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Family Portrait, minus Medium, on top of Snake Mountain

The OINKdaddy and I took Small and Large hiking on Snake Mountain – a 1.8 mile trail in Addison, Vt. – mainly because we had been promised a beautiful vista at the top. I don’t see the point in hiking if there’s no reward. Large tells me that I should appreciate “the journey” but it’s not in my nature. I’m all about the destination.

In spite of its name, we didn’t expect to actually see any snakes on the trail so when we did, it was like a special nature lover’s bonus: “Look kids – a garter snake! You can tell because it’s black with yellow stripes.” I encouraged the boys, including the OINKdaddy, to catch it (hells if I was going to do it myself!) but they weren’t fast enough. It was pretty obvious that none of us really wanted to catch the snake but since I don’t want Small and Large growing up afraid of snakes, I used the opportunity to share what little I know about snakes: 1) Poisonous snakes don’t live in northern Vermont, 2) The only venomous snake in Vermont is the Timber Rattler, which is brown, and 3) When you pick up a snake, you should grab it just behind its head.

It took us an hour, but we made it to the top where the view was simply stunning. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and nibbled gorp all the while enjoying a steady breeze and each others’ company. The return trip was a little less fun in that all of us were somewhat tired and Small was very so, and yet even when I was lugging 48 lbs of five year old I felt contented.

This feeling of contentment lasted until we arrived at home and discovered something had taken up residence (or was at least visiting) our garage:

Scary-looking, Potentially Child-eating Snake

“There’s a big snake in the garage!” yelled the OINKdaddy as he jumped back from the open garage door. Not that a three foot long brown snake could ever have startled my virile, strong husband. In retrospect, I’m certain he was simply passing along helpful information along the lines of, “Careful not to step on the big-ass snake when you come inside.”

“Stop messing around!” I yelled back, grinning a little. What a jokester.

My smile dimmed immediately when I realized he wasn’t joking. Ahh, the irony of returning from a lovely hike on Snake Mountain to find a large brown snake I have never seen the likes of before almost inside my house!

I’m not afraid of snakes per se, but I wouldn’t choose to cuddle with one either. I’m pretty sure the OINKdaddy feels the same or thereabouts. Together, we stared at the cold-blooded vermin as it coiled and uncoiled next to the sidewalk chalk. In that moment not one, single educational thought went through my head. “Get rid of it!” I said.

Now, the OINKdaddy’s a catch and release kind of guy while I’m more of a killer. In the fifteen years that we’ve been together, this not-so-subtle difference has been the genesis for more than a few healthy discussions. Live and let live is his motto, while mine is more like sometimes a round-headed shovel is a good problem solver. What can I say? Opposites attract.

“Maybe I can scoop it up,” he mused.

“Just kill it.”

“What could I use?” He cast around for an appropriate scooping device.

“Kill it! Just kill it!”

I imagined the thing slithering off into the dark recesses of the garage, safe from the threat of either relocation or death. I pictured it striking an unsuspecting ankle or an inquisitive hand. This was not a moth or a spider or a chipmunk. This was a big, brown snake and I did NOT want it anywhere near me or my kids. So, I did the only thing I could do – what any mother would do. I went after the snake.

My subconscious must have balked at perpetrating violence in front of the kids. Almost of their own accord, my hands selected the snow shovel over the spade. My hastily formed plan of attack was to shoo the thing out into the open at which point, I hoped the OINKdaddy would take over. I hopped around trying to push the snake outside. It didn’t want to go. It moved sideways, quickly. I hopped around some more, knocking over bikes and toys and helmets in the process, and yelled. I don’t actually remember what I was yelling but when questioned later, Large said I was screaming, “Agh! Agh! NOT helping Brendan! Brendan, help me!”

Upon realizing that the children were becoming more scared of the unholy scene their mother was making than they were by the sight of the actual snake, OINKdaddy grabbed the shovel and stunned the thing with a good whack. I reached for the spade before it could get away and with one slice, it was done.

