Planting My Flag

Since my divorce, the house feels pretty empty on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and every other Sunday. Without my kids’ grunts, clutter, and the noise from their devices in the house, I needed something to fill the void, so I picked up yoga. During my first visit to the Noblesville studio, the instructor asked my name. When I told her, she lit up. “Do you know Bill Kenley?”

“I do. Bill is my ex-husband,” I told her. Her eyes darted. I jumped in to save her. “Were you a student of his?” I asked brightly.

“No. I’m a teacher at the middle school,” she said, and stopped. She must have been trying to not mention the words “Bill Kenley” again even though they were, at the moment, the only thing that connected us. Speaking the name of someone’s ex can be like summoning Voldemort in certain circles. I steered the conversation to a safe zone.

“One of our sons is a middle-schooler. Where do you teach?” There are two middle schools in Noblesville, so I expected her answer to come easily. When it didn’t, I filled the pause. “East or West?”

“Noblesville West,” she sputtered. I could hear the relief in her voice. She had survived a super-awkward moment without offending me.

This kind of thing happens to me a few times a month. While I tell myself it shouldn’t sting and know that no one means any harm, I don’t love being constantly reminded that I got divorced. My ex-husband has taught English and creative writing at Noblesville High School since 1997, and coaches track and cross-country. Bill is a local luminary among young people, but his father, Luke Kenley, is an even bigger deal to most residents. As a powerful state senator, Luke chaired the Senate Committee on Appropriations for eight years. He led efforts to eliminate the inheritance tax. In 2005, he sponsored legislation that led to the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium. On a smaller scale, his wife, Sally, is just as highly regarded as a volunteer and artist. Sally’s father served seven years as mayor of Noblesville. Starting with Bill’s great-grandfather, three generations of Kenley men operated the now-shuttered Kenley’s grocery stores in Noblesville until Luke decided to focus on his political career after 25 years in the grocery business.

I’ve had a year’s worth of practice responding when strangers ask me about my ties to the Kenley name, but it never gets easier for the person asking. While ordering a drink at a wine bar in Carmel recently, a young woman approached me and mentioned that my husband was one of her friend’s favorite high school teachers.

“Such a small world!” she gushed.

“Ex-husband, actually,” I told her as breezily as I could muster.

She slunk away to her table.

Facebook isn’t a safe place either. Earlier this summer, a friend tagged me in a post about who should pay for and create public art in Indianapolis. Before I could even read the string of opinions, a woman who must have noticed my last name added to the conversation that I was the wife of her favorite teacher.

While Bill’s roots in Noblesville are like those in some majestic old-growth forest, mine are like the ones attached to an air plant, a few skinny roots with nothing to hold on to. But for my kids, it’s home, and the last thing I wanted to do is take that away from them.

Bill and I are raising them here for practical reasons, too: a strong public school system, low cost of living, walkable neighborhoods. I plan to live in Noblesville until our youngest son graduates from high school in 2027. So for the next seven years, I’ll be grappling with, and hopefully coming to peace with, all the awkwardness of being a Kenley in name only.

The first Kenley I ever met was Bill’s little sister, Betsy, in our freshman dorm at Miami University in 1993. We became fast friends. My hometown was an eight-hour drive away, so over Easter weekend, I rode home with her to Noblesville to meet her parents and go to church. It wasn’t a Presbyterian service, but it was the next best thing, I assured my parents. I spent most of Easter morning hunting for the pale yellow shoes I was pretty sure I’d packed to wear with my pale yellow dress. But I couldn’t help noticing pictures of Betsy’s twin brothers on the wall: Bill and John.

One weekend back at Miami, Bill came to visit Betsy. He was four years older than us, with dark hair, olive skin, and a swoon-worthy knowledge of feminist writers. It was an instant crush on my end, but nothing came of it for years.

As college graduation approached and we tried to avoid the “real world,” Betsy asked if any of us wanted to spend a few months working in Alaska at a salmon cannery. Bill, who was teaching at his alma mater Noblesville High School during the school year, had worked at the cannery several summers and could get us jobs. I jumped at the chance for an adventure. At our graduation party in 1997, Betsy told my parents, “I’m going to have Casey and Bill engaged by the end of the summer.”

