By Mary Winstead, Illustration by Ilana Blady
I met Syb in a church basement, where every Tuesday night we sat with 15 women in a circle of folding chairs. We talked about the pain of staying in an abusive relationship, and the difficulty of leaving one. We went through cases of Kleenex.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The heart wants what it wants.” But when the heart wants someone with a drinking problem, gambling problem, you-name-it problem, it also wants remedial work. I’d left a husband with a womanizing problem. I’d isolated myself and my three kids in a protective cocoon. But I was in college, single parenting, and on the brink of financial disaster. Alone wasn’t working. Remarriage was unthinkable. I didn’t know where I belonged.
As it turned out, I belonged exactly where women have belonged since they began gathering in caves around the warmth of a campfire: in the company of female friends. Suddenly, I found supportive women everywhere: at group, school, work, and among old friends. Four of those women—Syb, May, Helen, and Katie—coalesced into an inner circle of confidantes and companions. When I hit a wall, they redirected me. They became my personal board of trustees.
Far from being a temporary crutch to lean on until I found the right man, they wove a net of wisdom and support that sustained me then, and still does today. When my soon-to-be ex-husband destroyed my college report cards and questioned my sanity, an old friend of ours took my side and championed my decision to leave and complete my English degree. And, May gave me a book from her library. “Read this,” she said, handing me Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It became a sacred text.
I cried a lot: inconveniently, uncontrollably. My tears seemed feral. I was afraid to be alone with them. On campus at my Catholic women’s college, the nuns who taught my literature classes invited me to cry in their offices between classes. They graded papers and handed me tissues. Off campus, I reached out to Helen, an old high school pal who listened when I blubbered into the phone.
I hadn’t spoken to Katie for years, but she welcomed me back, no questions asked. She lived near my cramped campus apartment in a spacious home, which she opened to my kids and me. For three summers we sat on the back stoop, watching our kids splash in their pool and play on the swing set. I often despaired of ever standing on my own. “Nobody stands on their own,” Katie said. “We’ll always need each other.”
Syb helped me assemble my portfolio and organize my job search. And she invited my little family to share the house she’d purchased. I now had a backyard, affordable rent, and a supportive roommate. She and I encouraged each other to focus on men we could love rather than men we could fix. And her heart healed: That Christmas, her fiancé played Santa Claus for my kids.
I’ve never stopped needing my board of trustees. But in time I’ve needed them in different ways. For three decades, help has never been further than a phone call away. We’ve been present for each other through career changes, teenage rebellions, cancer scares, aging parents, and now, grandchildren. Fifteen years ago I knew I’d chosen the right guy when he good-naturedly appeared before my board of trustees for their full approval. They helped plan my wedding. My dress was red. I wore waterproof mascara. There was plenty of Kleenex.
Mary Winstead (M.F.A. ’00) is a senior writer at the University of Minnesota Foundation.