May 20, 2017

Mothers have an endless supply of stories

Mothers have an endless supply of stories about having and being one.  When Margaret Garcia launched Plumas County's final Listen To Your Mother show, I got to work on an essay that's been in my head for a few decades.  Here it is:



Remember adolescence?  All that angst over zits and body hair and vocal betrayal? Like many mothers I relived it – not the zits but the insecurity.  This time around that helpless uncertainty was over how to handle my own kid as he navigated this most tormented of passages.

We don't have rituals in our culture to mark this transition – no vision quests or sunrise ceremonies.  And yet, even as we stumble unceremoniously from childhood to adulthood, the journey has a way of presenting itself in events.  And we – adolescents and mothers alike – somehow see one another safely through it.

This is a story about a boy coming of age, a dog named Fat Albert and a rattlesnake.

The boy, my son, was a sweet, gentle kid.  Nursing for him was as much about sensuality as it was nutrition.  As a toddler he had a halo of soft blond hair framing a cherubic face with just enough hint of imp.  The rest of us envied him because he always seems to know what he wanted to be when he grew up, even if he couldn't articulate it.

Mostly he wanted the space to be himself: a quiet, inventive boy who turned the sticks he found in the woods into tiny structures, not guns.  He wasn't disruptive, just independent.  When he declined to sing during third-grade choir class the teacher told him to either participate or go to the principal's office.  He chose the office; it was quiet and the principal left him alone. 

This son was never very talkative.  He intuitively mastered the one-liner – often a zinger delivered with the wit and perspective that let us know he was participating in the conversation, if mostly in silence.

When adolescence hit, all that surging testosterone seemed to capture what few words he was willing to share.  The kid went silent: a rebel without a clause.  He wasn't angry or uncaring, just non-verbal. 

What's a mother to do, especially one invested in words and communication?  I was racked by fear that I had failed this child who seemed to know so much yet say so little.  I was bedeviled by anxieties, at a loss for how to reach him.

So on a day in late August, after we had endured his eighth-grade year and an all-but wordless summer, it didn't surprise me when he found me in the kitchen and began a conversation with "um."  It was, looking back, "um" with a capital "U."

"Um… in the dog yard… Um… Albert…"  And finally: "There's a rattlesnake in Fat Albert's yard!"

This would be a good time to mention that we were a dog-sledding family, racing teams of Alaskan huskies throughout northern California and Oregon.  On this August afternoon we had 10 dogs staked out in the meadow below our house.

The capital "U" in the kid's "um" was for Urgency.  I raced outside just ahead of him to a cacophony of howls and huskies lunging and leaping into mid air.  All eyes were on Fat Albert.  And Albert, the most excited of them all, seemed totally thrilled by the unexpected presence of a snake just outside the porch of his doghouse.  It was a large rattlesnake and it was coiled, ready to strike. 

As much as we respected rattle snakes, we had long ago relegated them to the tall grasses and woods well beyond our household activities.  This one was violating that safe space.  The boy and I both knew that.

We acted fast:  I grabbed Albert when he was at his farthest arc from the snake and moved him out of immediate harm's way.  The boy fetched a hoe from a nearby shed.  Our quick, instinctive plan was to dump the contents of Albert's water bucket onto the snake to force it out of his coil into a straight slither. 

I was closest to the bucket.  As soon as I hurled the water at the rattlesnake it began heading toward the next-nearest dog, intensifying the howling din.  Without a single word my son moved in with the hoe.  I watched, empty bucket in hand:  One strong sure stroke that severed the snake just behind the head. 

And it was over. 

We stared at the twitching body, its beautiful diamond-back glistening with water, its classic rattles at the end of a thick, perfect body.  Horrified by what we had done, the moment seemed to stretch into eternity.  Even the dogs stood silent, stunned.  At last my son and I fell into one another's arms, weeping with shock and relief and deep intimacy that come from surviving certain danger together.

How long we stood in that embrace I do not know.  But I did know, even then, that by the time we separated and I looked deeply into his blue and tear-stained eyes, something had changed.  For both of us.

We had not sent this son into the wilderness alone to become a man.  He had not gone to war or suffered any of the rituals designed to mark the transition from adolescence to adult.  He had simply and ably and all-but quietly taken responsibility when called upon.

I would like to say that after Fat Albert and the rattlesnake I gave this son the space and independence he had earned.  I hope I honored his rite of passage with new-found respect. 

What I know – even then and now – is that I could always depend on him.  And I knew I could rejoice in the certainty that this boy would follow his star with confidence and quiet courage.

Boy to man, man to groom:  The sequel to this story occurred at his wedding.  He and his bride held it at an apple orchard near Indian Falls, a lovely early summer occasion with lilacs and sprigs of new-sprouting Douglas fir decorating the arch behind their simple wedding bench.  Just as we were all settling into the silent Quaker meeting segment of the ceremony, a stir went up among the guests seated near the back.  Stir rose to scream as a rattlesnake slithered underneath the folding chairs, sending pocketbooks and shoes flying into the calm May sunshine and guests careening down the hillside.  The groom watched with what I swear was a faint, impish old-soul smile.  He seemed to know that it would end with our sensible neighbor using a shovel to quietly flick the snake across the creek to safety.  And the ceremony continued.

I've often wondered if the rattlesnake is my son's totem – if it appeared then as a blessing and atonement for that rite of passage sacrifice.  I've never asked, and he has never said.