In early July, Betsy and I flew to Seattle, transferred to Anchorage, and then squeezed into a puddle-jumper to Kodiak Island. I remember the first time I saw Bill when we landed. He wore a beard and a frayed ball cap with the bill tightly curled, a plug of tobacco in his bottom lip. A man’s man.

How much we worked at the cannery was contingent on how well the fish were running. When the salmon boats filled up fast and needed to be unloaded frequently, we could work 18 hours straight. But we had plenty of dry stretches that summer, so the whole experience felt like an unsupervised, co-ed camp a lot of the time. It was an easy place to fall in love. One night in the bunkhouse after we’d had a few beers, Bill said, “Come over here and give me a kiss.” I was happy to oblige.

My job title at the cannery was “lid bitch.” On the line where I worked, chunks of raw salmon—bones and all—went into cans along with a marble-sized ball of salt. Breaks were called “mug-ups,” when the canning line would pause so workers could get a snack and coffee, or smoke a cigarette. During one mug-up, I was walking along the dock when Bill threw an empty paper cup at me. I picked up the cup, gave him a scolding look, and tossed it in the garbage can. That was him flirting. We started spending time together on a porch swing hung on the second floor of his bunk house. It faced the bay, and we swung for hours that summer, the black sky drizzled with stars.

[parallax media=”” height=”700px” overlay=”true” align=”center”]You don’t marry someone so that you can take their name or enjoy the spoils of their family’s hard-earned reputation, though. You marry someone because you fall in love and foresee a long life together for the rest of your years. Or at least that’s what I did.[/parallax]

Betsy didn’t quite make good on her bet to have us engaged by summer’s end, but Bill and I decided to get married less than a year later. We exchanged vows in my grandmother’s church on June 26, 1999, in Humboldt, Tennessee. I was 24, and he was 28. They say it’s good luck to have rain on your wedding day. We had buckets of it, forcing the bluegrass band in my parents’ yard to unplug what was plugged in and freeing the rest of us from any semblance of decorum. Late night, the groomsmen and bridesmaids were bobbing in the lake, passing around a jug of wine, ruining tuxes and bleeding red dye all over dresses.

divorce illustration
Illustration by Cornelia Li

Following a cross-country honeymoon, we moved into a brick duplex on West 47th Street in Indianapolis. We planned to be there for a couple years until we figured out where we really wanted to live. While Bill remained steadily employed at Noblesville High School, I changed jobs quite a bit, from a book publisher to a daily newspaper to a now-defunct women’s magazine. While I was at the magazine, Bill and I made a plan to move to Asheville, North Carolina. It would be an adventure and a return, for me, to the South. Bill submitted his letter of resignation. I did the same. My boss reacted by offering me a promotion. I decided it made sense for us to stay in Indianapolis, and buy a house. Bill agreed.

During our first seven years of marriage, we spent thousands of dollars at the Broad Ripple Brewpub, rescued a puppy and named him Poncho, and bought what must have been the first iteration of a futon. We made friends, met neighbors, and launched a block party on Berkley Road. Bill bought and sold a motorcycle. We renovated the enclosed porch on the front of our house. I watched the seasons change during year-round runs along the Central Canal and Monon Trail.

We had our first son, Raymond, in 2006. I always wanted kids, two of them actually. After eight weeks, I returned to my job as editor at a local food magazine downtown. During the day, Ray stayed at a church daycare two blocks from my office on Vermont Street. Bill kept up his commutes to Noblesville and back every weekday, as much as 50 minutes each way depending on traffic.

The idea of moving to Noblesville was never something I seriously considered. I was working hard to make a name for myself in a city that I had no tangible attachment to, and I was making progress. The last thing I was going to do was move to a small town where I would undoubtedly be known as “Senator Kenley’s daughter-in-law” or “Mr. Kenley’s wife.” Hitching a ride on someone else’s coattails wasn’t in my DNA.

