I had an “unexpected memory” the other day. I was walking a trail in the Pinelands with a hiking group when I happened upon a smaller type of snake that didn’t seem too concerned about our presence - it neither scurried away nor got defensive, but just slowly kept going along its way, undeterred. I was able to take a photograph – not the best, as I only had a macro lens and I don’t go chasing down snakes for their “best side”! I am not a “snake person”. They do fascinate me, but I only like to enjoy them at a distance.
I looked up the snake when I got home to see what kind it was, and found out that it was an eastern hognose snake, which brought back a chain of memories from when I was six or seven years old, a time when we lived up on the Janesville Pike in Tyrone, surrounded by farm fields and forests.
My mom was a city girl, brought up in New Haven, who’s weekend playground was nearby New York City. She wasn’t much for corn stalks and wildlife as she was for skyscrapers and busy sidewalks.
So, when my older brother came in the house exclaiming there was a snake out in the back yard, we were all ushered inside the house and not allowed to venture out. Danger, danger, danger! was orbiting throughout her mind! She must have immediately called the game warden, a friendly man named Joe Grimm, because he was soon knocking on the front door.
Next, I remember Mr. Grimm leading us kids out the back door, holding a forked stick in his hand. As we stood back, he walked over to the snake and began prodding it with the stick, pushing it to the side with the fork. The snake moved away slowly, but Mr. Grimm, with a quiet grin and a concentrated look on his face, was persistent in his efforts to annoy the snake.
The snake, continually prodded by Mr. Grimm’s deft use of the forked stick, finally gave up trying to move on. It wriggled a bit and rolled over on its back, offering its white belly to the warm afternoon sun.
We kids stood there stunned, to think that Mr. Grimm killed the snake, and so easily.
He turned to us and said “See, he’s just playing dead. This isn’t a rattler or a copperhead- it’s a plain ‘ol hognose snake. Harmless!” With that, he walked back to the house to let my mom know that we were all safe and that it wasn’t much to worry about. I remember that he was laughing a bit as he calmed my mother’s fears. After he left though, it did not much matter, as it was another three days before she let any of us kids outside of the house to play!
This memory began a cascade of others. There are so many. I can still remember the skinny dogwood tree that I would shimmy up to look down on the world – I can still feel the roughness of its dry bark and its leafy smell. I remember the time our dog came home shot in the chest, and lived through it. There was the day my sister and a friend went out to the cornfield and gathered corn silk to make “mop head” wigs so that they could look Paul and Ringo. In the back yard, there were peach and apple trees, more moss than grass, and a swing. The back yard was also where, along with my brothers, I learned how to play baseball and football. At times we would see herds of deer and more than once, a black bear. Across the dirt road that ran along the side of the property, was a pasture that held a few cows that were owned by the farmer who lived at the end of that very road. Along our driveway we had wild tiger lilies that attracted all kinds of butterflies that I would sometimes catch. I could keep going and list more memories that have come back to me from that time – there are so many! Maybe someday I will write the stories of some of them.
Its interesting how a chance encounter with a snake – a kind I hadn’t seen in the last fifty-six years ago since Mr. Grimm was summoned to our house – could stir up so many memories. Maybe seeing the hognose wasn’t chance. Maybe it was the universe wanting to give me back a few pages of my story, ones that had been misplaced over time. I have to admit, I feel good to have them back again.