Loving someone means accepting the parts of their past that have led them to you.
A few years ago, when my younger stepdaughter Shiloh was around 5, we were in the midst of the usual pre-holiday cookie cutters excitement when she announced to her dad and me that all she wanted for Christmas was a dry erase white board. Her sister requested all manner of things, from a sewing machine to a BB gun to a pony, but through the weeks of advent calendar candy, Shiloh stuck to her simple request: a white board and pen, please.
On Christmas morning, Darby and I headed over to his ex-wife’s house for the celebration. This is the way the holidays go: The ex-wife and her new husband come over for Easter egg hunts in our backyard, we all go trick-or-treating together through the neighborhood for Halloween, and every Christmas, Darby and I head to their house so the kids can rip open gifts in the company of all the parents and stepparents.
The girls love having everyone together. I was raised on Hanukah and Passover traditions, so I have no template of my own for how these holidays should go. Since Darby’s family lives far off in Texas, I’ve come to think of his ex-wife and her husband as my in-laws. Nowadays—after marriage, kids, divorce—when we fall in love, our love’s exes often come as part of the package. And, actually, in a way I like that we spend holidays with family.
I met Darby in 2009 at a July 4th party. It was a few months after my separation from my ex-husband, and I was finally lifting my head out of the fog I’d been in for the past year. Darby had been divorced for three years. Our first autumn together, it was just him and me. Friday nights we’d go to the local pub for backgammon and California craft brews. Sundays we’d bicycle through the neighborhood. Tuesday nights I’d stop by his house to catch up and unwind. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, though, were his kid days, and in those early months we kept our romance between the two of us.
“People date to see if they’re compatible,” he’d say. “I want to make sure that we are before getting the kids involved.”
When Thanksgiving came around, we decided it was time. That night, before the pie was cut, we dashed off from a feast with friends to meet up with his ex and get the kids. The whole ride to his house, my mind was on the girls.
“Will they like me?” I wondered, nervously picking my nails.
“They’ll love you,” he said.
On the way to his house I gave no thought to their mom. Then, suddenly, I was standing at the gate in the chaos of chattering kids, shaking hands with her.
That was four years ago. At first I smiled a lot. I thought of the girls’ mom as a potential friend. “Why not?” I thought. “I’d want to be friends with the other woman who is partly raising my kids.”
Over time, though, despite the holiday celebrations, I realized that Darby’s ex does not share my potential-friend sentiment. I’ve read articles with titles like The Parent, the Stepparent, and the Ex and compared notes with some other stepmom friends, but I get the sense that there is something beyond the co-parenting dynamic at play. Darby and his ex-wife agreed to put the girls’ best interests first long before I came around. Even so, it’s hard to maintain a relationship with an ex after you’ve both moved on. Even harder, perhaps, is to have a relationship with the ex’s current.
Shiloh’s white board stuck around for a long time, much longer than most Christmas presents. The board reminds me of an old college friend. My friend was a triple major in Mathematics, Linguistics, and Philosophy, and he had a white board on his bedroom wall that he littered with equations in tidy dry-erase handwriting. He lived in a Boston triple-decker with a few other guys, and just before our junior year I fell in love with one of the roommates. The guys and I made messes in their kitchen, steaming up the windows with pots of vegetarian chili for whoever would tromp through in snow-caked boots. Many nights, after the dishes were piled in the sink, we’d sit around and banter about linguistics and philosophy over cookies and cards.
While most of our kitchen table words have slipped from my memory, one has stuck with me all these years: palimpsest. I think about this word when I see Shiloh’s white board. A palimpsest is something you can write on, a sheet of paper, for instance, but one which has been used before. In a palimpsest, the previous writing has been erased, but the page still retains traces of the earlier images.
Back in those college days, in love for the first time, I was like that fresh, unmarked white board right out of the Christmas wrapping. The relationship lasted a few years, but ultimately our innocence wrecked us. We were careless with our love, simply too young, or our backgrounds too shaky, to have a proper set of tools for nurturing a good relationship.
I dated through my 20s. I went to grad school. I found a classmate who was very nice, and I married sensibly at 30. And then, four years in, our marriage hit the furthest sensible and nice could go. I needed a deeper connection than nice. I needed passion, and I felt too young to settle for less. In a gamble on faith I was not entirely sure I had—that falling in love is not just for college kids—my very nice, sensible husband of four years and I divorced. I moved a half-set of wine glasses across town and hoped, when the time came again to spelunk the depths of my heart, I had a better toolbox than I did in college.
As it turns out, I did learn some things in all those years between. And along with the toolbox came a history book. When Darby leaned in to kiss me on the early September night of our first date, our history books fell open to each other. Some of our history we’ve shared through conversation, but some has revealed itself in other ways. When we moved in together, I brought that half-set of wine glasses. Among other things, Darby brought his daughters. Our histories are layered. I try to appreciate all the remnants of Darby’s past, even his ex-wife, because this history shaped him into the man I love today.
Shiloh’s 8 now. Mostly she just swipes paper from the printer, but she occasionally digs out the white board. You can see the faint blue of her early words on the palimpsest’s dry-erase surface. Shiloh never cares about the remnants of her past projects, and I find them strangely precious. I try to learn from her. The blue traces on her white board are like the girls’ heights we pencil in on the kitchen doorframe. They are markers of time passing, and growth.
Christmas came again last year. It was my fourth with Darby and the girls. That morning, we headed over to his ex-wife’s house with gifts of wine and pumpkin bread. Darby, me, his ex-wife, her new husband—we palimpsests all gathered together again, each of us with our own pasts faint under our current lives. Like a faded, underlying map, the traces of our history reveal the paths that brought us together. Like Shiloh’s white board, we are all graffitied with the indelible ink of our past loves. And this is the trick, isn’t it? To appreciate it all, whatever it is that got us here.
Arielle Silver is a writer, musician, and yoga teacher. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and stepdaughters.