Carolyn J. Rose
I like to think I’m not a princess. Unless I’m paying for the service, I don’t expect to be waited on. I pump my own gas. I know how to use a plunger and chop firewood. I’ll trap rats and chase down spiders. I try to solve problems on my own before I yell for help.
But I’m not in the same league as my father’s parents. I’m nowhere near as tough. Especially when it comes to snakes.
My grandmother Elfleda was short and round. She wore gold-rimmed glasses and rolled her long gray hair in a bun. She wore lace-up black shoes with low heels, cotton stockings, corsets, dresses, and aprons. Somehow she managed to coax plants to set down roots in our rocky Catskill Mountains soil. She enjoyed exchanging seeds and bulbs and cuttings and sharing garden lore. My cousins and I enjoyed the fruits of her labors—raspberries and blackberries and apples that became pies.
We also enjoyed racing each other to the small hillside pond to chase frogs and feed the goldfish. We often counted them as they darted about. That’s how we noticed their population was declining.
My grandmother blamed raccoons—until we spotted the snake.
It emerged from stones laid up where spring water trickled into the pond. It undulated through the water, coming right at us. Screaming, my cousin Renee and I bolted for the house to deliver the news. We did so with high-pitched squeals and much garbling.
My grandmother said nothing, but set off for the pond at a pace we’d never seen her hit before and would have said wasn’t physically possible. She reached the grassy bank, flung down a curse like a gauntlet, gathered up her dress, and waded in. While Renee and I gaped in amazement, the snake retreated and lived to hunt another day.
The next snake I encountered wasn’t as lucky. It was huge and black and slithered onto the diving board as I bounced on the end, preparing to do a back flip into the family pool. I was in my teens and smart enough to know I could easily have turned, dived in, and made it to the far end. I was also smart enough to be able to identify poisonous snakes, smart enough to know this one wasn’t.
But I didn’t do any of that. Instead I screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
My grandfather Ishmael, known as I.J., flung aside the scythe he was using to cut high grass around the apple trees on the hillside. He came on the run—a measured and deliberate run given that he was about 70 at the time. Never mind that he was wearing sandals, he stepped up on the diving board and pinned the snake’s head beneath his foot.
As he put more weight on it, the snake thrashed and coiled around his leg. I screamed. Its tail reached his knee. I screamed louder. My grandfather, saying nothing, ground the snake’s head against the wooden plank until it was dead.
Eventually the snake’s body fell away from his leg and my grandfather stepped from the anchored end of the diving board, picked up the snake, and tossed it into the woods. I stopped screaming, dove in, swam to the far end, and climbed out. My grandfather, still silent, went back to his scythe.
These incidents will play across my mind until my memory is no more. But I often wonder if they were memorable for my grandparents. These were people who came though the deaths of two young children, two world wars, and the Great Depression. They were tough. They’d had to be. And for them, taking on a snake was no big deal.