Except it wasn’t. The damn thing did what I’ve seen chickens do after their heads have been cut off (I swear I do not have a secret hobby of killing small animals. My friend’s father raised chickens for their meat when I was growing up and I was at her house on chicken killing day. I was assigned the task of feather plucking – a smelly, messy job if ever there was one.). The headless body writhed and coiled and twitched while next to it, the disembodied head continued to thrust its forked tongue (I never saw the chicken heads move; this must be something particular to snakes). I shrieked, the kids shrieked and the OINKdaddy, well, he was convinced that the snake was still alive. This horror show went on for a good five minutes while the OINKdaddy and I argued whether to cut the snake into smaller pieces (my idea) or to drown the headless body (his idea). Eventually, the snake did us all a favor and finally looked dead.

Better Off Dead

I was in the shower trying to let go of my guilt over having traumatized my children when I heard the OINKdaddy open the door. “Just so you know,” he said, “it looks like you killed a Gray Rat Snake, which is a protected species. There are only a few of them left in Vermont.”

“What?!?”

He laughed. “I’ll bring the kids to visit you in jail.”

Would Indiana Jones have said this? I think not.

P.S. If you can identify this snake, please do so. I believe it is a milksnake which is a common snake, not protected. Cross your fingers!

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I love watching Antiques Roadshow on PBS. It’s amazing to me what people keep in their homes. Ugly lamps, god awful vases, knick-knack-brick-a-brack…you name it and there’s someone out there collecting it. But my favorite episodes are the ones where somebody brings in a garage sale find – a painting, say – that turns out to be an emerging work of so-and-so which is now worth $100,000. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to be as lucky as the guy who paid $45 for Ansel Adams negatives worth $200 million?

My mother found a painting nestled between boxes of china and unused racquetball rackets in her garage. She knew the artist personally and so, she had kept it safe – if forgotten – for over 20 years. Deciding she was ready to part with it, she had it framed and gave it to the OINKdaddy as a Father’s Day gift. Here it is:

Van Gogh? Hell, no.

This, dear readers, is acrylic paint on generic art paper. And it’s from my high school days.

I labored over this painting like none other. The assignment was to paint a famous photograph. The photo, by Eve Arnold, showed a Mongolian girl training a horse to lie down in battle. I was taken with this photo partly because I was a horse girl through and through, but mostly because my horse had to be put down.

My father met Vernon in the driveway when he came in the backhoe to dig the hole in our pasture. It was my father, not me, who led her emphysema-wracked frame to the edge of the grave. He was there to steady her when Freddy raised the gun to shoot. It was he, not I, who held back tears in front of the men.

I was touched that my mother had kept this painting all these years. “I just remembered how you loved that horse,” she told me. “We were all so sad when it was time for her to go.”

But, now, what to do with this painting? As a piece of my history, it’s priceless. As a piece of art, it sucks. I can’t throw it away but neither can I display it.

Fifty years from now, when Small, Medium and Large are cleaning out my effects, they are going to find this thing. They’ll say: “Hey, look at this! Think it’s worth anything?” Maybe they’ll take it to the Roadshow.

The kids are playing in the basement; the decibel level is akin to a rock concert. I ask my husband to close the door and search for serenity within my fiction cocoon. I am nearly in the zone when I hear feet pounding on the stairs. Small is whining before he bursts into the kitchen. Since his father is the first parental unit he’ll encounter, I stay on the couch and do my best to ignore their conversation. I am semi-successful until I catch a sentence that concludes with “Mommy.” I am needed. Sighing, I look up from my book. Small is heading in my direction; his face tear-tracked and dirty. I sit up and put on a sympathetic expression. I reach for him, ready to whisper words of comfort and absorb all his hurt feelings, but he hurries past me with nary a glance. Throwing himself on the dog bed next to Paco (who sighs as deeply as I had), Small breathes deeply of musty dog and closes his eyes.

“Brendan?” I call. “What did you just tell Henry?”

“I told him to go snuggle with you or the dog.”

Small stops sucking his thumb long enough to give me an unsolicited one sentence explanation: “Paco cheers me up faster.”

Knowing that my child, whom I spent hours laboring to bring into this world without the benefit of pain-dulling drugs, whom I love, counsel, and care for, whose physical and psychological well-being I put before my own, whose head I have held, butt I have wiped, and knees I have kissed, whose everyday actions I chronicle in the hopes that they might, someday, promote fleeting, happy thoughts…he prefers the dog’s company over mine?

That’s just fabulous.

And the Mommy of the Year award goes to a neutered, middle-aged, red dog whose favorite hobbies are surreptitious sleeping on the furniture and overt cleaning of his ass. “He just makes me happy,” says his son.

