Memories of Pete Everheart

By Karen Brode

“He was already a senior in high school when I first met him,” Mother said. She and I sat on the front steps of our house looking out into the warm, Texas night. I could tell by her voice and the faraway look she got that she still thought about him.

“I was 14 years old and nothing to write home about,” she continued. “Opal was married by then, so she wasn’t around to tell me how ugly I was, but I still knew. It was too much to hope that someone like Pete Everheart would fall for me.”

“Momma, don’t say that!” I said, grabbing her hand in mine. “You are so pretty! Whenever I look at that picture of you and Daddy on your dresser, I always think you could’ve been a movie star!”

Mother continued without comment.

“His family was well-off, but we weren’t. Going to a party at his house was almost like stepping into a fairy tale. They had Japanese lanterns all over the yards, and there was a punch bowl and all kinds of cookies. The girls were all dressed in formals and the boys wore suits. It was hard to think of these people being the kids I went to school with everyday.”

I leaned my head against her knee just picturing it. It sounded so glamorous.

“I didn’t go the first time Pete asked me to a party at his house. I thought I was too plain. I kept wondering what someone like him would see in me.”

“Oh, Mother!” I sat back up and squeezed her hand.

She smiled an apologetic smile and said, “I was afraid it was a joke. Every girl in that school had her eye on him. He had golden blonde hair and was tall and very smart. He played on the football team. He was always smiling with those perfect square, white teeth. I didn’t want him to look too closely at me.”

Heartache and longing pulled her eyes from me and into the distant past. I knew that in her mind she was seeing Pete Everheart again, as if he was standing right in front of her.

“When he finally persuaded me to go to his house for a party, old Mrs. Everheart stared out at everyone from the kitchen. She had to wonder which girl Pete would pick to bring home to her. She was so intimidating. She was heavyset at a time when not too many women were. She wore horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. Her dresses were sewed by a professional seamstress, and you could just tell that she didn’t feel as if she had to be nice to anyone. She was the main detraction to Pete, at least in my mind.”

“Besides that, though, there were all the other girls who wanted his attention. You know that I was the only freshman girl at his parties. That was enough to make me feel threatened in every way. Some of the senior girls wondered why he would even want me there. The measuring way they stared at me made me so uncomfortable. If I hadn’t really cared for him, I would not have gone to those parties.”

“So, I spent a good deal of time standing alone, watching the senior girls flirt with Pete. I always knew that there would be someone ahead of me, someone prettier, someone smarter, so I never had the nerve to approach him. But, he always sought me out and asked if I was having a good time. Sometimes, he would catch my eye from across the room. He made me feel as if I was the only girl there. Somehow, without ever saying anything out loud, I knew how much he cared for me. I don’t think I was just imagining and wishing this.”

“Did you and Daddy have that sort of connection?” I asked, thoroughly absorbed in what sounded like a storybook tale. My dad wasn’t Pete Everheart, so I had to know how Daddy had won Momma’s hand.

“Daddy just loved me outright,” Mother said. “I never had to wonder or guess how he felt about me.”

The mention of my father seemed to wake her up to present day. She shook her head and it was as if her old beau disappeared. But I wasn’t done yet. I still wanted to know what had happened that she hadn’t married him.

“Where does he live now?” I asked. “Does he have any children?”

Mother looked at me for just a moment and then back into the darkness. A tear rolled down her cheek and I wished I hadn’t asked.

“It was Labor Day weekend of his senior year,” she said. “He caught up with me that Friday after school and asked if I would join him and some friends for a picnic at the quarry the next day.”

“Did you go?” I asked, sitting on the edge of my seat.

She nodded. “There were about eight people that day at the quarry. My mother had fretted and worried that I was too young to go on a picnic, even if there were a bunch of people there. She reminded me that sometimes boys got ideas on picnics and wanted girls to go for a walk with them. ”

“Your mother didn’t want you to go for a walk with a boy?”