But when I got pregnant with our second baby, Leo, something changed in me. I’ve dismissed it as “crazy pregnancy hormones” in the past, but it was more than that. I missed being close to family and wanted our kids to grow up with grandparents nearby. Plus, we could tap Noblesville High School for an endless supply of babysitters! Our growing family had no plans to move to Tennessee, where my parents and siblings lived. Noblesville made a lot of sense.

After living and working in Indiana for nine years, I was also more self-assured about having come into my own as “Casey.” I was less concerned about being seen primarily as someone else’s wife or daughter-in-law. My last name didn’t define me.

When I told Bill I was interested in moving to Noblesville, he was ready. It was my turn to do the long commutes to work. My only caveat was that we live downtown, within walking distance of the courthouse square and shops, in an old house.

My mother-in-law was ecstatic and set out immediately to find us the perfect home, which she did. The first time I drove down the brick street to check out the house, big snowflakes fell on my windshield. I fell in love with the wraparound porch. I could picture myself there. The house wasn’t actually on the market, but we’d heard a rumor. The owner was a woman about my age who had inherited the house after her mother died. This was more than a real-estate transaction for her. She was angling for worthy candidates.

Despite my aforementioned aversion to use the Kenley name to my advantage, during an initial phone call with her, I mentioned the Kenleys’ deep roots in the town. Oh yes, she knew the family. Plus, we had a toddler and another baby on the way. We would raise an upstanding family in this home. We were shoo-ins! Following a walk-through and a Cliffs Notes version of an inspection, we signed the purchase agreement.

divorce quote familyIn Noblesville, I quickly learned that people make assumptions about Kenleys. Many assume you like decorating your front yard with political signs. Those same people assume you’re a Republican. Many assume you’re a nice, decent person, probably a Methodist. They assume you intimately know the local person or family they’re talking to you about, even though you’re shaking your head to try to communicate to them that you didn’t grow up here and don’t know who the heck they’re talking about. Some people, apparently, assume you live off of a trust fund, a lie I overheard a local politician spreading one morning while I was trying to enjoy a cup of coffee. I corrected him. He lost his race.

During the 10 years that I lived in Noblesville as Bill’s wife, whenever I was introduced to someone in the company of Bill or one of his parents, I think most people assumed good things about me just because I was a Kenley. I won’t claim to know what unfavorable opinions swirl out there in the universe, but as big fish in a small pond, it’s a safe bet that the Kenleys have their detractors, too. Luke was a city court judge for 15 years. If he ever put you or your dad in jail for public intoxication or a hit-and-run, my last name likely isn’t one you want to hear. Plus, being a “political family” makes you inherently polarizing.

In contrast, my own family was apolitical. I grew up outside the city limits of a small town, a quarter-mile from any neighbors. I went to private school and wasn’t into sports. While Bill is a teacher and coach, the camaraderie of public schools is somewhat lost on me. When I was a kid, my dad, a dentist, never went to the grocery store for fear of patients opening their mouths at the meat counter to discuss their dental work. If he had to go to Walmart, he drove one town over to avoid potential run-ins. While Dad worked to avoid seeing people he knew, walking down the street with Bill could feel like being part of someone’s entourage, as students, former students, and parents waved down “Mr. Kenley,” who apparently had a life outside of the classroom. Going out to eat with Luke was similar, lots of handshakes and political chatter.

While my father tried to avoid attention in public when we were growing up, he wasn’t bashful when it came to family pride and our last name: Patrick. “Remember who you are,” Dad said. And when things didn’t go my way: “Did you tell them who you are?” He was only half-joking.

divorce quote

The longer I lived with Bill in Noblesville, though, the more I caught myself identifying with the Kenleys and comparing my own family to his. When you live in a small town where your married name is well known, it can make you lonelier for your own clan. When strangers commented that one of my boys “looks just like (insert Kenley relative here),” I wanted to say, “No, actually, he resembles (insert Patrick relative here).” None of this was anyone’s fault. It simply was what it was.

