Oh, my, god. Johnny, look at her fax.
It is so big.
It looks like one of those…divorce party invites.
By the middle of that late twentieth century summer, “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot owned the top Billboard spot. From July 4 to August 7, everyone was singing it, and in the middle of all that on Friday, July 17, 1992, my former stepmother, Scharmel, threw a divorce party for friends and strangers at daddy’s Canal Pointe home.
LR face with a Miley booty
Earlier that day, Scharmel, a 35-year-old single mother of a nine-year-old son, drove her minty-teal green Acura Integra right on over to happy hour at Cajun’s Wharf, a local restaurant and night life hot spot with decks overlooking the Arkansas River. With her child spending part of the summer with his father in Dallas and her estranged husband living out of town, Scharmel’s friend suggested a divorce party to improve her spirits. Based on witness statements, Scharmel asked people at the Cajun’s bar to join the party.
But even before that, Scharmel, the director of communications for the North Little Rock School District crafted a two-page divorce party invitation (probably using PageMaker 4.0 on a small beige Macintosh Classic II).
“I remember how I felt when I read it,” my mom later wrote in her own narrative to capture the memory. “It was vicious. It took someone with a lot of anger to write the nasty things that were in this celebration invitation.”
Over the years, my imagination has crept into Scharmel’s territory, in her shoes and in attempt to somehow understand her side of things. Who was she? What kind of headspace was she in when she wrote the house rules? Through a mature lens, I re-read the invitation in full when writing this post. Remembering my divorce, I see myself nine years after my father died and again lying down on yet another living room floor. This time found me, age 27, in the little one-bedroom apartment I rented just down the street from the Kemah Boardwalk in south Texas.
“Now what?” I asked out loud.
This was my divorce experience. The bona fide “party girl” had no idea what to do next. I’d spent eight years with my ex-husband when the separation began, and the absence of animosity could be attributed to a passionless void of indifference. I felt sad, confused. Lost but free. Still, nothing I felt warranted a celebration. It was a failure, even if it was never meant to be. I can only speculate how Scharmel felt, but I won’t print that here.
But what we do know is she had a party. Please click the photos to read the invitations so you can follow along with the rest of the story.
You ain’t it, Miss Thing
I mean, her fax, is just so big.
I can’t believe it’s just so snarky, it’s like, out there, I mean—gross. Look!
She’s just so… BATSHIT CRAZY!
Should I go one by one and tell you what I think of some of these house rules? Maybe in another post.
I find it interesting how focused the completely made-up “house rules” are on children, especially since her one brilliant son was so important to her. If there were so many “rules” and demands, how could she marry this man after knowing him for eleven months and after breaking up at least two (maybe three) times before getting engaged? Did she not fully vet her husband and his lifestyle? What kind of toxic environment was she willingly moving her son into? Didn’t she know who she was marrying? Did she think she was going to change this man?
I remember what daddy told me about his feelings as a young boy when his parents divorced. He resented his father for marrying someone new and taking on their family as his own, casting the three Burnett boys aside. They lived with their mother in a little house on Ramble that backed up to the boundary of Hot Springs National Park, while their father lived across town with Carmen and her children. In the 1950s, mental health discussions took place in cold buildings with padded rooms. Processing childhood traumas probably came with added traumas and “giving you something to cry about.” Who knows how far daddy got with his own healing? Daddy and Scharmel had already started couples therapy after less than 72 days of marriage.
Daddy explained his feelings to me before and after he married Scharmel. He felt guilty about her son living in his house with them, even though he knew the boy should live with his mother. I assured him that he did not need to feel guilty for me, and I believe my brother felt the same. We were open to a blended family, and I think we both wanted more siblings. Soon, I would be leaving for college, and Jason was starting high school. We were all in different stages. That’s the thing: we are all in different stages, all five of us. Why couldn’t the grownups see this, too?
Thinking back to when I was thirty-five years old, I also imagine Scharmel at that party in her prime. Were they listening to the current songs of the time, like Sir Mix-a-Lot, or just spinning records on daddy’s jukebox or playing one of his CDs? Maybe someone brought the music and played DJ. Was she into that kind of thing?
Looking through photos from 2009 when I was thirty-five, I see a woman who had been on a path of healing going on 17 years (half my life), and she was still searching – searching for meaning, a resolution and some kind of full circle understanding about that day in July and about her dad. The woman in the photos shows someone still processing childhood traumas in various ways. (I worked out 298 days in a row that year.) In 2009, I was Scharmel’s age at the time of her divorce party. Like her, I had friends and threw parties. I liked snow skiing and enjoyed live music, and 2009 was the summer of Lady Gaga. Like Scharmel, I worked in communications. Like Scharmel, I owned a small two-bedroom condo.
But I am nothing like her.
I am someone who had to carry a childhood trauma, something worse than my father’s version. I am someone who got a dead end for no good reason.
Now here’s my scandal
When I imagine that party, I can sense my dad’s aggravation, just seething. Receiving a faxed invitation from a friend of a friend of Scharmel’s, it was no surprise he eventually found out about the party. I think of how he must have felt when she told him she didn’t want the divorce and countered for separate maintenance and to take possession of his house. I think of how she wrote letters to Jason and me to tell us how she didn’t want a divorce. Jason, somehow so wise beyond his age, didn’t even open the letter and threw it away. And now she was making a joke of it all with a party at her estranged husband’s house. To read this invitation and the rules, especially the ones with some truth calling him out, must have infuriated my dad.
I have absorbed as much as I can about him in thirty years, and it is easy to envision this next part about how he got involved with the party. First, daddy sent his friend, Jim, to drive through the neighborhood to see what he could see and record a description of each car and license plate parked at the house. Daddy said Scharmel had threatened to destroy the house before she moved out. At the time, the sparse Canal Pointe neighborhood featured a few houses, some new construction and mainly bare lots. Daddy thought if any of his friends were there, he would also end those friendships and let them know promptly with a Saturday morning phone call.
Jim dutifully entered the gates of Canal Pointe a few times on the evening of July 17 and documented each car, truck and SUV. Daddy sat across town behind the desk in the back office of his liquor store. At midnight, the front door to Target Package Company chimed the tune “Home! Sweet Home” when Jim walked in with the cassette tape and the list of party guest vehicles. Morning would slide in soon enough, and there was work to be done before then.