What a treat it is to introduce you today to Jana and her husband Jeff who live in Huntington, West Virginia in this edition of Living with Kids. Jana is a Professor and Jeff is a Poet and their house is so cozy you’re going to want to grab a book and curl up in a corner to read. This nearly 100 year old house is full of charm and personality and has lovely details in every corner. Plus Jana has some really heartfelt things to say about surviving a cancer diagnosis, and about living in a town that is wonderful on many levels, but that has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic that has affected America in such a widespread way. Please say hello to Jana.
Living With Kids: Jana Tigchelaar
Hi, I’m Jana, and I live here with Jeff, my husband of 18 years, and our two children, Charlotte and Sam. I’m a professor of English at Marshall University (you might know Marshall from the 2006 movie We Are Marshall about the tragic 1970 plane crash that killed most of the college’s football team, as well as many coaches and local supporters).
Jeff works at the Cabell County Public Library, and is a brilliant poet and writer. We met in college near Chicago —my first week of college, actually. Jeff was the college newspaper editor; I was a first-year student with a journalism scholarship.
I remember many late nights in the newsroom working on layout and last-minute edits, followed by midnight runs to El Gallo for steak tortas or the now sadly defunct El Dorado for 24-hour breakfast. For our first date, we went to Navy Pier and rode the Ferris wheel. I came home from that date thinking, “Well, he’s cute, but he’s boring.” It took a few more dates for Jeff’s inner weirdo to shine through, and then I was hooked. Other than a short break-up my junior year, we’ve been together ever since.
Charlotte is almost 12, and is an artist, a writer, and a goofball. She pays such careful attention to detail, and her mind is always working. When she was a toddler, taking a walk with her would take forever without really covering much distance because she would be constantly stopping to look at something tiny and seemingly insignificant — a little flower, a snail shell, a penny. Under her attention, those tiny things became treasures. She’s the same way now: focused in on small details, noticing the little things others might miss. I’m very excited to see what her brilliant mind and imagination will make of the world.
If Charlotte is focused on the minutia, Sam, my nine-year-old son, is the opposite. Sam lives large, has big ideas, huge reactions, and enormous dreams. When Sam was younger, we used to represent his speech in all caps, familiarly known as SAMCAPS, because every pronouncement was top-volume and declarative. Charlotte was a cautious child; Sam climbed the furniture and went on unplanned independent adventures. Sam loves the Kansas City Royals, Star Wars, and LEGO. He has an engineer’s mind, but claims he wants to be a professional baseball player before he pursues his engineering career. I kind of feel like if anyone could do all of the things he wants to do, it’s Sam.
We live in a classic American brick four-square in the South Side neighborhood of Huntington, West Virginia. We’re not from West Virginia — I’m originally from Iowa, and Jeff is from Michigan. We met in college near Chicago, as I mentioned, and have since lived in Grand Rapids MI, Athens, OH, and Lawrence, KS before moving to Huntington.
When I was offered the job at Marshall, we were living in Kansas, where I had gotten my PhD. Jeff and I took a few days to drive out to Huntington to look for a home. We limited our search to a few neighborhoods based on school districts, but quickly knew the South Side was for us. It’s a beautiful old neighborhood with brick homes built mostly in the first decades of the 20thcentury (our house was built in 1921), that is bordered by the railroad tracks to the north and the gorgeous Ritter Park to the south. We can walk just about anywhere from our house: the library, my campus, the kids’ schools, downtown Huntington. Even in our few days’ of looking, we knew that the South Side felt like home.
I didn’t immediately fall in love with our house, though. It ticked a lot of the boxes: three bedrooms, two baths, an enclosed yard, a bonus space in the finished attic. Plus the people we bought it from had purchased it as a foreclosure and done much of the rehab work that neither Jeff nor I are gifted at doing. The house had new windows, new hot water heater, a new roof, and a nice addition on the back of the home with a pantry and second full bathroom.
But when we first toured our home, I didn’t really give it full consideration for the silliest reason, and the one I yell at House Hunters about: décor and paint color! Our realtor encouraged us to go back a second time and give it a closer look, and I’m so glad he did.