Mother looked at me with a tired smile and said, “Granny just wanted to avoid the appearance of evil. Our family had a reputation for being fine Southern folks, except for my brothers. They got to do whatever they wanted. Granny never did get her sons back into the fold at church after they went wild and left home. She stayed mad at Poppa the rest of their lives that he had let his boys run wild.”

I stared at Momma and tried to envision what “running wild” was. I decided that my brother, John, was probably like Mother’s brothers. John didn’t answer to anyone. Even his sergeant in the Army couldn’t make John good.

“The sun was shining so bright that day,” continued Momma. I’ll always remember that. And we were, all of us, in the mornings of our lives. It was one of those days that seemed perfect. The way I felt that day – if it could be bottled and sold – stores would sell out immediately. I was happy in every cell of my body. We spread our tablecloth on the ground, and each of the girls unpacked a picnic basket she had brought. The boys looked over the different foods and chose a girl to sit with.”

I saw another tear escape down Mother’s cheek. She took in a breath and I knew without being told that Pete Everheart had chosen to sit with her. It was so romantic! I could picture his smile and his dancing eyes as he let Mother feed him. I was certain that her hands were shaking and that her eyes were darting about to the other girls, hoping that Pete wouldn’t decide to go sit with one of them.

“After we ate,” Mother said, “Each girl put away the food and covered their picnic baskets so the flies wouldn’t come. Two of the girls pulled their dresses off over their heads. I looked away for fear of what they might have on underneath. They were wearing swimsuits that by today’s standards were quite conservative, but at the time, they were scandalous. I didn’t have a swimsuit. My mother probably didn’t even know they made swimsuits. I was glad I didn’t have to take my dress off in front of everyone. Even if I’d had something presentable on underneath, just the thought of taking my dress off was unthinkable.”

My poor mother, I thought.

“A black haired girl in a swimsuit came to take Pete’s hand. She wanted to race with him to the edge of the quarry. They had all been there before and knew the best places to dive and swim. Pete had the body of an athlete. He had on black swim trunks and a white undershirt. I will never forget the contrast of his pure white skin against the black swim trunks. He represented all happiness to me that day. I let my heart soar just a bit to think that such a wonderful, happy boy would even look at me.”

“Did you go swimming?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t have a swimsuit. I was happier than I had ever been just watching him have fun.”

“Did everyone else go swimming?” I asked.

“I can’t remember anyone but him. Isn’t that odd? There were other people there, but now it seems as if all their faces were blanks. Then George Stephens pitched a quarter in the air, and told Pete it was his call. Pete glanced back at me and called heads. George told him he could dive first.

“Pete backed up a ways to get a running start. Then he executed the most perfect dive I’ve ever seen. We all watched in happy anticipation of seeing his shining face burst through the surface of the water. But then time slowed, and we were in a sort of trance trying to make time run backward. All at once, George panicked and ran down the bank to get into the water where Pete had dived. Not long after, he yelled for the other boys to come help him.

“I watched in slow motion as they pulled his body out of the water. His eyes were open, but there was no longer any life in them. Several of the girls screamed and held onto each other. The boys carried him to a rock and laid him on it, but it was far too late.

“I remember George’s voice. It was confused, scared, and sad at once. He started to tell us that they had been there before and the water had been deeper, but his voice trailed off before he finished. None of it mattered anymore. There wasn’t anything else to say.”

“I kept thinking of a poem I had memorized for Mrs. Johnson’s English class. It was a Robert Frost poem:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Eventually, I looked away. I couldn’t watch any longer. People were screaming all around me, but I just shut down. I leaned against a tree and looked up at the bright cerulean sky.”

No Pit of Ashes for Me

By Karen Brode

The nursing home door was just across the parking lot from where I stood. There were no hills to go up or steps to climb. Even so, I felt as if I trudged through waist deep molasses to get there.

Mother had been in the nursing home seven years. Each year that passed, I wondered how much more I could take. I wanted her to die and be out of this misery. But then I felt terrible for having wished my own mother dead. Seeing her like she was, surely death was better?

