In 1961, at the age of eleven, I spent a memorable summer with my grandparents and great aunt in Noel, Missouri. My grandparents and my grandmother’s sister, my great aunt, lived in a small house in town. On a separate lot adjacent to the house stood a greenhouse that was owned and operated by my grandmother and my great aunt.
The greenhouse was a wooden framed structure covered with a thin plastic cover. I’m certain the plastic was once clear but I remember very well the dark yellow color that, over the years, it had become as a result of its exposure to sun and weather. The inside of the greenhouse had a rutted dirt floor and rows of tables where plants and flowers rested.
There were narrow isles between the tables, and a walk-in cooler was located near the rear of the building. The cooler kept the flower arrangements fresh prior to their delivery, and I could occasionally be found there on the hottest summer days. A large portion of the business seemed to involve the creation of flower arrangements for funeral services. I remember wondering why there were so many deaths in Noel.
I don’t know why, but I called my grandmother and great aunt Phoebe and Rosalyn respectively, yet I referred to my grandfather as granddad. I never gave the reason for that much thought and nobody seemed to mind. That’s just the way it was back then.
I remember one day in the greenhouse more than any other. I went into the greenhouse early one morning and, as usual, found Phoebe and Rosalyn working. The two of them always wore dresses when working, but that day they were wearing their nicest dresses and finest shoes. I also recall that it was the first, and only time, I ever saw Phoebe wear nylons. Phoebe could best be described as a very heavy woman.
Phoebe told me that a friend passed away and they were going to deliver flower arrangements to the funeral home in Noel and remain for the service. She said they would be back in a couple of hours. I didn’t ask, but I remember wondering who the flowers were for, and thinking what a hot day it was going to be for a funeral.
While Rosalyn gathered up flower arrangements Phoebe carried an armful of flowers to the old green Chevy station wagon they used to deliver flowers. Suddenly the flimsy plastic covered front door burst open and Phoebe rushed in with a small snake clinging to the stocking on her right leg. I later learned the snake was a garter snake she had inadvertently stepped on.
I watched the activity in awe and presumed her gyrations and dance was the recognized manner for removing snakes trapped in ladies’ hosiery. Phoebe was shouting but the words were unrecognizable. I stood by as a stationary witness with an astonished look on my face as I had never seen anything like this before. Phoebe ran down one isle between the tables, turned, and ran back. I considered giving Phoebe advice but what was the suitable recommendation to give someone regarding the extraction of a snake clinging to their leg. Rosalyn pursued Phoebe waiving a wooden stick as she ran between the isles of the greenhouse. Rosalyn swung the stick several times in the direction of Phoebe’s leg but no contact was made with either the snake or the leg. Both the leg and the snake proved to be challenging targets.
Suddenly, Phoebe changed her direction and as she ran past me I was knocked to the dirt floor. After what seemed to be forever, but was actually no more than a minute or two, the snake soared in the air, landed near the cooler and rapidly crawled away leaving under the rear of the greenhouse. Phoebe stopped, wiped the perspiration from her face with the hem of her dress then she and Rosalyn laughed.
I learned two valuable lessons that day. First, garter snakes are non-venomous and lastly, it’s prudent to maintain a safe distance from a large woman who has a snake clinging to her leg.