Housing in Huntington is very affordable, although the utilities in this area are ridiculous (I feel like there is a separate utility bill for every possible nuance!). It’s definitely a buyer’s market; most homes in the South Side sell generally for anywhere between $100,000 and $250,000. Desirable locations and larger homes can cost much more. Our three-bedroom, two-bath house that had many updates was in the low $100s. We have family in California and friends on both coasts, and I know how affordable our housing is compared to them. Sometimes, for fun, I like to jump on Zillow and play a game I call “coastal sticker shock,” just to remind myself how good we have it here!
Moving to Huntington was a bit of a nightmare. I don’t want to dwell on it, but in brief, if something could go wrong, it did. On our drive from Kansas to West Virginia, our van broke down — irreparably. Once we arrived, we realized that the seller hadn’t repaired things he was supposed to repair before closing. Help fell through and we had to unload the moving truck by ourselves in near triple-digit heat.
The first few days in our house were a whirlwind of painting, cleaning, finding a plaster guy to come in and make the needed repairs, and finally getting moved in. I remember thinking I would never feel at home in our home during those first few days. I’m glad to say I was wrong about that. We’ve really made this place our own since then.
Because we lived in rentals on a grad student budget for so long, I had a lot of time to think about how I’d decorate our future forever home. While we have upgraded some of our furniture (like our new sofa and loveseat, from a local wholesaler), a lot of our furniture and décor come from good old-fashioned scrounging. Our Eames shell chair was actually rescued from the garbage. Our mid-century slatted coffee table came from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I try to be very deliberate with my decorating choices, because I feel like I have waited for this home for so long.
Huntington is, in many ways, a great place to live. Like I mentioned, it’s affordable. It’s surrounded by rolling hills and bordered by the Ohio River. We get four true seasons, and the fall and spring are just gorgeous. The summers are when Huntington feels most like the southern border state it is — steamy, hot, and green. The people in Huntington we’ve met through work, school, kids’ activities, and just in our neighborhood are friendly and welcoming.
There are times, though, when Huntington is a hard place to live. We are the center of the opioid epidemic — in fact, a number of national and international news outlets have reported on the epidemic from Huntington or nearby areas. You might have also heard about the recent documentary, Heroin(e),which was nominated for an Academy Award this year, and which focuses on three amazing Huntington women who are tackling the opioid crises in different ways.
I have had loved ones who have faced addiction issues, so I had an empathetic attitude toward addiction even before moving to Huntington. Living here has shown me how complex, multilayered, and fraught addiction is. It is a nationwide epidemic, but in West Virginia and other areas of Appalachia, it’s compounded by other social and economic issues, like the exploitation of workers and land by outside corporations, systemic and cyclical poverty, and lack of social services and other resources.
The opioid problem is just part of the atmosphere of living in West Virginia, but it rarely affects our daily life. Jeff is trained in Narcan (the overdose reversal drug) administration, since several overdoses have happened at the library. The kids know not to play in the front yard without shoes on, since drug users sometimes drop their needles in the street or sidewalk. And crime related to issues of addiction, such as petty theft, are rampant in the city. In fact, while I was writing this, we had our birdbath stolen from our front yard. I thought it was too heavy to steal — I was wrong.
These issues are frustrating. But these issues are, to a certain degree, everywhere. What isn’t everywhere is the amazing response Huntington and the Marshall University community are bringing to the issue. There is a new addiction studies minor at Marshall that is bringing education and understanding to the issue. Our community recently won the America’s Best Community competition, which provided a $3 million prize to help in revitalization
Does this make my community sound pretty amazing? That’s because it really is. This was made very apparent when I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. Of course, a cancer diagnosis is devastating. We had finally felt like we were going to start getting on our feet after years of grad student austerity. Then we got the call confirming that the lump in my breast (which I had had for years, but was told was a cyst) was, in fact, cancerous. I began months and months of treatment — first chemo, then surgeries, then radiation, then some additional targeted drug infusions, and now an estrogen-suppressing drug for a decade. I started writing a caringbridge blog about my cancer treatment experience, which helped keep distant family and friends on top of what was going on, and also became a way for me to process my experiences. Writing was so helpful, and writing about my cancer diagnosis and treatment is something I hope to continue to do.