I’ll admit there were times when I thought she might outlive me, when it seemed death was a disappointing friend—never there to relieve the suffering of my poor mother, never there to take me from the dread of seeing her suffer like that. It always hovered, always lingered somewhere in the shadows, but it never came. Maybe it was a blessing that at least one of us didn’t know what she had lost.

There were times when I arrived to find Mother in the dining room and she knew who I was. Little glimmers of the past, of the woman who had raised me, given me everything. Other times, she looked at me as if she had never seen me before. Every single time it hurt just like the first time it had happened.

Then there were the times when she saw me walking up to her and she would start crying.

“Where is Albert?” she’d ask, clutching and unclutching the arms of her chair with despair. “Why doesn’t he come visit me?”

The questions of my long-dead father always broke my heart almost as much as her not remembering who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t even try to tell her the truth that he had died when I was seven. It seemed cruel to tell her the truth. I would cry later, but not in front of her. In these times, I tended to tell her that he was out in west Texas, but he would be home at the end of the week and he would see her first thing. This is all she needed to hear.  She settled down after she knew where he was.

Other times, she asked me about her mom and dad. Somehow, even when she didn’t know who I was, she knew I represented her family.

“How are Momma and Daddy?” she’d ask.  “Are they okay?”

I tried to allay her worries and fears with little lies.

“They’re doing just fine,” I’d say, knowing they had long since passed on. “Why, just yesterday I ran into Granny at the grocery store and she was buying ingredients to buy a cake.”

This almost always made my mother’s face light up, as if she could see it clearly.

“They were planning to play dominoes that evening with some neighbors,” I’d continue to encourage her happiness.

I know you’re not supposed to lie, but it gave my mother peace of mind when that’s the one thing she hardly ever had. I discovered that my vivid imagination was an asset after all.

It surprised me that she never asked about my brother, John. I would like to have told her the truth about him if she ever mentioned him. He fled to Las Vegas to escape the nightmare she and I lived in. He left me to handle it all alone. I couldn’t tell if I was more angry or hurt that he had found a way not to be involved. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to be left holding the bag (again), but I was surprised. I think I expected him to rise to the occasion. What a foolish expectation.

The one thing I felt good about was that we could put her in the nice nursing home, the one with cheerful wallpaper and high end decorating. I took comfort in the fact that we put her in the best place possible. There wasn’t much else we could do for her. That was the most frustrating part.

I attended Christmas parties every year with my mother at the nursing home. Personally, I hoped to forget about the holiday. Seeing how  she deteriorated, I never felt as if there was anything to celebrate. The Christmas Carols sounded like funeral dirges. So many people sat in their wheelchairs asleep even as we clapped and sang around them. Mother was lost wherever the mind goes when it is deep with Alzheimer’s. She didn’t seem to realize it was Christmas.

Still, the nursing home tried to give all the folks something to enjoy. One year, someone dressed as Santa and went around the room ho-ho-hoing. When he stopped at our table with some goodies, he asked Mother what she wanted for Christmas. She just stared out somewhere in the distant past.

I glared at him and had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “What do you think she wants, Santa? A little piece of her mind back, maybe?”

It wasn’t his fault, of course, that we were in this place. It’s just that every Christmas since she had gone to the nursing home had been a reminder of what she had lost—what I had lost—and it got to be too much.

The first Christmas she was in there, it seemed that every store I entered immediately began playing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on their intercom system. I often had to leave my half-filled grocery cart in the aisle and walk out of the store crying.

After one particular Christmas party, I started to wheel Mother back toward her room, but felt a gentle grasp of someone’s hand on my arm. It was Harriett Mercer, a woman I had known in passing at church before her health had failed and she had to go to the nursing home. I didn’t know her well, but I could see her mind was still sharp, even if she was wheelchair bound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she knew the score. She knew she was in a nursing home. She knew she would never get out. She knew she would never go home again. Mother also would never go home again, but at least she didn’t know it.

When the nurse came by to push her down another hall, I waved goodbye and vowed to visit her next time.

