In My Blood: What Makes Us Who We Are? 

May 1, 2024 | Robin Bond | |

I’m obsessed with the nature vs. nurture debate. What makes us who we are? 

The nature part is easy: Mom’s green eyes, check. Dad’s high forehead, check. But how deep into the family tree does nature go? Is it nature or nurture when our kin leave indelible marks that get under our skin and inform who we are? 

I was seven or eight when my parents flew me, by myself, from our home in suburban New Orleans to visit my dad’s side of the family in Joliet, Illinois. I guess this is a thing parents did in 1973 or ‘74. I adored fun-loving Aunt Nene and wild Uncle Randy, who never met a living thing he couldn’t best with a gun, a knife, or a fishing pole. Best of all was the endless, guaranteed cousin fun to be had with Lori and Eric, a joy I assumed everyone knew.

On Friday afternoons, Randy would drive my cousins, me, and a Labrador named Bink from their Joliet neighborhood to Grandma and Grandpa’s cottage on the Kankakee River, just over the state line. There, we’d fish, swing from a precarious tire swing into the river, and sleep deeply on a screened-in porch, fresh freckles burned onto naked faces. Grandma and Grandpa would already be at the cottage when we arrived—Grandpa adored me then, and I delighted in Grandma’s feminine, indoor-girl charm. I loved alliteration and thought of Grandma as “Ladylike Lorraine.” Lady Lorraine didn’t say a lot, and she didn’t say it loudly, but I hung on her every word. 

Uncle Randy always had plenty of fishing bait in the cab of the truck when we left Joliet for the river, buckets of worms I’d happily eviscerate as I slid them onto my hook before casting the longest line ever thrown by a seven- or eight-year-old. The river teemed with carp, which we’d catch and release for hours on end.

I knew we were rolling closer to non-stop joy as the neat forests of July-high corn on either side of the road started to thin. Lori, Eric, and I chatted breathlessly about the riverine mischief we’d find—could we even top last weekend’s head-chopping of the snapper turtle, its dismembered parts still thrashing hours later in the “crick”? 

Abruptly, Randy steered the truck off the highway and rolled to a stop near a short bridge covering a murky swamp. Grabbing buckets from the truck’s bed—wait, they were empty—he ushered us out of the cab.

WHERE. WERE. THE WORMS? My seven- or eight-year-old brain didn’t know whether to fight, flee or freeze. I involuntarily went with “freeze.” I think it started to rain as my cousins jumped down from the truck. Wide-eyed, I trailed them through tall grass to find them up to their waists in black muck. I trudged in after them, wondering years later whether my compliance was an act of solidarity or a silent protest against the threat of Uncle Randy calling me a girly-girl. Were we catching our own worms for bait? Someone had mentioned having catfish for dinner. Did catfish not like worms?

Slimy critters under the water, “leeches,” I would learn, glommed onto our skinny, wet legs. I screamed for Uncle Randy, also swamp-dredging, but nothing came out. Looking back, I suspect this is the moment I began my lifelong proclivity for screaming in my sleep.

Suddenly my voice was free, a primal reflex for survival. “Randy, Randy, get them off of me.” Randy promptly picked me up at the waist, backward-football-style, held me over a bucket on the bank, and wiped the leeches from their death grip on my legs. He set me back in the water to continue my death march. Scream, scrape, repeat. Scream, scrape, repeat. 

Did Lori or Eric shush my screams? Or were they also voiceless but consigned, through nurture, to complete the vile task? After many hours, by which I mean less than 45 minutes, we marched back up the bank like defeated Civil War soldiers. My cousins’ eyes looked dead as crimson, Jackson-Pollack streaks of blood ran down our shaking, tanned legs.

I have no memory of fishing for anything but carp that weekend at the river. I do not recall sliding a leech onto a hook or eating catfish. 

My cousins and I didn’t speak of the leeching for decades, until years after Randy, Bink, and my grandfather had passed away. I would ask Lori in a phone call, both of us in our fifties by then, if the leeching had really happened. Were we bait… for bait? Yes, it did. And yes, we were. 

Thank God. I had hysterically told my parents of the leeching, as a seven- or eight-year-old would, upon my return to my indoor, ballet-class-going life in New Orleans. They laughed and said, “No, that never happened. That is not a thing, even for Uncle Randy.” I am positive this was when I started my lifelong proclivity for screaming in my sleep.

Back at school, in the third or fourth grade, our class learned about the food chain.”From my metal desk, I stared at a colorful, murderous poster on the cinderblock wall. Crowning the top of the pyramid, like a star atop a Christmas tree, was a drawing of a smiling seven- or eight-year-old boy with a fishing pole. I followed the arrows that showed domination of the strong over the weak to see if this fishing boy was serving double duty as both predator and prey, i.e., “bait-bait.” He was not. 

I began to mistrust my memories and question humans’ precarious place at the top of the food chain. I thought of the angry, mutilated turtle, and I begged my dad for a fishing pole for my eighth or ninth birthday.  

Looking back, I suspect the swamp walk contributed to the infected boils (another word, like leeches, that I have rarely used since) that permanently scarred my legs that summer. I learned years later that boils are common when you don’t bathe much and that they had plagued World War I soldiers engaged in trench warfare. Pores become blocked, infections lead to swelling. Next thing, you’re at the doctor’s office with your uber-clean Grandma while he lances your boils with a scalpel to drain pus and remove the hard core of the infection.

Back in the safe environs of her Joliet apartment that summer, Grandma handily washed my infected legs and wrapped them neatly in used, plastic Sunbeam bread bags. I was temporarily sidelined from river fun, but I didn’t care; I had the rare privilege of one-on-one time with Grandma. We played endless games of Gin Rummy over a metal TV tray in her tidy, temperature-controlled living room. My hair would be wet and wild from my daily bath, while Lady Lorraine’s perfectly engineered coif was taped on each side to prevent any disturbance that might happen later as she slept on her pink, satin pillow. We passed the hours in our slippers and flowered bathrobes, sipping cans of Fresca through straws and snacking daintily on M&Ms from a crystal bowl. Somewhere, between my untamable uncle and my girly grandma, I found me.

Posted in

Robin Bond

Leave a Comment