When I was ten years old, I knelt down in front of the maple tree in my grandmother’s front yard, and watched a snake eat a frog. It was a garter snake, its jaws unhinged to accommodate the small brown frog it was in the process of swallowing whole. The frog’s hind legs were in the snake’s mouth, and his upper body protruded outward, his eyes staring blankly forward, unable to escape.
I remember the scene as frozen in time; the two creatures seemed paralyzed, unmoving, unblinking, as the snake held the frog clamped in its jaws, the slow process of ingestion unfolding before my fascinated eyes.
Inside the house, my mother cared for my grandmother, bedridden in the middle stages of ALS. Soon she would end up in the nursing home, where she would die at the age of 68. But right now, she insisted on being at home, and my mother and aunt would go over several times a week to clean her house, help her bathe and eat, cook her food.
My sister and I would play in the unused upper rooms of the house, what we called “the attic”, and explore all the boxes and bags stored there, the old knick-knacks and books and Christmas decorations, the clothing and furniture and photo albums. Treasures. Whenever I catch the smell of mothballs, I think of these rooms bursting with my grandmother’s things, the baggage of a life.
If we weren’t upstairs we were outside, cavorting around the back yard, the cows on the hill in the distance, playing hide and seek or other games we made up. We went upstairs or outside, or across the street at the “park”, a town common, really, with a stream that burbled through it, where we’d “fish” with a stick and a string. Out of our mother’s hair, who tended to grandma because she was sick, who couldn’t walk anymore, who couldn’t speak very well anymore, whose blue bedroom, dark with pulled shades, held the scent of illness and decay.
I was glad to be upstairs or outside. I didn’t like seeing my grandmother like this, weak, dependent, sad. I remember an elegant woman who wore pantsuits and pearl earrings, who got her license at age 60 and bombed around in her little brown Nova, who slipped Kit Kats into our hands for being good girls. I don’t remember a lot, but my mother’s stories suggest a passionate, headstrong woman who’d had a hard life, three husbands and eight children, a woman who nearly hit my drunken grandfather over the head with a cast iron skillet (my mother stopped her)-in short, a woman with a lot of fight in her.
Until one day, a leg that didn’t work right. A hand that dropped things. A slurred word here and there. A snake had slithered in and engulfed her, had begun to paralyze her. It didn’t affect her sharp mind; it left that intact to witness the slow digestion of the body.
I never saw the snake complete its meal. I have memories of visiting grandma at the nursing home, where my mother and aunt continued to care for her, going nearly every day to comb her hair, shave her legs, change her clothes, allowing her whatever dignity that remained to her. When she died, I didn’t go to her funeral. My mother wanted to spare us that, and I’m glad. I like to remember her the way she was, spirited and strong, before the snake slipped in.