Thursday, April 10, 2008

Who's Afraid?

Here Grandson Johnny Smith shows
a tiny harmless snake to cousin Ruthie.
For a while Johnny thought he would become a herptologist.


Serpent has a connotation of wickedness. We all know what one of them did to Eve.

But why should that reputation extend to the ordinary garden variety of snake, that harmless shy little creature that scurries away when confronted by humans? The snake helps keep down the insect population intent on eating our plants. In its larger manifestations it devours one of humanity's greatest enemies, the rodent.

According to psychologists, a child of a certain age shows automatic fear of snakes. Perhaps it is because of the snakes startling mode of locomotion, that legless slither through the grasses. In much of the world that fear remains part of the culture, resulting in indiscriminate destruction of any casually met reptile. By hoe, by boot, by gun, snakes are decapitated, smashed, shattered, eliminated.

Why, then, do I have such fond childhood memories of snakes? My first memory of a snake is of one my father caught for me when I was about four years old. My grandfather was paying us one of his rare cross-country visits at the time, and he and my father hovered over me as I let the cunning little striped garter snake wind in and out between my fingers. It felt like reticulated ivory. It looked like the ribbon candy I only saw at Chistmas.

I loved it instantly.

The greatest credit for my non-fear, however, goes not to my father nor my grandfather but to my mother. For my sake she suppressed her reaction of complete horror. She had a true snake phobia. All her life she had nightmares about snakes. They were to her the epitome of everything frightening and repulsive. Only years later did I realize that the mere knowledge of a snake nearby could set her to trembling uncontrollably.

I continued to like snakes, having them as pets at various tines. They were not allowed in the house. I learned about poisonous snakes--in California that meant rattlesnakes--and I developed a reasonable caution in approaching unknown snakes or hiking through snake-infested areas.

Then I went to college and, in the course of time, fell in love with the man to whom I am still married sixty-six years later.

He might have been known for his brilliance as an engineering student, by his beautiful singing voice, by any number of admirable things, but to most fellow students his single most striking attribute was that his pockets always held a collection of snakes and lizards. He was generous with them; he would lend me fence lizards to wear on my sweaters, or beautiful black-and-white-ringed California king snakes to while away the time in a less-than-absorbing class. This caused me a few problems, such as the time I forgot to remove the lizards from my sweater when being interviewed by a poetry professor for entrance into a special class. He gave one horrified look and expressed the opinion that we might be personally incompatible.

On the first Christmas after our wedding my husband was teaching at Tufts college in Boston. We were very poor and we were far from our western homes. I was enrolled at Tuft's as an undergraduate and had no personal income. I wanted to give Otto something very special, but I didn't want to spend his money for it. Christmas Eve found us still shopping in Harvard Square. I had exactly one dollar in my pocket. In the window of one of the book stores was displayed a beautifully illustrated copy of Ditmar's Snakes of the World. It would be the perfect gift for Otto if only I could afford it. Foolish thoughts! But what’s wrong with pricing your dreams? I went in and asked. By some miracle (or publisher’s indiscretion) that over-sized hard-cover coffee-table edition in full color cost exactly one dollar.

Lacking funds for luxuries such as movies, we spent our winter evenings reading the book aloud and thus becoming rather knowledgable about what had been heretofore just interesting pets.

When our daughter was about two years old my husband and I developed, for schools, a lecture series--called Bats in the Belfry--about various unusual pets that we had had. To add interest we would bring a selection from our current home collection of salamanders and newts, frogs, and most popular with the children, a beautiful large snake, a black racer, about five or six feet long. Candace, our daughter, was presumably of about that age at which children show an automatic fear of snakes. But she hadn't read the textbooks. One of her favorite activities was to drape the snake over her shoulders and parade around the yard. The black racer is a semi-constrictor. That meant that her snake would take a firm grip of her shoulders with his mid-section then carefully lift head and tail to prevent their erosion from ground friction. The snake seemed to enjoy the ride, but various neighbors expressed horror and disapproval.

My mother apparently felt that by hiding her fear of snakes from me that she had earned the right to be completely honest with my children. They were left in no doubt that Grandmother was terrified of snakes.

