The Lonesome Price of Power

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!


Filed under Prairie Childhood

12 Responses to The Lonesome Price of Power

  1. Jim taylor

    As a child growing up in India, I would never have dreamed of picking up a snake — any snake! Now that I am an adult, I have learned to stand back and observe, to recognize the markings, but I am still leery about the things. Did you ever ask your mother why she was so afraid of snakes?
    Jim Taylor

    • Marjorie

      Jim – Growing up in India your reactions are very understandable. However, I do not seem to be with the majority in this matter. There is a theory that in the long centuries of evolution, human kind learned that snakes were often trouble, and so there became inborn in the developing humanoid a dislike and fear of snakes. I have no idea if this is part of the answer or not, but the prevailing attitude must be caused by something. That may not be anything more complicated than a passing on of an accepted social reaction. However, the snakes I have met, the safe ones, are not slimy, not aggressive, and are beautiful and interesting. As for my poor mother – she was on the extreme in her fear – a reaction I never saw in any other situation. Imagine her having to raise a kid like me.

  2. Alison Uhrbach

    Now I know where Ralph got his love of living creatures! My memories are of seeing Ralph’s treasures – I believe some of them in your basement? and of a falcon? I love hearing your memories, it makes me aware of respecting others not only for what we know them to be now, but of learning more, to understand how they became who they are.

    • Marjorie

      Alison – We have a saying “The apple does not fall far from the tree”, the Irish say (so my son-in-law tells me) – “He didn’t lick that off the floor” — so maybe some of Ralph’s genes did come from my side! Yes, he was interesting to raise – his basement collection did cause trouble with some of my household help. Your last comment Alison, I experience over and over in my new “digs”. 90% of the residents here have been raised and lived their lives in circumstances very different from mine. I find that I have to probe into their background in order to understand why we have different reactions to many things. Not a matter of right and wrong, mostly of different life experiences. Very interesting.

  3. Yvonne

    I so enjoy your command of the English language Marjorie.

    • Marjorie

      Yvonne – Glad you are enjoying the blog. As for the English – thank heavens for dictionaries, spell checking, and above all a patient editor. Still, I do enjoy trying to write these essays, so am pleased to have your comments.

  4. Doreen

    Oh how I hate snakes. I would have been standing next to your Mom and then running for my life. I saw a very dangerous snake right next to me when I was in Australia. That was too much. They frighten me…

    • Marjorie

      Doreen – Oh come on! Perspective helps you know. For example, I would not cross a pasture with a bull in it – they are big, beautiful and dangerous animals. But does that transfer into hating all cows? There are many areas in the world where I would not touch a snake, because many are poisonous, but does that keep them from being interesting? Why not trying to Google some information on snakes in general? — or, not even for a good friend, you say?

      • You are still mothering in a sweet and sensible way. We are all the better for it.

        P.S. I am back from California as you know and slowly working my way back into my life here after three months living with my sister and nephew. Living on the ground — as opposed to the 22nd floor — every day there was another creepy-crawly in the house. I got so blase, when I saw a fancy spider on a drying dish, I asked Betsy about it. “That’s a black widow spider….” Luckily it scampered down into the sink and I ran the water and turned on the garbage disposal.
        I tried not to concern myself with finding more. After all, he/she was a widow/er. Right?

        • Marjorie

          Welcome home, Barbara, I’m guessing my early love of those things was tied into living in a geographic setting where there were very few things that stung or bit or were miserable! The ones available to me were toads, worms, snakes, wee lizards – and that’s about all — or all I now can remember. That was enough for my mother, mind you – none were on her list of favorites. Once visiting a farm in Iowa, and running through the corn fields, I came face to face with a spider web that was suspended from one row of corn to the next – a distance of about 4 feet. In the middle was as spider the size of a man’s fist! I beat a hasty retreat. That beastie certainly would not have fit in my pockets! Where did you grow up?

  5. Dorothy Swanson

    I don’t know if you remember a time when I visited your Calgary home with Mom and Dad and you were excited to show me something “special”. When you appeared with one of Ralph’s snakes wrapped around your wrist I am afraid that my reaction was very like your mother’s. I have since as a mother tried not to have such an extreme reaction in front of my children and grandchildren, but I am afraid that when startled by a long slithery thing whether worm or snake my reactions haven’t changed much. Some things are just part of our nature.
    I did enjoy our visit with you this weekend – no creepy crawlies:-) – just lots of good conversation.

    • Marjorie

      Dorothy – The visit with the three of you was just delightful, and I will hope for a repeat. About the snake bracelet episode I vaguely remember it. The snake in question was a very small variety of a boa constrictor I believe. Quite harmless, and it instinctively coiled itself firmly around a wrist if it was offered. Of course for me this was fun, but most of my friends objected. As I look back, it was pushing the line of good manners! Sorry about that. I behave much more sedately now.