Before the novels, I wrote a column for the Western Star called “Mother, Can You Hear Me?”, a memoir of the daily life of a caregiver. I was a full-time caregiver for my mother who suffered from Dementia until she passed away in 2010. When the roles are changed for mother and child, the stories grow.
My grandmother was horrified of snakes, so horrified that wherever she went, she carried a hoe with the blade sharpened to a fine edge, a blade meant expressly for slicing off a serpent’s head or whacking it into two—or three—pieces. All seven of her children knew of her extreme fear of snakes. And all seven of them respected it. Except one, the baby boy, a wiry little chap named Paschal whose only fear was boredom.
Barefoot and shirtless, even in winter, he climbed every hill, scurried over every rocky face of the Cumberland Plateau. He delighted in finding secret caves and making forts inside old coke ovens. To him, the world was never better than when he could rustle up a game of King of the Mountain, even when no other children were within shouting distance and his only adversary was the wildlife that inhabited the woods. And in Paschal’s mind, of all the animals in the forests, the worthiest foe, by far, was a long, wriggling snake. On one particular afternoon, he played his mightiest game against a four-foot rattler. With stealth, cunning, and the skill of a young Tarzan, he smashed its head with one perfect blow from a smooth stone and claimed his title of King of the Mountain. He draped his kill around his shoulders and headed home to display the trophy. When he jumped into the tiny kitchen where my grandmother was cooking supper and did his best he-man yell, the huge snake still draped across his shoulders, he probably didn’t anticipate what would come next.
Nor did I, some eighty years later, anticipate the outcome of another game. Queen of the Mountain, my mother’s favourite. With the wrath of a wounded grizzly bear, she can vanquish foes both real and imaginary, disabling the hardiest adversary without lifting a finger. And like the grizzly, (and her brother Paschal before her), she is a quick and cunning fighter whose one goal is to claim the trophy. Of course, I mean no disparagement to the grizzly, that majestic protector of cubs and territory. There have been times when I’ve watched my mother play Queen of the Mountain and thought I’d have been much safer with a grizzly. Grizzlies don’t usually attack unless provoked, and they play by the rules. Before they attack, I’m told, they first warn their intended victims with that deafening growl.
But the laws of nature don’t apply to my mother. Her rules of engagement are strictly her own and most often directed against a mighty adversary, a cunning little snake in the grass.
At the end of a long afternoon visit at Plantation Manor, I’d stood up, slung my purse over my shoulder and bent to kiss her goodbye. The attack came out of nowhere.
“I bet you’ve been planning this for years,” she said suddenly. I’d stood up to leave, gathered my purse and her dirty clothes. Leaving me out here all alone so you can do as you please.” She’d yelled so loudly that a nurse came running down the hall and stood at the door.
“You’d forsake your own mother just to be able to run around this town and do whatever you want to do! What did I ever do to deserve a daughter like you? I’ve tried to be a good mother. But nothing’s good enough for you.” Amid the pounding fist and the grizzly bear roar, I imagined myself scaling the highest cliff of the Cumberland Plateau where, like my uncle before me, I breathed in the cool air and surveyed my own territory.
The nurse stood very still as I walked to the door.
“Mother,” I said, “I’m tired and I’m going home.”
The grizzly bear I’d seen only a few seconds earlier stopped her growling. My mother flipped a page in her magazine. “Okay,” she purred. “I tried.”
In 1926, when young Paschal jumped into the kitchen with the rattler draped across his shoulders, the poor little chap couldn’t have known that his mother, so horrified at the sight of him in the clutches of a deadly serpent, would turn into a raging bear. She screamed bloody murder, grabbed her hoe, and cold-cocked him with the blunt edge hard enough to knock him to the floor, the dead snake caught underneath. In her horror, she killed the already dead snake, chopped it into pieces with the sharp edge of the hoe. Still screaming, she grabbed Paschal by his long curly red hair and dragged him outside, away from the insidious beast that now occupied—in pieces—the center of their kitchen. When the boy had revived enough, she had him gather the serpent, dispose of it, and scrub the floor clean. Years later, she told and retold the story of how she saved her boy’s life with her fine hoe.
My Uncle Pat lived through the incident and became a man of many interests. Still a mountain boy at heart, he loved the outdoors. He just never cared much for snakes.