Rattlesnake Tails & Other Gifts From My Grandma

3.17.16

When I was a kindergartener, I brought a little baggie full of dried rattlesnake tails to “show and tell” at school. Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the shocked expression on sweet Mrs. Blackwell’s face as I stood in front of my class (with my big bow and perfectly curled hair, wearing a little dress with white knee-high socks and black mary janes) and explained that my grandma had killed all of these rattlesnakes with an ax on her ranch in Montana. I told my classmates that she had a large glass jar full of rattlesnake tails on the shelf in her basement, but I only took a few. I explained that she taught me that you can tell the age of a rattlesnake by counting its rattles; a rattlesnake grows 2-3 rattles each year of its life.   It was a “show and tell” first for Swanson Elementary.

My grandma, Mildred Spencer Monson, passed away more than 14 years ago. But, she’s been on my mind a lot this week. At times when I’ve felt like my life is hard, I’ve encouraged myself to summon my inner Mildred. When I compare my life to hers, I have it pretty easy.

Mildred was a strong woman. She killed rattlesnakes with an ax. She grew up in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana. She received a formal education as a young girl, attended boarding school, college and went on to become a teacher. She married Melvin Monson (a handsome rancher), had three children and settled on a cattle ranch near Chinook, Montana. A regular day for her included waking up at the crack of dawn to milk cows, gather eggs, make three meals from scratch (no convenience items or microwave), tend the family garden (where she ran into many rattlers), sew her children’s clothes, wash all of the family’s clothes and dishes by hand . . . Oh, and teach grades first through eighth in the rural, one-room schoolhouse. She ran a small home without indoor plumbing for years. My dad remembers playing marbles with his siblings and listening to the radio at night for entertainment. The nearest town was about 25 minutes away (no Amazon.com). She was an expert at stretching the dollar. I fondly remember her cutting paper towels into fourths because that was cheaper than purchasing Kleenex (she’d done the math). She also stretched her coffee grounds by reusing them multiple times…

It really is amazing how quickly life has evolved in just a couple of generations in this country. I was trying to explain to my kids that cell phones did not exist when I was little and that I didn’t have an e-mail address until I was in college. In order to do a research paper for school, I used to have to go to the library and use a card catalog, microfiche film and encyclopedias (all foreign words to them); we did not have the Internet or a computer when I was in elementary school. They could not comprehend that my television only had three channels or that cartoons were only played on Saturday!

Modern conveniences have allowed us to save time, but somehow we’ve still managed to fill our calendars with more “stuff.” I wonder what Mildred would say as she scrolled through my family’s iCal for the week? Would she approve or would she scoff?

I think she’d question the value of spending so much time and money on extracurricular activities. I think she’d wonder why my children don’t help out more around the house and why I’m so exhausted at the end of the day. But, I think she would be incredibly proud of my oldest son, who inherited her love of learning. I think she’d smile as she took in all of the messy stacks of books around his room, noting many familiar ones that I inherited from her own book shelves; that image makes my heart happy.

When I was a little girl, I was told that I inherited my grandma’s eyes. As an adult, I catch myself thinking Mildred-like thoughts and doing Mildred-like things. I am thankful that I grew up with a strong grandma who taught me that you don’t need to be afraid of rattlesnakes or hard work.

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