Dad -v- Spider

Dad built a house for each of his two wives.  Both marriages ended in divorce, but the houses themselves have lasted. 

So I’m visiting Dad one weekend. The back of his house is a corn field. I’m In my bedroom (originally painted blue for my former stepbrother) and I’m at my desk doing some homework. I must have been about 7 or 8. I can feel something looking at me. It’s not a thought… It’s a feeling. I look around but no one – human or paranormal – is in the room. I carry on reading but cannot shake the feeling that something is watching me. Then I look down to the baseboard. There, the size of my fist, is a spider. It’s so large that I gasp but don’t scream. I’m almost 10 and I know it is irrational to be afraid of spiders. So I gather my wits about me and walk to Dad in the living room.

“Dad, would you come to kill a spider for me?”   (Yes, I know in some countries it is bad luck to kill a spider but in the Midwest, spiders can be particularly venomous!  Get me a newspaper!) 

“Sure.”  Dad climbs from his comfortable chair, walks into his bedroom and emerges with what we used to call a Flip-Flop.  Imagine if you will, a bit of foam the size of Dad’s foot with a bit of tough fabric on the top that holds your foot to the sole of the sandal.  The sandal makes a distinctive “Thowk” as you walk along.  These were particularly popular in the 1970s.

I showed Dad the spider and he immediately turned around and left the room. Dad returned with another particularly popular shoe – a high heeled, platform cowboy boot. I left the room – to escape the carnage. This is what I heard:





“Jade, come bring me some paper towel!”

Divorce – a child’s perspective

One of the only happy memories I have with both my parents is when we went to fly a kite.  I was so young (perhaps as young as 3?  Certainly no older than 4) that I couldn’t possibly tell you where we were – but I do remember the kite had big bloodshot eyes – as God Himself was watching and did not approve of proceedings. 

God had plenty to disapprove of. The memories I have of their marriage are filled with shouting and verbal abuse. Being so small, I was only in a position to watch/listen and accept what was going on. We lived as a family in White Heath, outside Champaign. Dad owned a white pickup truck with a blue bench seat and, “I’m not Lisa” was on the radio when we would go across the Interstate into Monticello. I would be dropped off at a local stay-at-home mom’s house and my parents went to work. I only vaguely remember an amalgam of afternoon TV shows like Flipper and The Lone Ranger.

Of course there was the incident where one of the older children dared me to jump down the stairs. Needless to say, I missed the stairs and ended up in the hospital. I needed 4 stitches somewhere on my scalp. It was a traumatic experience because, although the doctors gave me something to numb the area, I felt every ounce of pain that was dispensed. Four nurses and my father had to hold me down while the needle did its thing. (!) This had ramifications later in life, but I will get to that in good time.

One night I remember waking up on the back seat of the car.  I looked at the stars.  The stars were following me.  It was cold.  I didn’t spend much time contemplating the actions and behaviours of others so I didn’t stop to think that a life-changing experience was underway.  I went to sleep.  

The only other part of the actual divorce was, again, only traumatic and shocking in hindsight.  I was standing in front of Dad when he broke down and cried.  He said “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.”  Of course, I comforted him without comprehending the enormity of his statement.  I just told my dad that I will see him again, without realising that the decision wasn’t mine.  He held me tight.  It was the first of only two times I can recall my father crying in his life. 

My life took shape under a “new normal” where I would see Dad twice a week and every other weekend.  At first, Dad lived in a trailer near Lake of the Woods.  The bathroom had an avocado sink, toilet and bathtub.  It had pale tulip wallpaper on the walls.  I hated bathing there because I was convinced that spiders were regularly coming up from the drains. 

In my youth I was aware of the personality differences between my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to explain their differences until I was more emotionally mature.  Dad and I had the kind of relationship where he would call me silly and then I would call him super silly – like Shazam!  He tickled my chin and made me laugh.  During our first weekday evening visits, he would collect me and we went to Mr Steak where I would eat a chicken leg and poke at the rest of the food.  Then, maybe a year later, I was taken to McDonalds on Cunningham Avenue where I would have a happy meal.  This became our place where I would peel the top of the paper off the straw and blow the rest of the paper at Dad.  Sometimes I would think Dad wasn’t looking and I would jam several fries together end-to-end and say “This must have been a huge potato!”  I called him “fatso” and he called me “skinnyso”.  I was a very picky eater – I remember Dad telling me to at least eat the meat out of the hamburger.  Jade cannot live on fries alone!  

Dad joined “Parents Without Partners” so our weekends were spent, serial monogamy style, with so many women and families that I cannot quite believe it now.  We went to Monicals’ Pizza on Washington and ate “Family Pleasers”.  Pizzas always had sausage and mushroom and the salad always came with French dressing.  I remember a particular high-pitch hum from Dad’s radio as we burned through the miles, endlessly travelling back and forth to and from Dad’s trailer.  It was a ride that I had memorized and could probably even now tell you where all the bumps were in the road, all the landmarks that took me back to Urbana and Mom. 

Mom never dated.  She and I lived in a house on Dodson before she bought a house on Lantern Hill, just a few streets away.  The house on Dodson had willow trees in the back yard and the winters we spent there were particularly bad, even for Illinois!  Six feet of drifting snow…  The house on Dodson had a gravel driveway and, somehow, she always managed to shovel us out wearing her high-heeled boots.  Mom’s brother owned the house on Dodson and I’m sure he gave us discounted rent. 

