Every time a scandal erupts with a married politician and a mistress, it takes me back. Like silt at the bottom of a pond, old emotions rise to the surface. On a snowy morning in March 1981, I ventured outside our house to fetch the paper. I was a 14-year-old in braces and a training bra. My father was the congressman from Delaware, a rising political star, so reading about him from time to time was normal. Plastered across the front page of the Wilmington News Journal was a picture of Dad. This time with a blonde.
Who is that woman?
All I remember from the headline are the words “Evans and the Lady.” I stood on the front stoop reading about my father and “the other woman.” Was this the same father who raced home to see me in the school play or watch my field-hockey games?
Running inside, I yelled for my mother. She was on the phone with a reporter who was looking for a comment. Dad was in Washington. Mom hung up, ashen-faced, and I handed her the paper. She glanced at it, then told me not to read “that trash.”
My mother was an artist who preferred museums and galleries in New York to teas for congressional wives on Capitol Hill. Apart from raising my two older brothers and me, she spent her time painting and volunteering. She taught art in a women’s prison and helped out at an inner-city daycare center. She joked that prisoners were more interesting than politicians. She was a renegade wife, politically speaking. And because my parents spent weeks apart, the distance—emotional and physical—had taken its toll. So perhaps when the news of my father broke, Mom wasn’t as shocked as the rest of us.
I was apoplectic. At 14, you don’t want to know your father is intimate with your mother, let alone a buxom lobbyist who has posed for Playboy. Now I was faced with this news. And my friends would know about it.
I ran upstairs, alerting my brothers. Shaking the front page in their faces, I sobbed, “You’re not going to believe what they’re saying about Dad!”
I ran out the back door and hurled myself through the snow toward the woods behind our house, then pitched to a stop near a fallen tree, flopping over it. I rocked back and forth, snow soaking through my corduroys. Our black Lab arrived, wagging his tail and panting. As he licked my tears, I got up and went back home.
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” my mother was saying on the phone in the kitchen. She handed me the receiver: “Dad wants to talk to you.”
“Well, I don’t want to talk to him,” I said.
“He needs to talk to you.”
I grabbed the phone, wailing into it, “I don’t want to talk to you!”
“Pagie,” he said, “I want you to know how much I love you and how . . .”
“How could you?”
“. . . and how terribly sorry I am. I hope someday you’ll forgive me.”
I screamed, “I hate you and I never want you to come home!”
I slammed down the phone and stood there looking at my mother. I imagined I’d told him what she wanted to—or perhaps already had. I wanted her to high-five me, but she told me to call him back and apologize.
“No way, Mom. I hate him.”
“You know how much he loves you. And he’s suffering.”
“Now go upstairs and get ready. Mrs. Draper will be by in a minute to pick you up.”
This fit with her “keep moving, this too shall pass” coping mechanism. She focused—as she still does—on going forward, never drifting into self-pity.
School was delayed that day because of the snow. When I arrived, the receptionist pulled me aside. She looked into my eyes while holding my shoulders, as if to prop me up.
“Page,” she said, “your father’s still a great father. And he loves you very much. Remember that.”
I squeaked out a “thanks.”
Her words were by far the kindest anyone said to me.
When I arrived home that afternoon, Dad was waiting in the kitchen. Part of me wanted to continue my rant, but when I saw him, he was no longer the puffed-up politician. He looked wilted, broken. I walked over and gave him a hug: “I’m sorry I said those mean things, Dad. I still love you.”
“I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you,” he said, his voice cracking.
My mother stood watching before slipping upstairs. Years later, she told me she didn’t want me to see her cry. I never did.
I made it through the weeks to follow. Parents of friends whisked me off on weekends and made sure my life was as normal as possible. Aside from a few comments blaming the newspaper for “going after your dad,” not many people brought up the subject. But it never really went away.
When I heard about the scandal involving former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, my first thoughts were of his children, who are around the same ages my brothers and I were when our father’s story broke. I thought of John Edwards’s kids when the onetime presidential hopeful’s affair became public. And now the scandals with Senator John Ensign and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. I want to tell their children they’ll be scarred but they’ll get through it.
My mother always said, “This will build character.” To which I’d respond, “I’ve got enough character—I don’t need any more.” But she was right. For better or worse, it helped form the person I am.
I now have two children. I try hard to be a good mother and person but know I sometimes fall short. Parents don’t always live up to expectations. Everyone is flawed. Accepting this fact, learning from it, is the key to moving on.
My parents stayed together despite the trauma their marriage suffered. Both had to acknowledge their roles in the temporary unraveling of their union. Making or breaking a marriage really does take two.
It has taken more than 20 years for me to accept this. After my own divorce and witnessing other failed marriages, I know blame should be shared equally, regardless of the circumstances. I’ve also learned that being a good parent isn’t the same as being a good partner. No matter how much you try in either department, nothing is a given. Neither is how your children will react to adversity.
What is a sure thing is that kids will have to learn the power of resiliency. Also guaranteed is that they’ll experience great joys, sometimes heightened because of past pain.
Last summer at Rehoboth Beach, I watched my 76-year-old father holding my daughter’s hand, both of them jumping up as waves crashed around them. They stumbled back to my spot under the umbrella.
“Did you see us, Mommy?” my eight-year-old asked. She and Dad were smiling, out of breath, covered in sand and saltwater.
“Your father’s still a great father,” the school receptionist said many years ago. Yes, I want to tell her now. And an even better grandfather.