As hard and personally “this interruption” affects me and my daughters, I came to learn much later that it has followed the steps which are common to the history of non-custodial fathers with their alienated children. In July 2 1999, my ex-wife and I separated. She had prepared an informal document defining my visitations with the girls that we both signed. I would see Camille and Chloé on Friday afternoon after school and on Sunday all day long until 5:00 pm.
At the beginning, I dreaded the consequences of the separation on my relationship with Camille and Chloé, then 4 and half and two. I was scared to lose the closeness of our relation altogether. I had to find an apartment quickly, very close to the West Side where they were living. I wanted this apartment to be close to parks, to have one independent bedroom for my girls where they could sleep and play. I found it in West Harlem. I first feared that they would be repelled by my place, which was naked, had none of the furniture, toys and comfort that my girls were used to. The first days, there was just a bed, not even a table where we could eat lunch. The first visit, we improvised a “dînette” – a kind of “déjeuner” on a piece of cloth- in the room where the girls would later be sleeping. This déjeuner went so well that I overcame all my fears. My girls did not give a first or a second thought to the not so fresh paintwork or the comfort in my apartment. They really were here to see me. Later on, our “dînettes” were populated with the folks – bears, dolls- that were added to us.
As I was finding out that I was actually breezing freely alone, I was also discovering that I could develop an autonomous relation with my girls, without living under the same roof of my ex-wife. These moments with my girls became everything to me. The weekends came to be the key point of my week. When one visit was over, I was thinking of what we would be doing on the next one. Very soon though, I was cornered into protecting these new moments with my girls. In October 1999, I received a letter from the lawyer of my ex-wife telling me that she had noticed the following: my girls had not eaten properly, came back to their mum’s home tired and that if this were to go on, she would take legal action. I then decided to file for divorce. I naively thought that divorce would shield my relationship with my girls from my ex-wife’s interferences into it.
What best described what was interrupted is play, free and imaginary play. We had a crowd of dolls, Batman, Superman, Robin,a bunch of barbies and bears and during the week-end, things were happening to these folks and their stories were unwinding, sometimes overlapping on one week to the other. When Camille started to write, their stories would be in the “local paper”. Back home, I would be happy putting away all these people that were lying on the floor back on the beds of the girls. Another moment of deep joy would be when I would cook for them and bring them peanuts or cashews while they were watching a video. When my friends asked me what I was doing with my girls the weekend, the answer was uniquevocaly: “we played dolls.” The educational content of these weekends was rather weak. Some friends had suggested that I teach them French. Yet since I was seeing them so rarely, I did not feel that I had to spoil these moments. When we were not playing, I would speak to them in French and they would answer in English. In the beginning of 2002, I made a deal with Camille: she would teach me hebrew,which she was learning in school, and I would teach her French. These “lessons” must have taken place twice or three times.
Now that more than seven years have elapsed since this infamous and phony trial on child abuse took place and that my girls are
pre teens and teens, they might not remember how these weekends with me were also precious to them.Their mum herself once acknowledged that they were. On Saturday January 11, 2000, my apartment was burglarized. The author had broken one of the window of my bedroom. Fortunately, he knew what he wanted and took computer, printer, the cable box etc… without leaving my place as a wreck. Yet because the window was broken, the apartment was quite cold and I thought I had to cancel the Sunday visit of my girls. I called my ex-wife who was adamant that the visit had to happen. The girls wanted to see me and were asking for the visit. The visit took place anyway and went wonderfully well. The super made a rush replacement of the window, and friends that I had invited insisted on coming anyway in my “burglarized” place. The girls had their first crêpe party (in France, families have traditionally the first one the first Sunday of the year).
My girls’ first sleepover at my place is to me one of these unforgettable times with them. It took place I believe, in Christmas 2000, before the divorce was pronounced. The previous summer, I had the bunk beds where my younger sister and I were sleeping when we were little sent from France in my apartment in Harlem. Little by little, these beds had become covered with my girls’ folks, Batman inc. and even Woody that Camille had left at my place. The girls had agreed that Camille the big one would sleep in the upper bed and Chloé in the lower one. I distinctly remember watching them sleeping, which I could do because Chloé wanted me to leave a small lamp on. They were not bothered once by the noise my steps were making on the wooden floor, as I was bringing their presents in their shoes under the Christmas tree.