Discover the surprising realization that made award-winning actress Andie MacDowell feel complete.
Jan 24, 2011
It was a gorgeous summer day in the North Carolina mountain town I call home, perfect for wandering around the All Souls Church craft fair with my dog Leila.
My 100-pound Anatolian shepherd was my companion on my walks, and she didn’t seem to mind that I was meandering from booth to booth, looking at handmade jewelry here, braided rugs there.
Not that what I was truly seeking could be found at a craft fair.
What I yearned for was a happy family, the kind of family I never had growing up, with a deeply-in-love couple and their children. For a while I thought I’d found my dream-come-true with my husband Paul and the three beautiful children we had together.
Then our marriage fell apart, and I fell apart too.
I was devastated by our divorce. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even pray.
I was so desperate to recapture my romantic ideal of a family that I rushed into a second marriage to a childhood friend without taking the time to really get to know the man he had become. That marriage didn’t work out either.
Here I was at 48, alone again, not any closer to my dream of a family than I had been when my parents divorced. I was six years old then, and back in the day people didn’t think to get kids counseling to help them deal with those kinds of family issues. You were just supposed to deal with it.
I remember my mom and dad signed some papers and then my dad packed up and left. I never cried over my parents’ divorce. I was trying to be brave and strong.
That was in part because even at such a young age, I knew my mom was fragile. She adored me and I adored her, but she was an alcoholic and wasn’t really able to take care of me or my sister, Beverly, who was 18 months older.
My dad remarried when I was in fourth grade, and Beverly and I went to live with him and his new wife. I thought everything was going fine until one day a year and a half later when my dad picked us up from school. Our suitcases were in the back.
“I’m taking you back to your mother,” he said. “This isn’t working out.”
He didn’t give us any further explanations and I didn’t dare ask for one.
Now as a parent myself, I see that he must have had his reasons, reasons that had a lot more to do with him than with us—he’d just had a baby with my stepmom and maybe he couldn’t handle raising us girls along with an infant. I understand that no family is perfect and I love my father.
But as a child, I felt utterly rejected. I was emotionally shattered. All I could think was, What had I done wrong? Why wasn’t I good enough to stay with my dad and his new family? Why wasn’t I good enough to be loved?
Someday I’m going to have a real family, I promised myself. And I’ll love them and they’ll love me…no matter what. The way my mom loved me, except without the drinking to get in the way.
We grew even closer after I went to live with her again, but her alcoholism meant that the mother-daughter roles were often reversed. I took care of her. I watched her struggle to hold on to jobs.
If she was having a bad day, I’d stand there and rub her shoulders and try to make her feel better, thinking that the better I made her feel the less she would drink.
As soon as I was old enough to work, I got a part-time job at McDonald’s. I was able to help out with the expenses, but more than anything, it gave me a sense of structure that was lacking in my home.
Was it any wonder that when Paul and I married and started our family, I tried my best to give our children the stable, loving home life I never had?
My career as a model and actress took me to New York and Los Angeles, but Paul and I raised our son and two daughters in small towns, first in Montana, then here in North Carolina, where my sister lives with her kids, who are the same age as mine, and not everybody is involved in (or even talks about) the entertainment business.
I wanted our children to have a mom and dad who showed up at parent/teacher conferences, who went to their church pageants and school plays and ballgames. Most of all, I wanted them to have a mom and dad who really loved each other.
We had that idyllic family life for over 10 years. It was everything I had ever yearned for, all those things I missed in my own childhood.
Then fault lines appeared in our marriage, cracks that deepened into a complete breakup. Divorce is such a hard thing to describe, to fully understand how two people who were once so much in love could fall so far apart.
The divorce tore me up. I’d failed at love. I’d failed to keep my family together. Had I failed my children too, the way my parents had failed me?
Even though Paul stayed an active part of the kids’ lives, my oldest, my son, was really hurt. He was going into sixth grade, and I knew it wasn’t good for him to have his family in such upheaval at a time when so much else was changing.