My oldest son was fond of snakes and usually had one resident in his basement room: nice little snakes, garter snakes, king snakes, rubber boas. When he was about seven my mother came to stay with the children while my husband and I went on a trip.

Otto Joe couldn't really believe that his Grandmother would object to so pretty a little pet. After much thought, he came to her and said, “Grandma, you wouldn't be afraid of just a little tiny snake, would you? Like this?" And he produced his small garter snake from behind his back. According to my Mother (and confirmed by my children) her scream could be heard by the neighbors.

My grandson, Joe, when a young teen-ager, used his summer earnings to buy a boa constrictor, which he named “Richter.”

Richter lived in a large terrarium with an electrically heated rock to keep him comfortable. He was free to crawl up over the sides of the terrarium at any time, but he generally preferred the comfort of his heated rock. Periodically, however, he would lazily slither forth into the room on a foraging expedition. At this time the cat was removed to another location (although it never was determined who was a greater menace to whom in a cat-snake confrontation), and it became incumbent on Joe to come up with suitable fare for a hungry five-foot boa.

Mice were bought for this purpose. They were too cute. Joe couldn't bear to feed them to Richter. Baby chickens were the next choice. Joe was too tender-hearted|.

The next time we visited my son’s home, we found a large and flourishing colony of white mice and a half-grown rooster that roamed the house and had established a working relationship with the cat. Richter had been donated to the science class at the high school, which was thereafter responsible for his board.

Now we come to granddaughter Anna Phyllis, my namesake and the youngest member of the Smith clan. She was two years old and adorable at the time of which I speak (she is now a college student – still adorable). She liked attention and hugging, and had learned that if she jumped across a room saying “Hop! I'm a little bunnie,” that her mother will swoop her up and kiss her. Then she and her older brother Johnny and her father found a pretty garter snake. Her father is the afore-mentioned Otto Joe, unsuccessful evangelist to his grandmother. They all made much of the little snake. Anna was obviously convinced that here was something even cuter than a rabbit. The next time she needed attention she wiggled into the room, mouth already puckered for a kiss, and said, “I’m a little snake.”

It’s all in your point of view. After all it was in Paradise that Eve encountered the serpent. And my paradise also has tended to have snakes winding through it, like tendrils on the decorative initial of an illuminated manuscript, tying together my loves: my father, my husband, my children, my grandchildren, and, by her forebearance, my mother.

I am thankful for the serpent in my garden.


Devil Mood said...

Wow, I am amazed by your family's closeness to snakes and lizards. Everyone seems to have a special story with them. Incredible.

There aren't many snakes around in the city, of course, and I've only seen a snake once and it was dead in the countryside.
There's not only fear but also disgust, the slither than you mentioned. But deep down fear and disgust both serve to keep us away from snakes, we've learnt to avoid them because some were poisonous. That's genetics :)

Marcy said...

We have a rock/retaining wall that is in front of our house and faces south -- of course, we always have a few garter snakes in the cracks, enjoying the heat. Our cat, convinced her task on earth is to feed her humans, joyfully brings us snake after snake during the summer -- all still very much alive. Perhaps it's the same snake over and over. At any rate, it's very often that I hear Sweet Baboo calling me to dispose of the most recent "catch" -- he's also deathly afraid of snakes -- and he makes a mad dash in the opposite direction once I scoop up "Fred" and bring him back outside. (They are all Fred to me) And he calls himself a country boy!! Ha!

Marianne said...

I am completely and utterly charmed with this post.
I like snakes also, I've never felt 'fear', only respect, although I admit to not being fond of the water mocs... My mother is also deathly afraid of snakes, she also won't get near or in water, as in swimming (she does bathe :^)..
When Havala was a few months old, sitting up on her own, early Spring, I had her out in the garden beds with me, I was clearing one out and found a little nest of baby garters, they were still quite sleepy, chilly day, I gently lifted them out and laid them in Havala's lap, she was very gentle with them and completely intrigued and mother chose that point in time to drive up and was nearly sick from seeing 'her granddaughter' with her hands full of snakes.... now spiders on the other hand, were not Hava's cuppa, but over the years she's learned their beauty also.

murat11 said...

