Summer has definitely arrived. School is out, the crops are planted, the days are warm, long and free! Doris and I are poking around our favorite coulee – across the road from our farm home. Small, it has no permanent creek, but there is a catch-basin slough at the south end. It collects run-off water, grows reeds and is home to many interesting things: red-winged black birds, meadowlarks, dragonflies and butterflies. To my delight, water in the slough also means my “creepy-crawlies” of all sorts show up. I spend much happy energy catching some tiny toads that appear when the slough is high, and deposit them in my overall pocket for the ride up the hill to our home.
It is nearing noon and Doris says, “Mommy will be ringing the lunch-bell soon. Marjie – you’d better collect your things and we’ll head off.”
Just then, out of the corner of my eye I see it – a snake! A wee, little, young garter snake. I shout in glee and the chase is on. Most times the snakes win races like this, but today I am the victor. Into my empty pocket it goes. Who knows, it might consider the passengers in my other pocket as lunch! I brush the dirt off my knees and hurry after my sister.
“Was that a snake you put in your pocket?”
“Yes,” I reply, “a lovely young one, with beautiful colours.”
“And what will you do when Mommy tells you to empty your pockets, Marjie?”
As we walk on I hurriedly try to make a plan. We all know that Mommy is terrified of snakes–not just dangerous or unfamiliar ones which anyone would avoid, but even poor, harmless little garter snakes. It makes no sense at all, but that is the fact. Doris agrees to show Mommy the tall willowy reeds she has pulled, and I will scoot by and dump my snake in a holding box I have under the back porch lean-to. As we near the house Mommy comes out the back door, sees us and waves and rings her bell.
“She wants us to hurry,” I say, and we pick up our pace.
As we near the house yard Doris goes ahead and calls Mommy over to see the reeds. I hurry by and head for the side of the lean-to. My heart is pounding. Just as my fingers find the box, Mommy calls out, “Marjie, come over here. Lunch is almost ready. Empty your pockets into my pail before you go in.”.
I slowly remove my toads, one by one, trying to persuade Mommy not to let them go. “I will do that after lunch,” I promise. I turn to go into the house when Mommy says “Marjie, stop! That was only one pocket. What do you have in the other?”
As I slowly pull my hand out I start to plea. “Mommy, this is important. It is a baby and with some different colours and markings. Please let me put it in my box, and I will move it over to the coulee right after lunch.”
By this time the little snake uncoils itself, lifts its head and sticks out its tongue sensing the new surroundings. All this slow, gentle, fluid, nonaggressive action is lost on my mother. She screams and drops her pail, scattering toads in all directions. Pushing Doris ahead of her she runs for the back door.
My mind is whirling. I can hear Mommy crying and telling Doris to stay in the kitchen. Still in tears, Mommy comes to the back porch door. Calling to me through the screen door, she orders me to let the snake go immediately and to come inside! For about a minute, which feels like an hour, I stand there without answering. Finally Mommy tearfully calls again, “Marjie, let that terrible snake go and come inside!”
Emotions of all kinds are churning inside me. I hear a voice I scarcely know is mine saying, “No Mommy, I will not come in, and I will not let my snake go.” I walk over to Dad’s chopping block and sit down. Cuddling my little friend I whisper, “Now what am I going to do?”
Thinking as hard as I can, my nine-year-old mind has more issues to sort out than it is up to dealing with. However, I understand that I have put myself in a bad situation without any plan for how to end it! To add to my confusion is the fact that I suddenly realize that as long as I keep my snake, I am in charge! This is a new and heady feeling. I am nine years old, and I have the power to keep Mommy and Doris in the house. What scares me, and makes me ashamed at the same time, is that I like this feeling of power.
It is a long, lonely and hungry afternoon. As a defiant and unhappy rebel I hold on, knowing Daddy will end all this. I both fear and look forward to handing the problem over to him. Indeed, when Daddy drives into the yard, he views the situation and goes into the house to talk to a distraught wife and daughter. Then he takes decisive action:
— The snake is released by Daddy, safely into the road ditch.
— I receive a sound spanking—humiliating, for only little kids were spanked.
— Daddy listens to my version, and to Mommy’s.
— He suggests a settlement that both sides can accept! He has comments to make, and also his conditions for settlement.
Comments: Daddy says that both sides own some responsibility for letting this situation arise. For me–disobedience is not an option I have. For safety’s sake, and for order in the home, I must obey my parents. However I have the full right later to plead my case and try to get a better understanding when future disagreements arise. For Mommy–she must find a way to handle her excessive fear of my “creepy crawly” creatures.
Conditions: I must promise never to bring my collection of living creatures into the house. I may build temporary holding boxes for my little creatures to stay under the back porch shed, while I go into the house. As for Mommy’s part, Daddy asks that she permanently retire her bucket and that she stop telling me to empty my pockets. Mommy looks very alarmed for a minute–but then says slowly, “I’ll do it. She’ll do her part–I trust her for that. What do you think, Marjie?” At this point Mommy and I hug one another, and cry, while Daddy shakes his head and chuckles.
My memory of this incident is very fuzzy after this point. My confused feelings about liking the power, and disliking myself for doing so were moved somewhere into my subconscious “holding box”. My first tentative step towards adulthood may have been taken that day.
As I have been writing this account of what, for a nine-year-old girl was a traumatic event, I am days away from my ninetieth birthday. As I travelled back 81 years, I experienced once again my wonder at what the subconscious can retain. It offers forth not only scraps of events, but releases smatterings of the emotions that were present in the participants. Gratitude is my main reaction now, to have grown up in a home where love and respect mingled with human shortcomings and homespun wisdom. What a platform from which to launch forth into life!