I grew up the middle of three sisters in a pink house on a cul de sac in the suburbs of Randolph, NJ, in a neighborhood so idyllic our street was named Comfort Court. My sister Meredith was four years younger so she was either being ignored or tortured by my sister Lisa and me. Lisa was only 16 months older than me. We couldn’t have been more different. While I was always in girly clothes with a bow or headband in my hair, Lisa was a tomboy with horn-rimmed glasses and frizzy hair. I played with dolls…she collected all kinds of pets and insects. Despite our differences we liked to be outside exploring our neighborhood together.
Across from our house was my best friend Jeannie’s house, and behind their house was a sheep farm. We liked to visit the wooly sheep and feed them carrots. To get to the pasture you had to jump over a small stream, scramble onto a large flat topped boulder the neighborhood kids named “Big Rock”, and hop over the low security wire fence onto the grassy field. One afternoon, we must have been about 10 and 11, and we were wandering in the sheep field when I spotted a striped garter snake wriggling among the grass. It couldn’t have been more than 8 inches long but to me it might as well have been a python. I was terrified. I jumped onto the nearest boulder as high pitched screams came from my tiny 60 pound frame. My sister calmly grabbed up the snake for her menagerie as my cries pierced the air. It was only a minute or too later that I spotted my savior — my terrified father running up Jeannie’s driveway sweating in a white undershirt and pants, looking stricken and shouting, “What’s the matter?! What’s wrong?!”
“HELP! I saw a snake… Lisa caught a snake!!!” I shouted, knowing that I was about to be saved from this dangerous viper. Realizing that no one was bleeding, kidnapped or dead, and angry that I had caused him so much alarm, my father looked at me standing there knock-kneed and screeching. With relief and annoyance he chastised me, “That’s why you’re screaming like that?!” Before he even crossed into the field for my rescue, he turned and walked back towards our house. Somehow I managed to gain the courage to jump off that rock and run home too.
Don’t get me wrong – my father is warm and sweet and loving. He’s also a war hero who experienced danger much graver than a harmless snake. At 18 years old, he left for WWII and earned a purple heart, an oak leaf cluster and a silver star for his brave actions in combat. He seemed to love being the only guy in a household of women, but he wasn’t about to raise a bunch of sissies. During the late 1960s when traditional roles meant girls couldn’t even wear pants to my school, my father taught us to be confident and strong. He taught us to draw, and grow pink roses and how to plant string beans and corn in our garden. He also taught us to shoot a bb gun into an old Clorox bottle used as a target hanging from the swingset in our back yard. He taught us to bait a hook, ski down a mountain, and change a tire. He showed us how to fix a broken toilet, and a broken heart.
That day in the sheep pen my sister gained a new pet. I gained an insight into where my father’s patience for nonsense ended.
Meredith has forgiven me for the teasing. My sister Lisa has a farm now. She raises chickens and takes in neglected animals. I still like fancy clothes and accessories. But I also have my own power tools and I can patch sheetrock.
One thing my father never taught me – a love of snakes. Good thing I live in a city now.