On Ballerinas and Bedtime Stories

Saturday, we drove to Augusta, Georgia, to watch my granddaughter Maggie’s first dance recital. It was an easy drive, probably because I wasn't driving, but also because David and I listened to a podcast about the mental health benefits of being in nature. It was actually more interesting than it sounds.Every once in a while, we’d chat—about maybe moving to Ellijay in a couple of years, so I can host retreats there more often, or about how the perm I got last week ruined my hair. There were no uncomfortable silences, no stupid conversations about boundary infractions or safety circles. I didn’t gaze out the window, trying to decide if I should bring up something that has been bothering me, blah blah blah. There were no arguments or outbursts. David never threatened to run us off the road.

After we arrived at the venue, we walked through the parking lot and saw girls of all ages dressed like cupcakes, headed backstage, their moms trailing behind with colorful costume changes and hairspray. Some of the dancers were tinier than Maggie, staggering around like little drunks, their tights wrinkled at the knees and ankles. But others were beautiful almost-women, gliding like swans, not a wrinkle to be found. I thought about all the times I’d been at events like this with my ex—sports banquets, prom picture parties, or graduations, where teenaged girls spread out before him like a buffet. I remembered the time I asked him to tone down the way he was talking to my daughters’ friends, because it sounded just a bit like flirting and it seemed weird. I recalled him accusing me of being crazy for saying such a thing.

Then Discovery had come, and his confessions about the ever-present fantasies, enough ick to last me several lifetimes. There were so many levels of bad to this that it would take years to write it out, but I’m sure you know. Yet I stayed, in part because I had therapists telling me that the “addiction” was not who he really was. Plus, I was told, all men look at teenaged girls. That’s why “Teen” is one of the top search categories for porn. Kill me now. Fortunately or unfortunately, his tastes were not limited to teenaged girls; no, his desires were vast and assorted. Like a giant Whitman’s Sampler.

Back to Saturday: Once David and I found our seats inside the Arts Center, he read the news on his phone and I scrolled through Instagram. I never once wondered if he was “scanning the room” or “soaking in images.” Dear God, I cannot believe that was my life. Eventually, the lights dimmed and the emcee came out and made a bunch of terrible corny jokes and the show began. Maggie’s group of three-year-olds went first, and we laughed as Maggie, the self-appointed volunteer, counted loudly and gave her peers directions. She was, of course, spectacular, the next Martha Graham. When her group finished, I drifted back to the memory of my middle daughter Georgia, wearing a star-spangled leotard and tap-dancing to Yankee Doodle Dandy. Some things never change. There will always be little girls dancing. And big girls dancing. And playing lacrosse and running track and marching in the band.

There will be men watching the girls, too, and some of those men will be objectifying them, while others will be proudly clapping or taking pictures without a single deviant thought. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, which men are which. Once you know, though, you can’t un-know. I raised four children in the house with a so-called sex addict. That is a hard truth. I held on to that marriage for far too long, against all of my instincts and all of my values. But I let go of it in time to keep it from infecting my grandchildren. I let go of it, and now it does not affect my ability to be fully present, to fully enjoy, to be fully myself. I can watch Maggie perform, help her make pancakes, and read to her at bedtime, without being distracted by fear and suspicion. With Maggie, I am VanMa, the fairy grandmother. I’m not the sad, pathetic shell of myself that was all my children had of me at my worst.

I am free.