When I was diagnosed, we had only lived in Huntington for not quite two years. Despite that, the people who came to our aid — picking up the kids, bringing meals, running errands, sending gifts — showed what a broad community of support we already had here. Now, more than a year after beginning treatment, I can say that there are days when I don’t even think about cancer, something that during the dark days of chemo I never thought would be true. I know I am very fortunate — I had stage 2 cancer, which is treatable. I have a good friend here whose stage 3 breast cancer has recently metastasized to her spine and liver. Metastasized cancer can be treated, but not cured. The problem is not dwelling on the possibility that the same thing could happen to me.
When asked to think about my “superpower” as a mom, it’s hard — I often have a difficult time thinking of my skills in that exemplary way! I’m definitely the organized planner of the family, while Jeff is the creative dreamer. I tend to be very pragmatic — I like my lists and schedules. I do think one of my gifts as a parent is being very open and honest with my children about difficult topics. Those topics can range from social issues like racism, sexual assault, and homophobia to personal issues like my cancer diagnosis or depression and anxiety.
During my diagnosis and treatment, for example, I would tell the kids in factual and level language what I was experiencing — that I was receiving infusions of medicine that targeted fast-growing cells, which meant not only cancer cells but also things like hair and nails, and that I would be bald for a while. This is an openness I try to foster; while my parents and my husband’s parents were always honest with us, the openness I try to bring to my relationship with my children is a bit new territory — and honestly, I sometime wonder if I’m doing it right!
I hope my kids remember the times when I relax a little bit and encourage spontaneous fun, but also the way I work to give our days structure and stability. I hope they remember attic sleepovers, roasting marshmallows over the backyard firepit, playing board games at the dining room table, and taking evening walks to the park. I hope they remember how much effort we put into their bedrooms — my dad built the kids special beds for their rooms, and they picked out the paint colors.
I hope they remember our traditions we’ve started here: trick-or-treating on the wide, Norman Rockwell-esque South Side streets; picking out our Christmas tree from Stewart’s Hot Dog Stand (not kidding!); listening to concerts in Pullman Square by the fountain in the summer; sledding down the steep hills in Ritter Park during the winter. I hope they don’t remember the times I lost my temper or got impatient with them. I hope they don’t remember me the way I was last summer, when I was so sick from chemo.
Faulkner has a famous, often quoted line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I wish someone had told me the same was true about parenting. Being a parent to kids as they navigate the perilous social fabric of school and friendships and sports teams has brought up all the anxiety I had about those issues when I was their age. I struggled a lot with friendships when I was in middle school and high school, and when my daughter started middle school last year, I was a wreck—but not outwardly. I was so worried that she would face the same problems I did with mean girls or body image stuff. I tried to keep my fears unseen — I didn’t want to color her experience with my own anxieties.
The good news is that she seems to be doing just fine. What I’ve found is that the problems that arise with parenting are often not the ones you expect or anticipate, so you can’t always rely on your own experiences anyway.
Living with kids in this home has in many ways been a dream come true — the culmination of many years of work and austerity. My favorite thing about living here is, simply, living here — being alive to wake up every morning, even to the mundanity of a normal day. Packing lunches, checking homework, cleaning the kitchen counters, straightening the couch cushions for the hundredth time — I’m not saying these things are never annoying, but there’s a bit of a rosy tint to them since my diagnosis. I am so lucky to be here with my family.
Thank you, Jana. I think even if I hadn’t read Jana’s responses I would have known she and her husband worked in book-adjacent fields. There is a bookshelf in practically every room! I love a home full of well loved and well read books. I think it adds so much dignity and personality.
And it truly is amazing to hear Jana talk about how the power of community in Huntington has impacted her life and others for good. To have a community rally around you when you receive a cancer diagnosis must be so powerful and affirming. And it is heartening to hear that the University and surrounding community have rallied together to leverage their resources to help combat the opioid epidemic as well. We need as many smart and compassionate minds as we can have working on this issue.
What do you love about the community you live in? Do you consider your community people from church? Other parents with kids the same age as yours? Or is it simply the neighbors on your street? How have you and your community shown up for each other?