True to my word, during my next visit I stood by her bed and held her hand while she told me about the life she had lived. Her husband, Floyd, had taught woodshop classes at the high school most their married life. He was killed in a car accident on a Sunday afternoon on the way home from a football game. She no longer cried as she spoke of that horrible day, but I could see the toll it had taken in the heaviness of her voice.

“He and his buddies had gone to see the Cowboys play,” she said, staring out into the difficult past. “Floyd drove. The others walked away with scratches. Floyd….” Her words drifted off with the pain that, even years later, came to the surface. “At least it had been a good day,” she said with more courage than I could imagine. “His friends, Merle and Bill, told me they’d had the time of their lives.”

I remembered then the accident that had killed her husband. He had been impaled by the steering column. I shuddered thinking about it and didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t want to think about it more than I had to.

Their only child, Floyd, Jr. had died of cancer when he was 45. No amount of time passing could keep the tears from leaking from her eyes as she told her son’s story of chemo and radiation and prayers that didn’t work.

“They gave him a 21 gun salute at the funeral,” she said. “But I hated it. My nerves were already gone. Hearing the guns go off finished me.”

I squeezed her hand a little harder as I listened. She stared at the ceiling for a while. I had the impression she was thinking back to more normal times, days when her family was intact.   “I never imagined things would end up the way they did,” she finally said. “I had a regular life once. And then I lost everything.”

I gasped at her words. Like Harriett, I had a husband and a son. And, although I have not known the pain of losing my husband, I came way too close to losing my son during his senior year of high school. He survived, but he lost his dream of being on the varsity track team and he nearly missed half of his school year. When he finally went back to school, it was with a walker and neck brace.

All this while my mother withered away under the influence of Alzheimer’s. The weight of it broke me down. I cringed when the phone rang. Was it the nursing home? Was my son in yet another wreck? Or maybe it was my husband who had met with disaster. I no longer expected things to go well.  Just getting through a day at work or a day at home seemed all I could do. I lost any hope of my life ever being normal again.

I looked at Harriett and felt a kinship with her. It seemed cruel that she still had her mind to remember all of that. It seemed oddly a blessing that my mother couldn’t remember the hard times she had experienced. Maybe she was better off not knowing where she was or what had happened to her.

Harriett’s eyes were magnified behind the thick glasses she wore. I asked her if I could get her something to read.

She shook her head. “I can’t see to read,” she said. Her voice broke over the words as if she mourned yet another loss. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.”

She made a heavy wave with her curled up hand in the direction of the woman who shared her room. “She keeps that infernal television on night and day. Half the time I can’t even sleep.” She sighed and let her head drop back onto her pillow and closed her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in hell.”

I wanted to do something for Harriett. I tried to think of something, some measure of peace I could leave with her, but there wasn’t any. I looked to her bedside table, thinking I might read her a chapter from the Bible, anything to comfort her.

She saw me looking and guessed my thoughts. “I threw away my Bible years ago. I don’t have any use for a God who takes everyone I loved and everything I had and leaves me to languish in this place of complete misery.”

At first, I thought maybe I should defend God to her, remind her that He is good and has our lives in His hands, even when it feels that He doesn’t. But, to be honest, I could see her point. I sort of felt like she did and I wasn’t really happy with God either. I was becoming increasingly clear just how much she and I had in common and I was afraid of ending up just like her. It was a sobering thought.

Even so, my upbringing always brought me back to the Bible, searching for understanding and comfort. I thought of Job, the ultimate sufferer. I tried to remind myself what he said to his wife when he lost everything.

“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (I didn’t dare bring this up to Harriett.)

In the midst of his fiery pain Job was able to remember the many wonderful things from God before asking, “Should I expect to never have anything bad happen to me?”

I think Job was in better shape than I was. He seemed to take a lot of comfort in that pit he sat in with ashes on his head. I had no such pit, no ashes to give me peace. I had to keep going and try to make the most of what was left of my life. Somehow I envied him getting to give up and grieve. I didn’t have time to grieve!

Almost overnight, I felt as if everything in my life as I had known it was over. And it was. I was broken and I didn’t know how to put myself back together. And yet, standing there, holding Harriett’s hand, I realized something else. I could walk out of the nursing home anytime. I could go to my home and cook supper and take the trash out and mop the floor. These were activities that she would never do again.

