A reason other than three kids who were fairly self-sufficient at that point, but you know how it goes: Mom! I can’t find my shoes! Mom! Where’s my blue jacket? Mom! I need lunch money.


She was all 'Mommed' out.

The year before she went back to work, Mom got badly injured when our trailer lit on fire. 

Something changed in her.

Maybe she realized how short life is. Maybe she figured out life wasn’t going to get much more exciting, and could get worse. All I know is after three months of lying in bed with her healing burns — second and third-degree — she was a different person. A pinched mouth. A sad look in her eyes. She wanted a change. That was clear.

I noticed.

As a kid, I listened in on everything. I thought it was curious that Mom was going to work. It sounded more like a 'fun thing' to do rather than money-making. Oddly, she seemed to be asking my dad for permission. Would he be offended? What did he think of the idea? These kinds of questions.


It was the early 70s, and things were a bit upside-down then. We three offspring at home didn’t think anything of it. Back then, we weren’t fully launched into Gloria Steinem’s America, with Helen Reddy singing, "I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore!" It would happen soon. Change was in the wind.

Back then, the old-fashioned division of labor seemed normal: Men worked; mommies were home taking care of the kids. My mom was bored out of her gourd.

So Mom started working at the local hardware store.

As I predicted, a great part of her money was spent on cute outfits and make-up. She clicked around that hardware store in three-inch heels, taking haute couture to new levels our little rural town rarely saw.


Click click click! Follow me, Mom said, as she turned and walked down the runways of the hardware store. And the townsfolk followed. How could they not? Down the plywood aisle! Down the paint aisle! And here we are at fasteners — nuts, bolts and screws.

I was proud of Mom, who was stunningly attractive with golden-blond hair and bright green eyes. She was the model of perfection in my eyes. When most women were wearing house dresses and longish skirts and blouses, Mom was in women’s suits. Pendleton wool jackets with lapels, and perfectly matched flared-leg trousers. Ruffly blouses, just like Shirley Jones on The Partridge Family.

Hillary Clinton had nothing on my mom, who rocked the pantsuits.

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We kids started going to Grandma’s house every day after school. We loved it, and it was one of the best parts of my growing-up years.

Then the bad thing happened.

We hit our coming-of-age years, and I got in trouble with a neighbor boy. He ended up being a career criminal, and his activities included stealing cars and guns. Later, he committed a murder. He killed his own father. Horrendous? Oh, absolutely.

I was one of his first crimes. I detailed the whole love story (cough cough) in my diary, which my parents read while I was out decorating the Homecoming float and trying to be a normal teenager, despite my extreme angst and depression.

I had too much to think about, and no way of processing it. So, my parents locked me in the trailer — still smelling of smoke and with singed curtains — and they yelled at me, over and over. My dad left a bruise on my face the size of California, running down my jawline. Not one teacher said a word when I showed up in school with that.


It was around the same time my dad was screaming at me for having round heels (sigh, ugh, not cool), that my parents both started having an affair.

Maybe it had started earlier. I saw Mom and Dad having discussions and long walks in the woods around our house.

"What are they talking about?" I mused. My sister, brother, and I stared out the tiny panes of the farmhouse we grew up in. Our noses made new greasy marks on the glass.

Was this mystery with our parents going to affect us? Yes. It was.

That’s when I became my mom’s best friend.

I think the lesson I learned in my twenties about my parents’ issues is that I knew too much. I had asked, and Mom had answered.


As a curious kid, I was all too willing to listen to my mom talk about my dad. I wanted to know what was going on. Is this normal? Were any of you curious like this as a kid? Maybe I was just a little weirdo. Could be. Children don’t have the best judgment, that’s for sure. I thought I wanted 'in' on the mysteries of my parents’ problems. Mistake.

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After Dad punished me so viciously for the neighborhood boy’s attack (of course it was my fault), I was ready to listen to Mom’s comments about Dad.

Your father is a horrible person.

Hearing this didn’t do me any favors. I was in an adult world now, a world I didn’t belong in. I became quiet, depressed, and anxious. When my little brother died, it reinforced my beliefs that adulthood and marriage weren’t for me. I should never have intruded and asked questions.


Of course, after I got older and more mature, I looked at Mom and Dad’s break-up with different eyes. Things weren’t black and white. Things were gray. My parents weren’t bad people. They were simply people, and the 70s decade — free love, the pill, affairs, and swinging — had crashed into all of us.

We weren’t the Titanic. We were the stable iceberg, and the 70s — with Mom and many women going to work, fed up with the status quo — was like the giant ship.

Our family broke up.


And like everything disastrous my family went through, it was spectacularly bad and hard on all of us.

In my twenties, I finally grew up and knew what I had to do

I had to talk with both of my parents, whom I loved very much. I’m a forgiver. It’s part of who I am, but I needed to make sure they understood one thing.

I love you both, and I can no longer listen to negativity. You can’t talk about each other to me. It damages me. It hurts me. Please don’t do this anymore.

When Mom died in 2011, I went through a box of her personal letters and found one I’d written, in which I’d articulated the above.

She had highlighted it and written two words: I’m sorry.


And I loved her, and I forgave her, just as I hope my family forgives me. We never really understand how our actions and words will affect others.

Dad and I forged a strong relationship and were very close all our days. I learned to stay out of my family’s business, which was a lesson I needed.

In doing so, I found safety. Some things we do not need to know.

Thus I’ve made my way onto the metaphorical life raft, and I’m glad to be here.

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Debra Groves Harman is a creative non-fiction memoirist who's been published in myriad magazines.