There are family traits that are naturally passed down from generation to generation, and then there are those that we manufacture and put out in the world. Following the Fourth of July parade in 2018, I sat among a group of Noblesville educators on our front porch. Drink glasses sweated on the whitewashed railing under an American flag. People talked freely about school issues and hopes for the next year. A woman commented how the whole scene was “quintessential Kenley.” Idyllic in every way. We had created the illusion of a complete, happy marriage, but the image was increasingly misleading.

Bill, the boys, and I lived in that big Queen Anne Victorian for 10 years. It was, and still is, a special house. It was the setting for Bill’s debut novel’s launch party, several New Year’s Eve get-togethers, two engagement celebrations, an artist reception, lots of little boys’ birthdays, and a shoulder-to-shoulder Christmas throwdown. I think those were some of the best times for us as a couple, hosting others in that house. Perhaps that’s telling. We were happiest as a couple when we had a houseful of people. Spending time together, just the two of us, became harder and harder.

I wonder now if my insistence on autonomy combined with living in Bill’s hometown, where I found it difficult to have a sense of identity entirely exclusive of my last name, didn’t bode well for our marriage. As if my proud self-reliance—or just plain pride—was amplified here and Bill eventually heard it as, “I don’t need you.”

There was no dramatic incident that ended our marriage. No huge fights or scandals. A therapist referred to it as a “slow burn.” I think that’s accurate. After 19 years, Bill and I divorced.

On the afternoon of July 4, 2019, I covered a large salad with plastic wrap, locked my kitchen door, and walked two blocks south from the house where I now live to the street on which I used to. Standing at the corner, to the right, I saw the wraparound porch, the American flag, the flower beds thick with hosta, and yard full of neighbors. I walked left.

From another porch, I heard the fire truck signal the start of the parade. My former in-laws, Luke and Sally, dressed in red, white, and blue, were perched on the back of a convertible, leading the parade as its grand marshals. The car inched along the brick street as Ray and Leo passed out candy alongside their grandparents. When they saw me, all four of them, they smiled wider, waved bigger.

While the Kenleys gathered at Bill’s house to celebrate and enjoy each other’s company, I was four houses down the street. Just one year before, I had been firmly in their camp, hosting a large Kenley family pitch-in. The choice to leave the family seems to puzzle some people. At the end of a recent work call, the man I was talking to asked if I was related to the Kenleys in Noblesville.

Illustration by Cornelia Li

“I’m actually divorced from Luke’s son, Bill,” I said as gently as possible. I waited.

“Well, good luck to you,” he said.

What this man actually meant is up for interpretation, and I didn’t follow up with him to find out. But it felt like he was suggesting that I was a fool to leave such a good family. You don’t marry someone so that you can take their name or enjoy the spoils of their family’s hard-earned reputation, though. You marry someone because you fall in love and foresee a long life together for the rest of your years. Or at least that’s what I did.

My marriage to Bill didn’t end because we moved to Noblesville, but that is where it ended. Because the town means so much to him and his family, I hate that our divorce happened there. But there is no good place for a divorce to happen, I guess. As two people get older and change, they can want different things, require different things. Some spouses grow apart and then make their way back together again, but not every couple can make their way back, to revive the thing that led them to exchange vows in the first place.

If I had moved to Noblesville unmarried, as Casey Patrick, my life there would be quite different. I briefly considered taking back my maiden name, but my kids quashed that notion fast. It’s important to them that I stick with Casey Kenley—even though it has one too many “ey” sounds, like a weather girl who reports sunshine every day—so I’ll keep it. Besides, there are signs that my identity isn’t wrapped up in my last name.

After a few weeks of filling my quiet evenings with downward-facing dogs and warrior poses, I went back to the class taught by the middle school teacher. I assumed that I was now “Bill Kenley’s ex-wife” to her. She smiled at me from behind the front desk. “Are you a writer?” she asked. “I think I read a story that you wrote about one of your kids.

“I am,” I told her. It felt good.