By Karen Brode
I slid the peas one by one under the mound of mashed potatoes on my plate. I figured if they were hidden, I might not have to eat them. Ever since a nurse friend of my mother’s had told her I didn’t look well, she worried about what and how much I ate.
“She’s got dark circles under her eyes and she’s far too thin for a child her age,” the woman had said.
I wish she had minded her own business. I had been thin my whole life, but it was only after that woman’s comment that my mother worried about it.
I guess she felt she was failing me if I didn’t look like the picture of health. But I was 8-years-old and never got sick. I didn’t understand why I suddenly had to eat things I didn’t like. I mean, I could ride my bicycle around the block four times without having to rest. Surely that counted for something.
Mother sat across from me at the table and sipped her iced tea. We were having a “family supper” so we could talk. It felt more like torture. It’s not that I didn’t like talking with my mom, but I could hear the other children riding their bikes and yelling in the summer evening. They had put playing cards onto their bicycles so that when the card brushed past the spoke of the bicycle wheel, it sounded motorized. It was making me crazy to not be outside playing with the other kids. I didn’t think I could sit there much longer!
“I’m not really hungry,” I moaned.
“Oh no, no, no,” my mother said, looking up from her paper. “You’re going to sit there and eat what is on your plate.”
I looked down at my plate. Most of the peas were hidden under the mashed potatoes. I took another bite of bread. It seemed to take forever to chew. I didn’t think I would ever get to go outside again. If I had to be caged in and eat peas when I was well, I wondered what it was like for my Aunt Cleo, who had been bitten by a rattlesnake when she was a girl.
“Did Cleo get to go play after she got bit by that snake?” I asked.
Mother looked up from her paper and out past me. She seemed to be seeing clearly that summer when her sister come so close to death.
She shook her head. “No. She didn’t play much that summer. She was one sick little girl. Her foot turned completely black. We were afraid it was going to fall off.”
“What would have happened then?” I asked, horrified.
“I don’t know. But I can tell you this, Momma fretted about it night and day. She had that doctor out almost everyday. She never did believe he knew what he was doing.”
“Why not? Wasn’t he a good doctor?”
“I guess so. It wasn’t like today. This was a country doctor and I don’t know what kind of education he had. He’d come in, take his black hat off, sit by Cleo for a few minutes, ask her if she could feel her toes, and then he was off again. Momma tried asking him all kinds of questions, but he never could give her a good answer. It drove her crazy.”
“But wasn’t he supposed to know something about what was happening to Aunt Cleo?” I couldn’t imagine a doctor not knowing everything.
“That’s what Momma used to say. She’d go on and on at the supper table about that doctor. Poppa just let her talk. And after awhile, it seemed as if Momma wasn’t really directing her questions to anyone in particular. She was just trying to process what had happened.”
Mother looked at her supper plate and sighed. I could tell she was missing her mom. I tried to think of my own memory of Granny Morrison, but most of the things I knew about were things I had heard from my mother.
“You know, I don’t think Momma was ever the same after Cleo was bitten by the rattlesnake,” Mother continued. “Up ‘til then, she had felt protected, like we were sealed off some way from all the hurt and pain in the world. Before the snakebite, she always talked about how nothing bad could happen to her family. She figured she had borne seven children and they had all lived. Not many women could say that back in those days.”
“She didn’t ever worry about anything?” I asked.
“Sure, she worried, but after Cleo got bit, her worry turned up to high volume. Momma was like a lot of people back then. She believed if she did all the right things, lived a good Christian life, and took her children to church every Sunday she would be protected from anything really bad happening.”
“But there’s nothing in the Bible that makes that promise, is there?” I remembered people saying this when my dad had died. He had been a good Christian man, but he had still died when I was six. And since then, I had seen the best of people brought to their knees in grief and worry.
Mother looked at me like she was trying to remember Bible verses. “No,” she said. “There wasn’t a promise that if you did everything right, nothing bad would ever happen to you.”
She thought for a few minutes more and then continued. “After all that happened, Momma tried to protect us in her own way. She didn’t want us away from the house. She wanted all of us to be where she could find us and know that we were okay. Every night after we all went to bed, she walked through the house to make sure all the doors were locked. She went to each room and counted us children so she knew we were all there, safe and sound. It didn’t matter if Poppa had locked the doors. She had to check for herself every single night. That snakebite did more than just hurt Cleo. It broke something in Momma. She didn’t ever trust life again. She knew something bad could happen at any moment. And she almost expected it.”
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.