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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.

Snakebite, Conlusion

By Karen Brode

Continued from Snakebite, Part II.

“Momma always taught me to pray,” Mother said, thinking back to the time her sister Cleo had been bitten by a rattlesnake. “So I did what I could. I got down on the floor and prayed.”

She told me this story as we sat together on the front porch of our little house in Texas. The stars were bright and a few of those lightning bugs she was so fond of had started flashing in the lawn beyond us.

She seemed distant in thought. Whenever she thought about her family, it was with mixed emotion. She had been raised Baptist by her parents, Walter and Lela Morrison. They had taught her how to pray and they had sung hymns together at their family piano. And yet, when my father had come along, he had introduced her to what she now called “The One, True Church.”

She was fond of saying how he had really saved her. “Why, I might have missed my chance at heaven altogether if it hadn’t been for your father!”

She seemed to think about this a lot, especially as she talked about her family. And that night on the porch, she was particularly pained as she told the story of the night her sister had been bitten by a rattlesnake.

“Your Grandma Morrison wasn’t what you’d call a religious zealot, but when the situation called for it, she could become one. I remember her just saying over and over that night, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!’”

“We all stopped our praying when the doctor looked at his watch and announced she had made it through her first hour. I remember him saying that was a good thing, though he wouldn’t come out and say she was completely out of the woods.

“I know Poppa was somewhat relieved then. He went to Momma and grabbed her up in a hug they both needed. Together they cried that this had happened. I cried, too.”

Mother’s heart seemed kind of full just then as she talked. I leaned my head against her knee. She reached down and patted my hair gently, and then she continued.

“When Cleo broke out in a cold sweat, the doctor said that was good, too. He said the poison was working its way out through her pores. Opal ran for a blanket at Momma’s instruction and they did their best to help bring some comfort to Cleo.

“We were all afraid to hope for the best, even me. I was just a little girl, but I knew snakebites were serious. Still, Momma and Poppa seemed to breathe just a little easier after this, which made me hope just a little more that everything was going to be okay.

“Momma sat all night by Cleo’s side. Every hour or so, Poppa came in to check on her. Gradually, Cleo began to know what was going on around her and she was very thirsty.” Mother laughed as she recalled Poppa running back and forth to get her water. “He would’ve done anything for his little girl at that moment.

“By the next afternoon, it seemed Cleo had made a turn. Momma was convinced she was going to live, so she went to take a nap. That’s when Opal, Jewel, and I, took turns keeping watch as she became herself again.

“I’ll never forget the look on her face or what she said when she was finally well enough to talk to us. She was dead serious, too. ‘Don’t ever be afraid to die,’ she said. She had wanted to stay there in heaven with Jesus. She said it was the most wonderful place she’d ever been, but then she heard Momma crying and Jesus nodded to her and let her know that she could go back if she wanted to.” Mother stopped, her voice choked for a moment. “Then she turned her face to the wall, and cried.”

“Why’d she cry,” I asked. “She was alive. Didn’t she want to live?”

Mother dabbed at her eyes a little and said, “It wasn’t that she didn’t want to live, Karen. We all cried with her. We knew she was missing her real home in heaven.”

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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.

Snakebite, Part II

By Karen Brode

Continued from Snakebite, Part I

Mother had been a Baptist as a child. Her daddy was a deacon in the Baptist church. No one in the family ever missed even one service. Now, though, she often talked of her regret that she had spent so much time in a church that didn’t count.

She stared into the distance. Her thoughts took her far away.

“Momma didn’t want to let us girls out in the world,” she said. “She kept a tight leash on us. But the boys…” she paused. “Poppa always said ‘boys will be boys.’ I guess she had to let them go and hope they’d eventually come back to their Baptist roots.”

Grandma Morrison was never convinced, though. She wanted to believe the boys would come back. There were times when I found her looking at Poppa’s college degree hanging on the living room wall. He was an accountant for the cotton gin in the town over. She’d always turn to me with a sad smile and say, “That’s a good job he’s got, even in the worst of times, people need accountants.”