There was one saving grace: Julie Selby. She was the youth minister at our church, and someone suggested to me that perhaps Julie could help out when I had to go out of town to work on a movie.
I didn’t want to take the kids out of school and bring them with me; that would disrupt their lives even more. They already knew Julie and liked her a lot. I talked to her, and she agreed to move in with us for what was going to be a month.
When I came back from the movie, I noticed how much more settled my kids seemed, especially my son, so I asked Julie if she would stay on.
She ended up living with us for 11 years. Julie had such a positive influence on the kids. She helped them to see how big God’s world is. She took them on youth mission trips, and my son even went to Nicaragua with her to dig sewage lines for an orphanage.
Julie had a wonderful influence on me too. We had these long conversations. She was unmarried and, for the first time in my life, I saw up close how fulfilling a single woman’s life could be. Julie’s faith that she was living the life God planned for her gave her an extraordinary peace.
I’d found that contentment in my work, that sense that I was fulfilling my potential, doing what God meant for me. But my personal life? That was a whole other story.
As richly as I’d been blessed—with my children, my sister, my friends, my dogs, my horses—I still didn’t feel complete without a man. Without true love.
And like that country song goes, I went looking for it in all the wrong places. It took that whirlwind second marriage and divorce to shock me to my senses. Or, at least, to make me see that I couldn’t be happy with someone else until I learned to be happy with myself.
I found a good therapist to help me work through the scars from my childhood that I still carried with me, wounds that had been reopened when my first marriage failed. I did Bible studies on love and relationships and boundaries.
I went to different churches, looking for a place to feel at peace, but even at church I didn’t fit in. I couldn’t go to the couples’ classes and groups with my friends, and I wasn’t into the singles scene. Where was my place in God’s world? I wondered.
Maybe that’s why even though I’d done so much soul-searching, there I was that summer day wandering around the church craft fair with my dog Leila, still seeking.
I guess part of me was still that little girl who had to be strong and not cry over her parents’ divorce, who could never understand her father’s rejection, the little girl who only wanted for love to never go away.
I looked at some wood carvings and walked up to someone selling fresh-baked pies (there are always heavenly sweets at these church fairs). I was strolling past a booth of paintings when I stopped, my eyes caught by, of all things, a hummingbird.
A hummingbird against a dark canvas, its wings a blur, its glorious plumage catching the light. I had never seen a hummingbird at night. I’m not even sure if they fly after dark.
Maybe that’s what captivated me about that painting, the idea that things weren’t the way they were supposed to be, yet the unexpectedness of it all was what made it beautiful.
“This is wonderful!” I said to the woman minding the booth. “Are you the artist?”
“My husband is,” she said, gesturing to a man in a wheelchair who was talking to some other people.
“How does he paint?” I asked. He didn’t seem to be able to move his arms and legs.
“He holds the brush in his teeth,” she explained. “He was in a skiing accident more than thirty years ago. He’s paralyzed from the shoulders down, but that hasn’t stopped him.”
Suddenly I was even more interested in their story than in the painting. “How long have you been married?” I asked the woman.
“We were together before the accident,” she told me. She glanced over at her husband then. He gazed back at her, and the way they looked at each other made tears come to my eyes.
“So you know true love,” I said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever experience it.”
She tilted her head slightly and studied me. I got this sense that she recognized me—not from my movies or L’Oréal commercials—but that she could see into my soul.
“Oh, but you have,” she said before she went to help another customer.
I walked away from the booth slowly. My legs bumped lightly against my dog’s sturdy shoulders, and I thought, She means what I have with my kids and my animals. They love me no matter what. It’s unconditional. It will never go away.
I stood still there in the middle of the church craft fair, dumbfounded.
“God, forgive me for not recognizing the true love you have already given me,” I whispered.
Then it struck me what I had just said, what the painter’s wife must have really meant. And at that moment, I felt whole for the first time in my life. Totally complete.
I was good enough, imperfect as I am. I had the love that completed me, the love that never fails, the truest love of all. God’s love, a love that never goes away.
Andie shared her favorite roles with our senior editor Celeste McCauley!
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