Mother Killed the Rattlesnakes

I can’t even remember who was making the mud pies. But when Mother saw the rattlesnake coiled behind us on the path where we squatted over our careful stirring and spreading, she shouted, “Snake!” from the kitchen window of the cabin and we skittered toward refuge on the porch.

Before we were past the slam of the screen, Mother was somewhere down the trail with a long shovel held above her like a crusader’s banner. We flew to the window and saw her wading into the dogwood and oak, shovel poised above the brush where the rattlesnake had uncoiled.

We never worried—just waited for the flurry, awed but not surprised by Mother’s daring. Suddenly the shovel plunged like a jack-hammer into the bushes, crashing up and down, Mother’s arms and its handle barely visible over the undergrowth. (Now that I know how short she was—only 4′10″—I realize it’s a wonder we could see her at all.) As usual, the wild action was over in a few seconds, and she was waving her way out with one arm, displaying with the other a shovel carrying a still-twitching gray-green monster as prima facie warning of what we should look out for on hot August hikes.

Mother had lived in the canyon every summer since her childhood, knew its dangers as well as its beauties, and seemed to love them both. She took us there for our summers and showed us the rites of belonging to the green woods, including the challenge of meeting snakes with equanimity and a trusty shovel. But for my big strong athletic father, snakes were more than a challenge. Although he was reared on a farm and was accustomed to the out-of-doors, he was not only repelled but terrified by the potentially lethal ugliness of a rattlesnake. Without so much as a qualm or an apology, he, from the start of their honeymoon marriage, turned the killing of the snakes over to his dainty aesthetic wife, who had learned from the crib how to handle any “crawler” that dared the premises.

Such was their easy and sensible assumption of whatever places they occupied in their lives together. They never defined roles; instead, they discovered strengths and operated from them. And they never let social expectation or petty pride interfere with the common sense that allowed them that privilege.

It was this wise utilization of their individual strengths that made the home they established a loving, laughing, habitable place where we children grew up respecting them and life and each other, never knowing until much later what a rare joy it was to be part of such a felicitous union.

How they achieved that balance was, I guess, a miracle in itself. Mother and Father met as juniors in a Spanish class at the University of Utah. Father was a star athlete in football, basketball, and baseball; Mother majored in art and wrote for the literary magazine and the student newspaper. In that paper, when “Pug” Warner was still just a name in an athletic program, she wrote a verse about him:

“Homer is his real name,
‘Pug’ his nom de plume;
On any team, in halls of fame
For him there’s always room.”

And for that sportsman who also managed the paper and put himself through college by ironing the stiff high-collared shirts of his fraternity brothers, petite Grace Richards also found lots of room. From the beginning they never learned much Spanish, but the edges of the pocket dictionary from that class carried the pronouncement of their future in the firm square printing of a young athlete-business major: “RICHARDS-WARNER, INC.”

Incorporated. There lay their secret. Into that corporation Father put a background of milking cows and pitching hay. He brought the sturdy fortitude of a boy whose mother taught him to get up early and work hard so that he would have time to play ball with his brothers on the team she coached, where control of self counted more than control of a throw. He lent a zest for that awakening, that work, that fair play—everything that had sent him from a one-room school in Peterson, Utah, to high school in Ogden, and on to a college scholarship.

Mother’s contributions to the partnership were a fine touch on a canvas or pen or anything that hurt. From her years of making rounds in the buggy with her father, Dr. Stephen L Richards, she had learned patience, meticulousness, and gentle ways. It had been he who had first taught her to use a needle. From her mother she had gleaned faith in a power beyond herself, skill in reading and cooking, and a rare sense of proportion. To their joint enterprise of marriage, Father and Mother brought diversity; to each other, they brought each other; and to us, they brought a happy journey into adulthood.

If there was a “head” of our home, I couldn’t define it. The whole thing was head and heart and always in motion. The command lay where the expertise was—or where necessity placed it. Father taught us to climb and to shovel snow and my brothers to scrub floors. Mother knew how to build, and very early had us all in the basement with jigsaws and paint brushes constructing and repairing, or in the kitchen watching our miniature loaves rise, or in the yard tying back a rose bush. Father put running in our blood and Mother put music in our temples: we all went to watch him referee or sat fascinated as she played Caruso on the wind-up phonograph. But she built the fires and drove us in the only car we owned, and he read us melodiously to sleep from a chair in the upstairs hall.