Grandma Morrison, or Lela, as her friends and the other old people knew her, had never been really happy about anything when she was a kid. I could tell that just by being around her. Mother told me that the only time Lela thought she could almost be happy was when Poppa Morrison, or Walter, came courting.

“She always thought maybe there was another life she could live besides the one she’d always lived,” said Mother.

Then she met Poppa’s family. There were so many brothers she couldn’t remember their names, and his sister, a grown woman, allowed people to call her “Pet.” They were rich and spoiled beyond anything Lela could imagine. She never thought that she would ever fit in with uppity people like that.

Walter’s older brother, Charles, was the richest of all of them. He thought his money could buy him anything he wanted. He had no respect for anyone, not even his dying mother. Once, when she was visiting Walter’s family at his childhood home she was horror struck when she saw Charles grab a visiting nurse who was simply walking through the parlor after checking on his mother. He planted a kiss right on her lips. Of course, the nurse was highly offended. She pulled away immediately and swished her cape as she exited their home.

Lela was in shock. Then Charles looked at her. His eyes flashed hungrily, as if to say, “You want to be next?”

She turned away immediately and walked out of the room. She had never encountered such vulgarity and disdain for propriety. She had decided that Charles and his whole family were godless, sinful people! They didn’t even say morning or evening prayers, nor did they say grace before their meals. She decided that she could never live and raise her children around those people!

She was just about ready to tell Walter she couldn’t marry him when he asked for Lela to visit his ailing mother with him. She agreed. No one knew what was wrong with Walter’s mother, but she was withering away and the time for her passing was near.

Walter led Lela into the bedroom where his mother lay. Lela held the older woman’s hand for a moment and the woman started speaking in a weak voice. Lela had to lean in close to hear what she said.

“Take care of my son, make a family with him, and love the Lord all the days of your life.”

Lela’s heart almost burst at this and tears moistened her eyes. She nodded and squeezed the old woman’s hand to let her know everything was going to be okay. She would take care of Walter for her.

From then on, Lela mounted a mission to get Walter to stay close to her family and to try not to be part of his family. She didn’t want them to influence her children so that they would become like Charles and satisfy only their base needs. She had to think about their physical health, as well as their spiritual lives. She knew that in the years to come, Walter would assume more power in their relationship, but at the time, she used what she could.

When she announced her engagement to Walter Morrison, her family was very happy. He was a good catch and his family was wealthy.

Walter wanted to move out west to be closer to his family. He reminded her that their lives would be a lot better there, but she wouldn’t go. She insisted they stay close to her family and, secretly, she thought his family was all heathens. “Money isn’t everything,” she’d say.

Of course, there was some point in their lives when she came to believe they probably should have moved. In the lean years, she wondered what her life would’ve been like in the oil-rich part of West Texas where Walter’s family lived. By then, though, they had established their lives and they were on a set course. And, amazingly, Walter never insisted on anything being his way. He deferred to his wife in all matters. Yet, every time Lela got pregnant, she got so mad at Walter.

“If you had to go through what I’ve gone through,” she’d say, “we wouldn’t have any children!” Lela usually spent the first few months of her pregnancies not speaking to Walter.

But now they had all those children, she loved all of them, though everyone knew that Opal and Walter John, Jr. were her favorites. Still, with little Cleo in such pain before her, none of that mattered. She wanted Cleo to live. She wanted to the life they had, just as they had it before the rattler bit her baby.

Cleo’s eyes rolled up and her body stiffened. Lela had never been so scared in her life.

All she could think of was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” over and over.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of Snakebite.

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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.

Snakebite, Part I

By Karen Brode

Mother and I sat on the front porch steps contemplating the inky night sky pierced with stars that looked like pin pricks in fabric overhead. I wondered if heaven was just on the other side of the sky shining down on us in the form of stars.

My father had taught me many of the constellations. We had often watched the night sky together.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” he would say.

And then I would bounce up and down pointing. “And there’s the Little Dipper!”

