Wednesday, May 17, 2017

May Column--Moms, Fear, and Courage

Mom passed on fear — and courage

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
MAY 14, 2017

Between the apple orchard and the road, one part of our hedge was never weeded or trimmed last year, being of less importance than harvest and guests and graduations. By this past April, the hedge was straggly and overgrown, elbow-deep in tall grass and thistles. When two warm days arrived last week, my resolve outweighed my fear, and I waded in with trimmers, a rake, leather gloves, a wheelbarrow and determination.

Blackberry vines dragging through the weeds made me jump nervously. Rustling leaves made me flinch. I thumped my tools and stomped firmly to warn any residents that I was coming. Then I reached in, over and over: holding my breath, clutching a handful of weeds, and bravely yanking up and out, holding the clump at arm’s length and shaking it, just in case.

As I cautiously attacked that jungle for an hour and then another, I thought about mothers and daughters, and how my mother so thoroughly passed her single irrational fear on to me.

I was a little Amish girl in Iowa, maybe 4 years old, standing with my sister on the sidewalk. We were dressed up and wearing our navy-blue bonnets as we waited for Mom to come and load us into the buggy. I looked down and saw a garter snake lying along the edge of the walk.

I recall not knowing how to respond to this.

And then Mom came outside and showed me.

“She taught you far too well,” my husband says now, when I want him to clear a path ahead of me through tall grass or shiver at garden hoses half-hidden under hostas.

That obscene fear of snakes, in Iowa and then Ohio, where black snakes abounded, and then a farm in Minnesota that held granite rocks and garter snakes by the hundreds, was unfortunate at best and life-threatening at worst.

We had a routine. Mom, pulling weeds or picking beans in the garden, suddenly would shriek, “Hock!” — the Pennsylvania German word for hoe. While she kept an eye on the snake from a safe distance, we scattered to find a hoe and then ran to deliver it to Mom.

Then, with a shudder across her shoulders, Mom would step forward and chop the snake into pieces. Farm life was earthy and raw, abundant in life and death and practicalities. You did what needed to be done.

We used to say that instead of listening to the serpent and eating the forbidden fruit, Eve in the Garden of Eden should have had Mom’s good sense and yelled for the hock. The world would have been so much better off.

Now I wonder: Why were we afraid of snakes and only snakes? We three sisters, following Mom’s example, had no fears at all of spiders, mice, cows, rats, dogs, bugs, bats or anything else.

My sister Rebecca met her future husband at a summer project in Los Angeles. In one of their first conversations, she and Rod were leaning against the wall of the cafeteria. Rod said, “Hey, there’s a spider on the wall above you,” thinking she would freak out and he could rescue her by killing the spider. Instead, Rebecca turned and looked, calmly smacked the spider with her hand and kept on talking.

Rod thought, “Wow, she really is a farm girl.”

Maybe Mom wasn’t so wise in teaching us her worst fear, but she also taught us that you laugh at your fears and keep going.

She nearly had a heart attack the day she was picking green beans and found a snake twined up the stalk when she swept aside the leaves. We all went into hysterics the time a snake got into the utility room.

Afterwards, we retold the stories and howled. And we kept on picking beans and doing everything else the farm required.

Mom was always up for adventure as long as the work was done. We lived near a typical Minnesota lake, undeveloped and reedy, maybe 40 acres in size. One spring Mom announced that we should walk clear around the lake after the ice was gone but before the snakes came out of hibernation. “How about this Sunday afternoon?” she said. We said we’d join her, my sisters Rebecca and Margaret, and I. It would take an hour or so, we figured, hiking through the woods and bare cornfields around the edge.

After church and Sunday dinner, we started off. We hadn’t even reached the lake before Mom saw a garter snake crawling into the ditch.

Oh dear.

If Mom considered quitting, it wasn’t for long. We had a goal, and a miscalculation on hibernation dates wasn’t going to stop us.

Down a field lane, through some trees, and there was a creek we hadn’t accounted for. Margaret found a downed branch to help us cross it.

We soon found that Lake Whitney, which appeared from our house like a simple oval, not only had creeks on the other side, but arms extending into the neighbors’ property, swampy appendages, and hands and fingers swollen with melted snow. Surely after rounding this slough we would be headed back to the road, we said, but then another watery obstacle appeared.

Cold and wet, our boots heavy with mud, always watching for snakes, we trudged on.

Finally, we reached a familiar field within sight of the road. Half of the field was flooded, with a fence running through. We girls took the long route around the water, but Mom, unconquered, marched straight through, grinning, hanging onto the fence, lifting her boots high, step by splashing step, her dress streaming with muddy water.

At last, we all reached home.

Many years later, I prepared to visit Rebecca at her home in Yemen. It was my first trip to the Middle East, and I would be traveling alone. Some of my friends and family thought I was crazy. “But, aren’t you afraid?” a perplexed friend asked.

“Of course I’m afraid,” I said. “But I want to see my sister.”

My neighbor, Simone, found a large bull snake in her pasture, just down the road from the end of our hedge. I shuddered at the picture she posted online, but I still went back to weeding the hedge, because the job wasn’t finished.

Mothers might teach us fear, but they also teach us courage. There’s work to do and adventure to take, and it’s our calling to accept. If we do, the stories are ours to tell. So we follow them into the swamp, the garden, the hedge, the vague dangers deep in tall grass, armed with rubber boots and rakes and laughter.


  1. Why do you still blame your parents for things about yourself you don't like? I am deathly afraid of spiders - that meme "I saw a spider in the bathtub, so I very calmly got a match and burned the house down" is a perfect picture of my mental anguish. But my mom never flinched at a spider in her life, and I witnessed my grandmother kill them with her bare hands on multiple occasions. We're not born blank slates.

  2. I had to laugh at your description of you wading into an overgrown garden project. I could see myself as the star of that story! But, for me, it's spiders. As I've grown older, I've developed much more empathy for smaller forms of life, and can't abide the idea of killing or smashing harmless critters just because I'm afraid of them (which isn't THEIR fault!) but I still can't stand the thought of a spider walking on me. So when I encounter a one, I shoo it away or catch it in some container that provides safe distance from its fast-moving legs, and remove it from my immediate vicinity. I release it with the admonition of, "Here. Go be a spider somewhere else!"

    Now that you know THAT(TMI?)...I'll mention that I loved how skillfully you wove this Mother's Day post.

    1. Thanks,and I am proud of you.
      I don't think I've killed a snake since I left home at 18. Like you, I encourage them to go be a snake somewhere else!

  3. Good story. I have no problem with garter snakes ( we call them garden snakes here)
    especially since they eat slugs which just gross me out. I don't like spiders but can easily kill as needed. Centipedes are just the worst in my book.

  4. I think our parents DO teach us what to fear or dislike on occasion and it can stick. I loved the smell of gasoline at the gas station and the fatty part of the bacon until my mother informed me these things were bad. Then I couldn't like them anymore.

    By the way, I can't stand snakes! But spiders don't faze me. Like you, Dorcas, I've had to decide that I'm not going to live my life forever avoiding these things I fear.