It was the first day of summer vacation and I was nestled in bed with a stack of library books beside me. My room was quiet and I ran my hand across the slick and colorful cover of one of those books, giddy in anticipation of the adventures awaiting me within its pages. I had no intention of leaving the house, no intention of doing anything but devouring all those words. Then, my mother threw open the door and ruined everything. She saw me and her lips became thin lines of disapproval, “What in the hell are you doing in here?” Oh nothing, just building a fort out of library books. “I’m reading”, I said. She then went into a passionate rant about the sun and the blue sky and the woods and the beautiful day. I explained that I was not interested in all that and reminded her that nature also included chiggers, bugs, snakes and humidity. I then politely declined the offer to frolic in the woods with her and she not so politely suggested that I get my ass out of bed and put on some damn shoes. I grew up in Kansas and Missouri and there are poisonous snakes there – copperheads and water moccasins. Because I want to live, I have always felt it best to avoid snake bites and the best way to avoid snake bites is to avoid snakes and the best way to avoid snakes is to stay inside. I thought of this as common sense. My mother thought of this as “being ridiculous”. On that summer day, however, I feared my mother more than I feared snakes so I put on my shoes as I was told and went outside with her. There was that sun and sky she’d raved about but with the heat and humidity that I hated. I squinted up at her and said, “Now what?” She said, “Let’s walk.”
We started down the path that led to the woods and she rambled about everything around us. She pointed out the oaks and the walnut trees. She knelt to look at wildflowers. She gestured to the canopy of trees above us that had given shelter from the sun. She inhaled deeply and encouraged me to do the same. I could smell the earth and the moss and wasn’t all that impressed. This was beauty to her and it was lost on me, a bookish girl who wanted nothing more than to stay inside. I suggested we go back and she suggested that I stop suggesting that. I stopped and she trudged on down the path and, in that moment, I realized that this was not going to be a quick sojourn but more of a protracted life lesson. I looked down at the path, sighing and kicking the dirt. She yelled my name and I looked up. “Put some pep in your step!” she shouted and I ran ahead to join her.
We walked for quite some time and she fell quiet at times, looking around reverently, smiling to herself. Her smile was incredible. There is something about a smile, especially one that is rare, one that is given only when a moment most deserves it. I didn’t care about the trees and the plants but I was mesmerized by her smile and I reached for her hand. We weren’t the hand-holding kind but, that day, I held her strong, capable hand in mine. I forgot about the books and the snakes. There was only my mother and me. We wound our way deeper and deeper into the woods and I could hear the rushing of the natural spring that ran through the property. We came to the bridge that crossed it and I froze. There on the bridge lay an enormous snake coiled in the sun. I dropped my mother’s hand and pointed, “Snake. There’s a snake.” She said, “It’s sunning itself.” Sunning itself or waiting to strike - whatever. I grabbed her hand and tried to pull her back the way we’d come. She wrenched her hand free and walked onto the bridge. I refused to move and pleaded for her to come back. She walked right up to the snake, turned towards me and flashed that smile. I thought to myself, “This is a moment I’ll remember forever – the moment when mom was bitten by a snake.” How would I drag her back to the house for medical care? I’d have to fashion a sled or a gurney or something but the only survival skills training I had had was watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island and there was nary a coconut in sight. While I worked myself into an anxious frenzy, she nudged the snake with her foot and it slowly uncoiled into a shimmering lethal line. I wasn’t sure who was being tortured more by her bravado – me or the snake. Then, she slid her shoe under the snake’s undulating body and slowly tossed it into the creek. I ran to her and looked over the side to see the snake slither out of the water and slide quietly into the underbrush nearby. Still smiling, she said, “See? There is nothing to be afraid of.” I wanted to believe her. More than anything, however, I simply envied her certainty.