TOWARD THE END of her marriage, Eleanor Petersen reached out for help into the neighborhood where she and her husband had moved, a prosperous, established Washington neighborhood of tree-lined streets that included many women like herself: women who had married successful black men. Some of the couples were still married. Others were divorced. From Ellie Petersen's need for help and the response of her neighbors there evolved what the women call a support group-a group that advises, criticizes and boosts, a group whose members now help each other in ways families traditionally did.
It is a group of people who speak frankly to each other, who have overcome the middle-class taboo against personal disclosure, a group that understands that vulnerable is normal, that kids do get into trouble, that adults do need help.
Ellie Petersen moved into her Shepherd Park home in 1970 with her four children, two years before she was formally separated from Frank Petersen Jr., and four years before they were divorced. At the time he was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, one of the few blacks to achieve that rank. It was the first time in her married life that she lived in one place long enough to establish lasting bonds of friendship and trust with her neighbors, and it came at a time when she was far from her family in Kansas, at a time when her marriage was coming to a painful end, and at a time when she needed help.
"Somebody from this neighborhood went with me every time to court," says Ellie Petersen. "That last day, when the judge knocked the gavel and said you are divorced, I was out of it. The kids and I to be led home. A lot of women don't know how important that is to have someone, not necessarily in the courtroom, but to physically know someone who is on your side, who cares, is there.
"My neighbor on the other side had been divorced. There were a lot of things she knew to help me with. She said stay married as long as you can. It's hard out here. But if you can't, these are the things you've got to do to cover your [self]. Get a job, get a lawyer, get the kids in shape. It's hard to realize this man doesn't have your best interests at heart, that he's your friend anymore."
Ellie Petersen divorced not only her husband but the Marine Corps way of life and in so doing she relinquished her prospects of being with Frank Petersen when he marked a distinguished career by becoming the Marine Corp's first black general.
Ellie Petersen began a new phase of her life in a stable neighborhood of black middle-class families, far from the rigorous demands of military life, far from the incalculabe strains placed on blacks reaching for the first time into the upper strata of the military elite.
While the first part of her story and her life offers penetrating glimpses into the often hidden price paid by black couples integrating white worlds in the 1950s and 1960s, the second part of her story provides insights into the vast social upheavals of the 1970s. Now her story illustrates one way women who are heading households as a result of divorce are coping, and how they are coming together to help each other out of a community of interest and a community of need.
One neighbor is the first wife of a famous lawyer. Another, Barbara Walker, who is an attorney now on leave from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, was the first wife of playwright Joe Walker, who won a Tony award for "The River Niger." Another neighbor is the widow of a man killed in Vietnam. Another is a paralegal who helps manage her husband's law firm, and there is another woman who is remaining here to work while her husband goes overseas for the government. Ellie Petersen's children baby-sit for that woman's little girl, and the women keeps an eye on Petersen's children when she travels for the consulting firm she works for.
Barbara Walker, says Ellie Petersen, is "kind of the senior adviser of the group." The two women met shortly after moving into the neighborhood. Walker says, "somehow through the years, as a result of one crisis or another, we've become very close."
"We're fortunate in that we share the same values," says Walker, who is 43 and the mother of two sons, ages 16 and 20. "We don't believe in shoplifting. We believe in telling the truth. We have similar goals for our children. the sex thing becomes important for us as women and for our children. They're at ages where they're having relationships. We keep our eyes open on who's doing what with whom. I am the prude. Someone has to be the grandmother of the group."
The group has helped me with my self-esteem," says Ellie Petersen. "I had a long way to go.Barbara Walker has helped me recognize where my talents, my skills are."
It is a group that socializes together and has fun together, but is also a group in which individuals' expertise is used for common good. One women who understood the food stamp system told another that she was eligible for that service and how to get it. Another woman who understood the Social Security regulations helped get benefits for children whose mother had died.
That woman, says Barbara Walker, is the shopper. She knows how to get people into CETA progtams, where to find an electrician, where to get discount shoes, where to get dents taken out of cars. This is a neighborhood that has a neighborhood plumber.
These are women who share but who are also independent and self-sufficient.Barbara Walker built her own deck. Ellie Petersen painted her own living room. "We do our own wallpaper, we do our own upholstering, our own sewing of curtains, say Ellie Petersen. They don't call on neighborhood men to help with broken cars. "Their wives would get very upset because the husbands don't do that for their wives either."
The group shares Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners and traditional Easter brunch is usually held at Ellie Petersen's. "During the snowstorm we sat here in front of the fire playing Scrabble," says Petersen. "We watched 'Roots: The Nex Generation.' Everybody took turns cooking."
"We'll get together at Barbara's house," says Petersen. "She has the pisno . . . We just do kind of fun things, just to keep the edge off some of the stresses."
"I think another value of this group is that there are a lot of single heads of households," says Petersen. "We share a lot with couples who are married, and we see it's not all happy and not all unhappy."
Petersen's children are all in school, and several also are working. "They're good kids," she says of her children, who are 17 to 23 years old. "They're not on drugs. They're responsible, hard workers." Their success is a valid measure of how well she has done in her life. Raising the children was very much her responsibility, while their father devoted himself to the demanding climb up the Marine Corps officer ranks. She was with him for first 20 years of effort, which culminated at the end of April when he became the Marine Corps' first black general. Two of their children attended the ceremony, as did his second wife.
Ellie Petersen has found a new way of life, a new family of neighbors and friends since her divorce, but her attachment remains strong to the old. "Who knows what that attachment is," she muses. "He's charming, personable. Everyone thinks he's such a great guy. People say what did you do to him? You really missed out. You could have been a general's wife."
And yes, hse says, she wanted to be a general's wife but she doesn't really know why. "I never saw a general's wife I wanted to emulate. It was the journey I enjoyed. It was my job. When I got divored, I lost my job."
In a way, she says, she and her husband were on two different tracks in those years, tracks she hoped would cross near the end, when he achieved his goal. "School would be behind us, the children would be behind us and we would have aged and we could be together. We could retire and do all of those things we put on the back burner all of those years."
Instead, she is doing things alone or with her friends. And, she says, she likes her independence. "One of the nice things about being divorced is I got my voice back."