Adventures in Parenting

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2020  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of a  cat on a roof.

A story from the distant past.  I think back often to the days when my children were little and life seemed so much simpler—the days when one believed it was possible to protect them from everything. 

We were among the first few Peace Corps families to be sent abroad. Our success in adapting to life in Swaziland led to other families being recruited, but not always with the same success. Whereas very young children seemed to adapt to the new life with little sign of unease, older children sometimes had problems.

Older children missed television, missed their friends, found Mbabane boring after growing up in big cities, and resented being offered soccer in place of the sports they were used to.

We didn't have any of those problems, but we had other, different ones.

Erin—always called ‘Njabuliso,’ the bringer of happiness--wasn't much of a problem, because I always knew where she was. If she wasn’t on my hip or under my blouse, she was tied on someone's back with a blanket. She spent her mornings riding on the housekeeper's back while the housework was done, something she seemed to enjoy.

At the end of the working day, I could often tell what the baby had been up to by the smell of her head. An odor of "California Poppy" means she and laDlamini, our housekeeper-cum-nanny, had been out visiting. Kerosene meant she had spent time in laDlamini's quarters while the primus stove had been in use. The scents of jam and rooibos tea indicated there had been friends in for tea and that the baby had been passed around from lap to lap.

Bethany-called-Nobuhle was another matter. We had put her in nursery school before she was four because we thought she was spending too much time and learning too many things from the children next door. It was overhearing young Jao next door explaining solemnly to Beth, "Then after lunch Papa takes off his pants and bounces on Mama," that decided me on nursery school for her during the mornings I was away at work.

Mrs. Patten's school was attended by a number of local children from all sorts of backgrounds. The woman had the patience of a saint, and seemed to cope calmly with up to fifteen pre-schoolers at a time.

The school exposed Beth to a variety of accents, and she picked up a polyglot English-Swazi-South African-Irish manner of speaking. She also picked up all sorts of interesting pets.

Once she called me excitedly into the driveway. She had found the biggest black beetle I had ever seen. It was the size of a small toy car, and trundled along as if it had someplace important to go. When you picked it up, it protested in a squeaky growl, sounding exactly like one of those old-fashioned friction toys that you scruffed on the carpet to wind up their clockwork. She was very keen to keep it, but I had to say no because we had no idea what it ate, or if it were the sort of thing that gave off poison goo or gas. Our entomologist friend Angelo was too far away to consult.

One day after I came home from work I discovered that Beth had disappeared while I was tending to the baby. It was winter and getting dark and I was in a panic by the time Gene got home. He drove away and was gone a long time. I sat hugging Njabuliso and worrying in ever decreasing circles. Thoughts of the murder of the old woman in the ditch behind the house returned to haunt me.

Eventually Gene returned with Beth. She had followed laDlamini to the bus depot, and Gene had found her there surrounded by a group of interested Swazis who seemed to take her presence as nothing unusual. LaDlamini had been going to bring her home, but had got caught up in talking to friends. Beth had acquired an orange somewhere on her travels and was covered with juice and dirt.

After a bath and a stern talking to she went off to bed, mystified as to why her parents were so upset.

On another occasion I found her in a storm drain up the road from our house. She looked extremely guilty but I put it down to knowing she wasn't supposed to have left the yard. It was days later that I missed one of my jade earrings and discovered she had been playing with them in the drain. Of course, the missing earring never turned up. When Beth was 21 I had the remaining one made into a pendant and gave it to her along with the story of why she wasn't getting a pair of earrings. Ten years after that I heard with some satisfaction the story of how her twin girls had been found in the back yard with the contents of her jewellery box.

Beth had a knack for small disasters. There was the time she stuck her hand out just as her father slammed the car door. Luckily VW doors are constructed in such a way that no bones were broken or skin torn, but she had a bruise for weeks, and proudly displayed it with the explanation, “Dis is where my fadder shut my hand in da car door.”

Her first step off the plane on the day we had arrived in Swaziland was a big one, resulting in two skun knees, followed by veldt sores which went on for months. Veldt sores are cause by some micro organism, probably a fungus. They make unsightly lumps of rough skin and no amount of washing seems to deter the germs. We finally discovered that if we scraped away the dead skin on her knees with a dull knife right after a bath, and smeared on Bacitracin ointment, eventually the sores would heal.

When she was five, Beth climbed the avocado tree in pursuit of the cat and got on the carport roof. Once up, she could not manage the return trip. I was 8 months pregnant with her brother, and alone in the house. The housekeeper had gone for the day and Gene was miles away. There was nothing for it but to climb the tree and get the child down.

At this point I only owned two dresses that fit, and no slacks. With my voluminous folds of blue cotton tucked in as best I could, I climbed the tree and straddled an upper branch. Leaning across, I could not quite reach Beth. I finally said, "Jump! I'll catch you," expecting an argument.

Without warning, she jumped. I grabbed for her and lost my balance on the limb, swinging wildly. The insides of both my thighs left a lot of their skin on the bark of the tree. Eventually, clutching the solidly-built child, I got upright again and was able to sling her down to the next branch below.

"Climb down!" I said, sucking a torn hand where I had caught it on the edge of the roof.

"I can't," she wailed.

"If you don't climb down I am going to fall on you and squish you like a beetle!" I roared, to the amusement of some home-going Swazi workmen who had by now gathered at the fence to watch the fun.

Beth made it down to the next branch and shinned out further on it, leaving me a space to put my feet, which of course I could not see. Njabuliso by now had come to see what was going on and was standing under the tree howling at the top of her lungs, whether from fear or because she thought she was missing the fun I could not tell. Scrabbling impotently at the trunk of the tree, she tried to join us. It took a lot of cajoling and finally threats before she would move away from where I expected to land if I ever got out of the tree.

Finally she moved away and we got down. A mild round of applause came from the watchers.

"Oh, Nobuhle, you shouldn't let your mother climb trees in her condition" said one of the men, who was apparently one of Beth's many friends. Laughing, they went on their way.

I went indoors and against best medical practice, made myself a gin and tonic. If the baby had survived the climb, it could survive a drink, I thought.

Gene found me painting mercurochrome on my scratched limbs later that evening.

"How did that happen?" he asked.

"I got scratched in the avocado tree." I grumbled.

"You know, you really shouldn't climb trees in your condition," he advised. I debated throwing the mercurochrome at him but decided the mess wouldn't be worth the transient satisfaction.

Beth got away from the adventure with one tiny scratch and a torn pocket. I had scabs for weeks and the whole town knew the story by morning. I think if one more person had advised me not to climb trees when pregnant I'd have screamed aloud. Gene did the practical thing and sawed off the lowest branch, effectively putting the tree out of reach of our resident marmosets.

The only one who got anything out of this adventure was the cat, who could now climb the tree and get onto the roof secure in the knowledge that no small girl would swarm after her to disturb her sunny naps.

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