Humble pie does not go down well. It almost always gets caught in the throat.

At the grocery store, why are there always five scanners and zero baggers? I’d rather wait a little longer in line, even if I need to play defense in the candy zone and constantly redirect the kids’ attention from the educational headlines: “Improve Your Sex Life With These 10 Tips!”, than be required to bag two weeks worth of groceries myself. It’s not that I’m above bagging; I’m a decent enough bagger (even if I perpetually forget to bring my reusable bags). It’s more that I find it incredibly challenging to organize our stock of go-gurts, goldfish and chicken nuggets while simultaneously riding herd on my herd.

I’m puzzling out how to cram the most groceries into the fewest number of paper bags with Small and Medium shaking the row of but-they-only-cost-a-quarter! toys 20 feet away when the laconic teenager says, “S’that your bread?”

There, at the wrong end of the conveyor belt, is my bread. “Yes,” I tell her. “That’s mine.”

“You want it?” she asks.

We stare at one another. My blood is rushing through my veins so quickly my heartbeat has to be audible. I stomp around to the other end of the checkout, nudge the bread onto the belt, return to my unwanted post and resume bagging.

Again, goth girl stops scanning. “Got ID for the wine?”

Again, we stare at one another. I reach for my purse. Except it’s on the other side of the cashier’s station. The side where the customers are supposed to stand. I put an overly full bag in the cart and scrabble around for my driver’s license.

Once upon a time, I was flattered when I was asked to show ID. Now, I’m just irritated. Someday, my testiness is going to get the better of me and an unwitting cashier is going to get an earful of: Are you blind? Can’t you see how old my children are? I’m not wearing any makeup, I haven’t showered in days and I have thirty minutes to get home and everyone fed before T-ball, so please, don’t delay me any longer! As it is, if I didn’t have to bag my own damn groceries, I’d open that screw-top bottle right here and start chugging!

Oh. Now I understand the dearth of baggers.

There’s a reason that Victorian-era parents made their children eat in the kitchen with the governess instead of in the dining room with the rest of the family. Maybe it was because children are loud and interruptive. Or maybe those parents didn’t want half-chewed bits of food smooshed into their carpets. There might even have been a few families who wanted to complete a conversation with their spouses rather than have half a dozen failed starts: “You’ll never guess who I ran into today…yes, I heard you say you wanted ketchup.” “The funniest thing happened at work…be careful with that knife! You’re going to cut yourself.” “Did you read that article in the Times this morning? People are saying…will you please stop bothering your sister? And would you like to explain why you’re out of your seat?”

“Experts” tell us that Family Dinner is the most important ritual we can establish for our kids. Indeed. Well. They do not live in my house.

Dinner-time for our clan is chaotic. Adding to the ebb and flow of our non-starting adult conversations are the kid interjections and announcements: “You forgot to pack a snack for me today.” “My pants are wet.” “I don’t like this.” “Stop talking, I’m talking!” And the attempts at family conversation: “How was school today?” “I had a great day!” “Yes, we’ll talk about your day in a moment, but I was talking to your sister.” “Why don’t you like this?” “I just don’t. Can I have dessert?”

I prepare mostly healthful meals; the kids eat mainly bread and butter. I can guarantee they’ll eat only if I serve chicken nuggets, spaghetti with meatballs on the side (no sauce), pizza, or hot dogs (no buns) with french fries. If they discover that I am making something to expand their pea-sized palates such as Caribbean lentil stew or even vegetarian lasagna, they’ll load up on afternoon snacks and whine through our meal. I tend to wine through these meals, too. Red works better than white.

The other night, Small wandered into the kitchen while I was chopping onions and mushrooms for chicken marsala. “Ugh,” he exclaimed. “Can’t we have chicken nuggets?”

I decided then and there that I was done with the clamor for compressed poultry products. “No! You will eat what is put in front of you. I am not a short-order cook and this is not a democracy.”

Large took up the fallen standard for his brother. “Actually, it is.”

“Not in this family, it isn’t.” I chopped fungus with vigor.

“Well, then that’s communism and you’re a dictator. Revolution, guys!”

“Rev-o-lu-tion, rev-o-lu-tion, rev-o-lu-tion…” The three of them crowded around me, chanting.

Victorian-era parents managed to eat a hot dinner in peace. If only I had a time machine.

I’d put the kids in it.

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