As one born in the Chinese Year of the Snake (as was my wife, twelve years later), I appreciate your tribute to my brothers and sisters. I loved this memoir, particularly your Boston stories—they set me right back there (I am a Harvard grad, and my wife is a fellow Tufts grad).

In my previous life as a therapist, I worked with a lesbian couple who were snake lovers. One session they walked in with some lovely matching bracelets on—halfway through the session, I realized they were snakes (ball pythons, in this case). Snake though I was, I was probably more in line with your mother’s fears, but these two knew that I was interested in working on this fear, if you will, of self. What amazed me about holding one of the pythons was that its touch went completely against my preconceptions: I imagined wetness and nervous energy, when it was in fact wonderfully smooth and extraordinarily calming.

Your delightful story also reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. Thank you.

Hey Teach! said...

What a beautiful post. Though my tendencies towards serpents are closer to your mother, you give them a whole new perspective. I love your grandson, saving the mice and rooster. You write beautifully how snakes have intertwined through your family.

anthonynorth said...

Excellent post. Really got into that! I've written, at times, about the metaphorical serpent, but not from personal experience.
By the way, I once had a goldfish :-)

SusieJ said...

You write so well, and your story, is amazing. I am sadly, much like your Mother, and how amazing for her to hide her fear for you. I don't think I can muster that kind of restraint, although I wish I could. What a lovely time you and your husband must have head with those little classes... there are so many little stories in this one post. So lovely. And yes, it is truly, a matter of perception, but that doesn't help me too much when it comes to snakes.

gautami tripathy said...

I abhor lizards. However, I am not scared of snakes!

One great post, Granny!

shapely ghosts

Greyscale Territory said...

I so enjoyed reading this posting, even though I so freak out about snakes. When I was living in Tasmania, there were hoop snakes which would leap out of a pile of autumn leaves, form a hoop shape and launch off. So many tried to convince me that they were showing far more fear than I was. Even so, I walked carefully, and, where possible, round piles of autumn leaves.


P.S. There were also a few tiger snakes on my property too.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Hey, Granny! Nice to meet you -- and a huge thank you for discovering the unworking links on my blog yesterday. The Tour Manager had been tinkering with things... *sigh* It's all fixed. Thanks again.

I love this piece, being someone who snakes make shudder. Intellectually, I know better. But I just can't get past that inherent childhood case of the heebie jeebies.

kiki. said...

Your posts never disappoint. I loved reading about your fondness for snakes. I always wished I could have a snake. Thanks for sharing another great story!


Bethany said...

I, too, loved snakes and lizards and lovely slithery things growing up (though I was violently afraid of insects... ugh!). I really enjoyed how you tied your family together with snake anecdotes in this post. You have such a special legacy!

tumblewords said...

I enjoyed reading your post but must admit that I fall into the camp of those who dislike/fear snakes. Nice post!

GreenishLady said...

While I have a theoretical appreciation for the theoretical snake, I cannot imagine wanting to touch one. I envy you your ease with these creatures. I found your writing fascinating!

Jon said...

Really enjoyed reading your post. Ever since I was a child I've been fascinated with snakes. I've never owned one - can you own a snake, or are they like cats, they own you ? But I'm going to the pet shop tomorrow, who knows what I'll come home with

Amber said...

What a great story teller you are!


paisley said...

phylis... what an absolutely lovely trip down your memory lane... having always been a lover of animals,, i too have been held back from maintaining large snakes as pets as i cannot justify providing them with prey... never the less,, i am an avid admirer of others pet snakes and fascinated by them roaming free...

Redheels said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I think it is too bad that everyone can't feel about snakes as you and your family.

I have a friend who is deathly afraid of snakes.(And so am I) A few years back she was working in her yard; her husband was going to help her, but when he looked out the window he saw her laying on the ground. He thought she had changed her mind about the yard work and decided to get a little sun so he continued watching TV. About 30 minutes later he walked out back to ask her a question and he realized that she had fainted.

After she had recovered, she ask him if he had ever seen her sun fully clothed and without a chair......of course he was in big trouble. (:

Tammy said...

Fascinating story Granny! I'm with your mom personally but I loved the love story between your family and snakes.

