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.


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!


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.