It was our usual Sunday morning. Coated in a dusting of flour, I pounded out pizza dough for dinner looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost. My husband, Dennis, had his head buried in a newspaper at the kitchen table. Noa, our daughter, who was eight at the time, kept snatching pieces of the sticky mixture to sculpt the little birds and flowers she insisted were essential to a successful recipe. That, and prattling on about how the best year of your life is when your age coincides with the day on which you were born. “Mommy, was it a great year when you were 26?” she asked.
I stopped, mid-knead. Dennis looked up at me. Time suddenly slowed.
Twenty-six. I was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal back then. Only a couple of years out of journalism school, I’d been assigned to cover Central America, whose regional wars made it one of the hottest international stories of the early 1980s. Being a foreign correspondent and working for a paper like the Journal was, for me, a dream existence. I could scarcely believe my good fortune.
And to top it all off, I’d fallen in love. Wildly. Madly. He was a veteran reporter for a West Coast newspaper, a divorcé with kids. I’d met him on the third day of my first foreign assignment in Costa Rica. Ours was a frenetic, breathless sort of romance, squeezed in among the wars and coups we had to cover for our respective papers. That we would rendezvous in such dangerous places — El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala — only heightened the intoxication. We married less than a year after meeting, in an impromptu ceremony in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, between trips.
Ten months later, he was dead, blown to bits by a land mine on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. And there I was: a bride at 25, a widow at 26.
“Actually, Noa, it wasn’t such a good year,” I said slowly, stalling for time. “In fact, it was the worst year of my life.” And I proceeded to recount the barest outline of my first marriage, tragic ending included.
Dead silence. “You were married before?” she finally said, her voice a mix of shock and hurt. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Why, indeed. In the litany of possible parental sins, this was one of omission, not commission. I’d simply let the matter go too long. It’s like telling your kid about sex: best accomplished when she/he is very young and engrossed in, say, a compelling episode of Sesame Street. Reluctantly turning from the television screen, your offspring stares at you blankly after receiving the unsolicited information, says “OK,” then goes back to Big Bird. Done! The bare-bone facts are now firmly implanted in the child’s inner landscape, to be dredged up later — usually at crazily inappropriate moments — for further elucidation.
Not that I tried to hide any vestiges of my old life from Noa. I’d stayed in touch with my first husband’s children; Noa went with Dennis and me to my stepdaughter’s wedding. And she’d met my stepson’s children. But she never questioned their relationship to us, probably assuming they were just part of the crazy-quilt of extended kin stitched together from the divorces and remarriages and blended families that nowadays make genealogical charts resemble a New York City subway map.
I found it harder to tell her with each passing year. There were moments that I veered close to blurting out the truth, to coming clean with Noa, but I always choked. More maturity meant more questions. Like any parent, I wanted to shield my daughter from pain — a hard thing to do when having to recount the late-night phone call to my home in Mexico City that informed me of my first husband’s death. And the frantic attempts to get to Honduras to retrieve his remains before the government interred him there. And the interminable flight back to the States with his body stowed at my feet on the floor of a small plane. And the semi-falling-apart afterward when my editors, very thoughtfully, transferred me to Beirut — then in the throes of a brutal civil war — to recover.