“This night reminds me of the night Cleo got bit by the rattlesnake,” Mother said. She made it sound so normal, like it was a rite of passage for everyone.

“It was a quiet, still summer night, not the kind of night that you would think something bad would happen.”

Instinctively, I raised my feet up a step, just in case.

“How old was Cleo?” I asked. In my childish eight-year-old mind, it was hard for me to grasp the idea that old people had once been children. Even though I had seen pictures of my mother when she was young, it still didn’t quite register that she had been a child at one time. And yet, I knew on the other side of that coin, I would someday be old. Still, I couldn’t imagine being that old.

All my life I had heard about my mother’s childhood. It was something of a myth to me. She had all the things I longed for—three brothers and three sisters. And she had to share a bed with her sisters. My childhood was lonely. I thought it would be such fun to blend into a large family.

Mother stared up into the sky, her eyes seeming to calculate the heavens. “I believe that was the summer Cleo was eleven,” she said. Then she nodded and pressed her lips together. “Yes, she would have been eleven because I was nine.”

“I’m almost nine,” I said. I tried to look past the lines on my mother’s face and see the smallness of a child, but I still couldn’t see her as a kid.

“We were playing hide and seek just about this time of night,” she went on. “It was that in-between time between sunset and full dark. There were lightning bugs all over the place back then.”

In my mind, I could see lightning bugs everywhere. I knew we had lightning bugs too, but the way Mother told it, there were so many in her day that you didn’t need a flashlight to see in the dark.

She paused and looked out beyond our house, beyond our street. I did the same, sure we were both looking for the onslaught of lightning bugs to light up the night.

Finally, she continued. “It was Cleo’s turn to hide and she went out by the well and crouched down. I don’t think she was out there but a second or two when we heard her scream!”

I felt my chest tighten at the thought of this. Even though I knew Cleo had survived—she lived just over a few streets from us in the same town—I still had to ask, “Then what happened?”

“Well, Poppa went running to the sound of her screaming. He grabbed her up and ran to the house with her. We knew right away it was a snake that had bit her. Blood was oozing out of two little holes on her ankle and it was swelling fast.”

My stomach felt a little queasy thinking about it, but I leaned forward anyway.

“My brother Leon was fourteen at the time. Being the oldest, he took the coal oil lamp out by the well to try to see what kind of snake it had been.”

She closed her eyes then and seemed to transport back in time as she continued.

“I remember Cleo was completely white even in the dimly lit parlor. Her heart was beating so fast and she was having trouble breathing. Poppa laid her out on the divan.

“Mama just screamed, ‘Get the doctor, get the doctor!’ over and over. She wasn’t very good in a crisis. No matter how many times Poppa told her to calm down, she never did.

“I don’t know how long it took the doctor to arrive, but he got there and immediately put a tourniquet around Cleo’s ankle to try to keep the poison from going past her ankle. Of course, by then, some of it had probably already traveled all over her body.”

I shivered. The idea of poison going all through my body terrified me.

“Before long, Leon brought up the dead snake. The doctor and Poppa looked at each other with dread when they saw the rattler still rattling.”

A neighbor walked by just then, crunching through some gravel. I jumped at the sound of it, but was relieved to see it was a person and not a snake.

Mother continued. “Cleo writhed in pain like that for what seemed like forever. She was out of her head. Our momma cradled her and rocked her back and forth. Cleo was somewhere between life and death. She kept telling Momma that she saw Jesus, and Momma looked at Poppa with such fright.

“All us kids gathered in the parlor to see what was going to happen. Leon held on to the coal oil lantern like he couldn’t let it go. Opal and Jewel stood like they couldn’t breathe. James and Walter, the younger boys, cowered in one corner of the room. And I sat with my back to the piano, trying not to think about all those times we had had together as a family, singing. I just started praying silently in my head. It was the only thing I knew to do.”

She nodded like she was agreeing with herself and then said, “It was the best thing to do.”

Want to find out what happens to Cleo?

Check back in tomorrow for more from Karen Brode!

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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.