Sixty six years...coolest part!

Curvaliscious said...

Thank you for your note on my blog, Curvaliscious. I have the font fixed - it was bothering me so I had a friend take care of it. I am glad that you liked my essay - I am looking forward to reading more of your blog as well!

Honey And Papa said...

Being your youngest kid you know I like snakes. We have people who like snakes in their yard on both sides of us, and our side of the street (with the field behind us) has very few mice. On the other side of the street, further from the field, the home owners don't like snakes, and they have more mouse problems.

Inland Empire Girl said...

I loved reading this. I haven't been around snakes very much so I think they startle me more than cause fear. We are close to rattlesnakes though and I try to stay away from the places with warnings. Yikes!

Beatriz' suitcase contents said...

Great post Granny! What a wonderful family you have, and the anecdotes of all of them and their relationships with snakes are priceless. We live by example, don't we?

nonizamboni said...

You're a snake charmer, Phyllis! After reading this wonderful history of snakes in your past and present, I will look at them with less of a jaundiced eye. In fact, I hereby promise to not avoid the snakes at the botanical gardens next time I visit. :O)
As always, reading about your large family and your tender recollections fills me with such joy.
Thanks for sharing, dear friend.

Karen said...

What a wonderful take on "Fearless"--it's given me a new perspective on snakes! Lovely entry!

Sian said...

A beautiful tale, lovingly told. I particularly liked the part about the Christmas gift and the line "Unsuccessful evangelist".
Thank you for sharing this.

Maggie May said...

Snakes are OK if you know which ones to avoid.
Your grandchildren are lovely!
You are lucky to have your wonderful husband for 65 years!
A good post!

Jennifer Hicks said...

you masterfully wove so much together in that story - awe, fear, disgust, beauty vs evil, perspective, family. wonderful. i couldn't get enough!

Remiman said...

I'm uncomkfortable around reptiles and I steer clear of snakes when I know they are in the neighborhood. I do welcome them to the area for there contribution to natures balancing act and do not kill them when I see them.
Some day I'll write a post about the time I stepped on an adder while picking some mint for tea after dark. ;)

anno said...

I loved this story about snakes and your family's history with them. My daughter loves snakes, and, to my consternation, as a young child frequently asked for birthday parties at the snake hut at our local nature center. Not being particularly appreciative of snakes myself, I could sympathize both with your mother's bravery about snakes for her children's snakes... and for her later direct honesty about her feelings with her grandchildren..

ian russell said...

A great account, I enjoyed it immensely. I once shared a house with a guy who kept a python but I remember it didn't do much other than sit coiled around a log.

Rosie said...

it is such a basic primitive fear...evolution new what it was up to...I can tell myself that it is a grass snake but my genes insist that it is poisonous

Mary Beth said...

I am in awe of you and your family. I never grew out of the time of childhood where we're unaccountably afraid of snakes. I appreciate what they offer in the "circle of life" but I prefer them to be as far away from me as possible. I would have zoos and snake people come and talk to my class when I taught. Meanwhile, I would be in the farthest corner trying very hard not to show my fear. I really like my animals with fur:)

Sue "Sioux" Seibert said...

How lovely. Can't say I feel the same about snakes. i know they are useful, but I guess that's my greatest phobic. BTW, I love your writing! Oh, and I cam here from the Happy Tiler's blog. Love your saying about blogging friends. And, my daughter married a Smith, so my grandchildren also have a Granny Smith...and that, too, is their favorite apple!

Medhini said...

A mind boggling post! Very interesting. I haven't had any personal encounters with snakes but definitely would be scared to death when faced with one.

Shyam said...

I love this post! I dont care for snakes and lizards myself, but you make me wish I did :)

daria said...

Wow, Gigi!!!
You are a blogging rockstar! I just saw all the comments on the last couple of posts.
I just wanted to say that I too always loved snakes. I seem to remember the one-eyed garter snake that you gave me when I was wee. I also remember that I kept it in a cloth bag. Funny memory that I might have forgotten if not for this post.
I emailed you some photos that need to have catchy titles for competition, if you are in a creative mood, I'd love to see what you come up with!
I hope you are doing great!!