When the Depression came and Father had a job traveling six days out of seven, we missed him, but never with a sense of insecurity. He and Mother wrote every day and he knew all about all of us. Mother gave us a feeling of his belonging and caring with, “Father says he’d like it if you could play ‘Danny Boy’ for him when he gets home” or “Father wonders if you finished that book—or job—or won that game.” When he was gone, Mother officiated in our lives with the aplomb and precision of fine generalship. Tender but firm, she never let us feel fatherless, but filled with poise and humor whatever spaces she needed to fill. And when Father came home, resplendent in return, he strode without effort or hardly a rippling into a place somehow reserved but never vacated because its boundaries were non-existent. He and Mother simply merged in an amalgam of making the best of what was theirs, too busy to circumscribe it, too easy in their own selves and with each other to care how it worked, only that it did work.

For instance, in finances—the mire of many a marriage—because he did it well Father handled the money; but they decided together where it should be spent. Beyond that, neither even talked about it—none of us did, even when we didn’t have any. We all just managed. And the only memory I have of even mild argument was Father insisting to Mother, “Now you spend something on yourself.”

Years later we learned that Father had always supplied Mother with a “frivolity fund,” anything he could afford, to spend as she wished without any accounting. He told my husband-to-be that every woman should have something of her own and that it was “below the dignity of a person to have to grovel and account for everything.” It was that respect for dignity that allowed their full partnership.

If Mother felt anything needed doing, Father valued her opinion, knowing her knack at managing and her disinclination to extravagance. She was plumber and electrician, and Father hated “puttering,” but he never let her lift a piece of furniture or scrub a floor or mow a lawn, and his “heavy work is not for ladies” was born of respect, not condescension.

While he later ran his automobile business with the same acumen that directed the M-Men basketball program he was instrumental in establishing for the Church, he relied on Mother for late-night counsel on personnel and procedures. For over 30 years she demonstrated her interest by calling each of his hundreds of employees to wish them happy birthday.

Whatever one did—in work, play, church, or civic activities—the other participated in vicariously. Theirs was not a dependency, not a leaning, but a sharing and receiving of support. They took genuine delight in each other’s triumphs and lent constant understanding to each other’s concerns, hurts, and failures.

Who led, who followed, and how they moved together was as undelineated as smoke and flame, but they fed each other and drew upon each other’s direction. Just as she cheered him on the field and he marveled at her ability with a poem, they reveled constantly in each other, neither threatened by the other’s difference, only relishing and capitalizing on it. They remained themselves, independent entities, finding satisfaction and accomplishment apart as well as together, but operating from a magnetic common base that always drew them home for exuberant or quiet sharing.

Whatever manhood, adulthood, and priesthood Father brought to life, Mother shared; and whatever womanliness, talent, and grace she smoothed upon her hours and days, he partook of with loving kindness. And together they led us—or rather we followed—in their paths of righteousness because it all was so good. Perhaps together they joked, cajoled, urged, persuaded, and prayed us into a free choice of how and where we’d spend ourselves, but we were never aware of it. By making their world and their joint arrangement with it so joyful, they tempted us into emulation without a preachment or a mandate. We simply liked where they were and wanted to get there.

As we hit, kicked, and threw balls with Father on the lawn, as we nursed puppies or made marble rings with Mother in the living room, we learned that to believe in God is to know that all the rules will be fair—and full of wonderful surprises. By learning early to stretch and to expect, we received from our home a sense of how it all worked.

I wonder what it all would have been like if Father had been afraid to iron shirts for college board and room because someone might have called him a sissy. Or what if his mother had been reluctant to coach him in baseball for fear of criticism? And being a lady with a needle in her fingers, what if when a rattlesnake had coiled on the path, Mother had scorned the shovel and screamed herself into inertia for fear of being different or of belittling Father’s manly image of himself by doing what she knew she could? Who would have killed the rattlesnakes for us? And did it even matter who did, so long as it was done?

What either of them did was prescribed by circumstance, experience, and enough skill to be what each could best be. In RICHARDS-WARNER, INC., it was all done by someone—just right and just in time—because two loving grown-ups knew how.

[illustrations] Illustrations by James Christensen

Emma Lou Thayne, mother of five daughters, poet, and parttime English instructor at the University of Utah, lives in the Monument Park Third Ward, Salt Lake Foothill Stake.