It took me years to realise that the house on Dodson backed onto the playing fields at my elementary school, so when I would chase the cloud shadows across the fields, I was actually headed home. The school was set up in wings for younger, then older children. The older children were made to stand outside in line until school started and, if we were early, we would pretend to ice skate along the ice in the corn fields behind the school. By the time I was an older kid, Little River Band was playing The Night Owls on the radio and I thought the song was about an owl the size of a person that went places hunting for food one night.

I remember summers with Mom spent in educational pursuits.  We went swimming, to art museums, to Allerton and to Rockome Gardens.  I took art classes, gymnastic classes and was basically encouraged to do anything that Mom thought was worthwhile. 

My grandmother, and her best friend Iris, enjoyed nothing better than visiting their collective grandchildren every summer.  I considered Iris another grandmother – she always showered us in beautiful handmade goodies – clothes, dolls and more than once, a quilt for each of Mom and myself.  Mine had women in each of 12 squares in Scarlet O’Hara dresses, faces hidden by a wide bonnet, and each carrying something – like a book or a note that said “I love Jade”.  Grandma and Iris were remarkable together.  Once they took me to Allerton and didn’t realise I was listening to their conversation.  I had to ask what a Wood Nymph was and, when I was told, I asked why she would be invited to a Halloween party dressed in nothing at all.  (!)  Must have been some random adult thing that I “would understand eventually.”  

When Mom did engage me in conversation, every time I came back from a visit with Dad I had to answer all the overbearing questions like “Where did you go?  What did you eat?  Who did you see?”  I learned (but regularly forgot) to hold back details from my mother in order to keep her from getting upset.  Or I lied.  I regret it now but at the time I felt it justified.  I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to be able to reassure her without giving her the details that I wanted to save for just me and Dad.  To be fair to Mom, she was in the unenviable position of “raising” me which meant ensuring I ate well, did my homework and had all the tools I needed for school.  However, at the time I resented her relentless meddling.  I know she meant well but her every little judgement tormented me.  Dad was this or that – never complimentary – adjective. 

So I grew up being silly with Dad and serious with Mom. My personality split along the highway that linked my parents’ houses. Somewhere within the time I got in the car and the time I got out, I would switch – as if speaking one language for one parent and a completely new one for the other. As I grew, the split seemed to be more and more pronounced – or perhaps I was only more aware of it and less apt to be able to mindlessly accept the relentless tension between them?

Brazilian Summer, Illinois Winter

Andrea and I were in school together – aged 14-ish.  In the hallway one day I saw some older kids picking on a girl saying “Go home!  We don’t want you here.”  I remember marching up and putting myself in between her and her tormentors.  I said “How many languages do you speak?!”  When I was told that they didn’t need to speak another language because they know English, I said “I’m learning French and let me tell you, it’s not easy.  So this girl came here to learn English (which can’t be easy) and to make friends and she has had the misfortune of meeting you!”  That shut them up.  Then I turned around and held out my hand for her to shake and I said “My name is Jade and if you ever need a friend, come to find me.”  Then I promptly forgot about the incident and continued on to my next class.  

Andrea ended up in my PE class (I think it might have been after the incident?) and I remember playing flag-football with her in class. She and I became inseparable. She was the youngest of six children and they all lived in a three bedroom house in Orchard Downs on Bliss Drive – which I always had to say when we ordered pizza because her accent was so thick! Her father was a visiting professor at the U of I and was working on a hybrid of corn that would be robust enough to flourish in the Brazilian climate. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Because my baby sister was in day-care, I spent the summer days with them. There was always something going on! Volleyball. Bike riding. Music. MTV. BBQ. It was the summer of the first Tears for Fears album and I still think of that summer when I hear anything from that album. Andrea asked her mom to make traditional Brazilian food – which I still adore. There’s a brilliant Brazilian restaurant in London where Andrea and I always go when she comes to visit London.

One time, I had stayed the night in their house and got up early.  I had forgotten my contact lens container so I used eggcups the night before.  The first thing I did was go to the kitchen and pop my contact lenses in.  Fast-forward 20 minutes and I hear a commotion in the kitchen.  Andrea’s mom was shouting at her dad (South Americans don’t speak quietly – ever.) and from the context and the words “lentil de contact” I surmised that they were talking about my lenses.  I interrupted and said that everything was ok because the lenses were in my eyes already.  Andrea’s parents were immediately shocked and I mean chins on the floor!  One of them asked how I knew Portuguese!  I did pick up some stock phrases that a 14 year old would find breathlessly cool – like how to say “I like you because you’re cute.”  

Although there was a lot of noise and action, I felt at home because there was no real pressure. Mom was happy because I had a parent’s supervision and she loved Andrea’s family as much as I did. We took them to Allerton and had a picnic and got lost in the woods. We took them to Lake of the Woods and rented paddle boats and had Dairy Queen on the way home. My sister (two at the time) used to go from boy to boy of the family, arms up and saying “My bruder! My bruder!”

Then they left.  I felt abandoned.  I was lonely for a lot of the time growing up.  I identified with the desolation of Illinois winters.  I was a warm heart surrounded by snow.  For me, life was a biting sharp winter gale with the occasional lush warm green paradise: a garden I cultivated alone until the winter’s chill came to bite again.