It was the 1950s and school was out for the summer. In early May, everything had turned that beautiful shade of green that comes once a year when spring gives birth to her first litter of foliage. Delicate fragrances filled the air from the sweet peas growing alone the fence row.
We use to have just a plain lawn, but the gas company laid pipe between all the houses and the blacktop. When they finished, the digging left a trail of mulched dirt approximately one foot wide. That was when Momma took an interest in flowers. She decided we should take advantage of this good soil, already tilled and ready for planting. We drove to Bugg & Bone General Store in town and bought two packages of nasturtiums. She insisted we sowed the entire pipeline in front of our house with the packets of variegated colors.
One of our neighbors had given her the overflow from their purple iris garden, so Momma had planted them out under one of the two big maple trees that shaded our gravel driveway. All the bulbs had come up this spring and nearly every stem had a huge, deep purple bloom on top. I called them “flags,” but Momma said their proper name was iris. They were beautiful. She took great pride in her iris garden and usually at some point every day, she would pull grass, sprinkle them with water, or just walk among the flower bed and murmur sweet things to her “little beauties.”
On this particularly warm afternoon, I was perched about halfway to the top of our other large maple tree on my daily spy mission. It had become a ritual with me to climb up among the branches and make myself invisible. That way I could watch everything that went on around and below me with an eye out for unexpected events. One never knew when a cow might break through a fence, or the neighbors would work in their garden, or even an oncoming car might use our driveway as a turn-around.
I was busy watching a cat stalk prey in the barnyard when I heard the front screen door slam. My sister, Lila, had come out on the porch. She jumped off the step and for a moment seemed suspended in air. No sooner had her feet hit the ground than she let out a scream, jumped right back on the porch, and went running in the house yelling for Momma. Then, I heard the back porch door slam and Momma came running around the house with a hoe in her hand. Lila was close on her heels.
“What’s wrong?” I hollered. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“It’s a snake. A big green snake!” Lila yelled back.
“Nancy, get down out of that tree right now and help us find it!” Momma ordered.
“I didn’t see anything, Momma. I think she’s just making it up,” I said as I shimmied down the tree trunk.
“No I’m not!” Lila retorted. “It’s was a big snake. Bright green. It was crawling across the driveway toward Momma’s flower bed.”
Momma took a stand next to the iris bed, hoe held high, ready to administer a blow to anything that moved. “There it is,” Lila screamed and jumped back. Momma gave a swift blow to the ground where she pointed, and as my feet hit the ground, I saw a pretty purple flower go air-borne.
“Momma! Here it is!” my sister screamed again, and two more beautiful blooms went
upward toward the sky. One more scream, two more whacks and I saw green blades, roots, and dirt go flying in all directions.
“But Momma,” I said, trying to make myself heard over the commotion, “you’re flowers! You’re chopping up your flowers!” I may as well have been talking to myself as she and Lila were of one mind to find the green intruder. I kept my distance. Lila continued to yell and point. Momma kept chopping. In less than five minutes, the entire iris bed looked like a battlefield. Not one single flower was left standing.
Momma was propped on the hoe using her apron to wipe the sweat from her forehead when she happened to look up. There, right over her head was a little green garter snake about the size and length of a pencil. It was so small, its body wouldn’t even go all the way around the limb and it was hanging on for dear life. Lila screamed and ran backward. Momma’s feet got tangled around the bottom of the hoe and she lost her balance. About that time, the snake lost its grip and fell out of the tree. When it hit the ground, it made a beeline under the fence and was lost in a field of overgrown weeds.
Slowly, Momma got up, took hold of the hoe and looked around at what use to be her beautiful flowerbed. Lila stood there wide-eyed, not saying a word. I moved to where I was partially behind the maple tree and waited to see what would happen. Momma straightened her apron, walked to the front porch and propped the hoe by the door. She quietly opened the screen and went in only to come right back out with a vase in her hand. Without a word, she walked over to the flowerbed and began picking up all the purple irises that had any stem left on them.
That night at supper, Daddy said the bouquet of flowers sitting in the middle of the table sure did look nice. As Momma passed him the bowl of mashed potatoes, he added, “But I thought you would probably just let them grow in the yard.”
Lila and I both opened our mouth to tell our version of this afternoon’s events, but Momma gave us a silent headshake. Then with a smile playing around the corners of her mouth, she just looked at Daddy and said, “They were just too pretty to be left out in the yard, weren’t they girls?” Momma sure had a way with words. .