The moment seemed made for talk from the heart--if not for my 8-year-old son, then for me.
Tucked deep in our sleeping bags, side by side under a star-freckled sky, I kept thinking of the small cardboard box that had been mailed to my office. It contained a smaller one covered in faded gray velvet and bursting with memories. Inside were the wedding and engagement rings I had slipped onto my first wife's hand nearly 20 years ago.
In an accompanying letter, she said she needed "to let them go, in a symbolic sense." She was getting married again.
I studied the gold and diamonds as if they were archeological treasures, possessing the secrets of a past once filled with youthful abandon and then with adult pain. The returned rings pronounced an end to the marriage in a way more personal and tangible than any of the divorce papers we signed 11 years back.
I guess that's why in the vast expanse of the Anza-Borrego desert--a place that practically demands introspection--I edged the bedtime conversation with my son from Beanie Babies and baseball to the woman who came before his mommy.
Being a parent sometimes feels a lot like being a preacher constantly extolling the virtues of values to an occasionally wayward flock. But there are a handful of conversations that transcend the daily sermons, that can shape forever a youngster's view of life's most mysterious and scary forces.
One, of course, is sex. Another is the disclosure of an earlier union, a uniquely delicate undertaking that inherently raises questions about the meaning and durability of love and marriage. If mom or dad were divorced before, couldn't it happen again? And what would become of me? It's hard to fathom a more unsettling thought for a young child.
So on that chilly night in the desert, the words I carefully chose to impart were not about regret of the past, but gratitude for the present, for the marriage I have today.
I began by telling Jesse that I had been with my first wife, Linda, for 10 years. His eyes widened in surprise. She was an elementary school teacher, I said. "Just like mom used to be," he said. "Yes, just like mom."
He then asked why we stopped being married. People sometimes want different things, I explained. I wanted to be a reporter in a big, crowded city. She wanted to live in the wilderness, kind of like camping every day. He seemed boggled that anyone would give away everything--even their TV--to live on an Indian reservation, as Linda did after our parting.
During the next few minutes, we moved from the color of Linda's hair to where she is today, in a spacious cabin in the Colorado Rockies.
We also talked about the rings. The diamonds, I told him, belonged to his great-grandmother and I would save them for him should he choose to marry someday. "Can I have them now?" he asked with a knowing grin. Yeah, right.
Now it was time to shift gears, to ease any welling worries by telling Jesse about the night I fell for his mom, Mona. Appropriately enough, the setting was Thanksgiving, and it was her first introduction to my parents.
After we finished the feast Mona had cooked, she put on some romantic music and headed not for me but for the hand of my elderly dad. Slowly, sweetly, they danced across the living room of my Fairfax apartment. He was beaming. The gesture was so free of inhibition, so kind, so telling of her nature. Just think, I told Jesse, how good your mom made "Poppa" feel, how good she makes you feel.
' As the night advanced, I could see Jesse starting to fade. But there was one last thing I wanted--needed--to share before putting our conversation to bed.
For many of the years Linda and I were together, we wanted very much to have children. But it never happened, despite our desires and prayers. I told Jesse that I was sure parenthood was just not meant to be for me.
But soon after Mona and I were married, he arrived and then, two years later, came little Kate. He grasped the implications. "There would have been no Jesse if you were with Linda." Exactly, I said. That's why your mom and I believe fate waited for us to find each other before giving us the gift of you and your sister.
With that, he smiled and said, "I'm ready to go to sleep now. I love you, Dad." Pulling our arms out of our sleeping bags, we hugged and then drifted into our own worlds, both of us looking forward to the magic of the morning sunrise.