Spiders and Snakes

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I had the opportunity to leave the house twice in the past two days. Felt good to be out and about, so I just sort of took the long, “scenic” way home.

I was listening to WLGZ with Marti Casper Meyers who plays the “Cheese Song of the Day” around 8:30 each morning.

Today, she played “Spiders and Snakes” by Jim Stafford, which launched me way back to sometime around 1975.

My brother had married the year before, and his new bride was a newly divorced mother of four who was seven years his senior. He was only 20 years old. His wife’s name was Shirley.

Shirley didn’t have a lot of self-esteem back in that day. She was a rather plain Jane looking sort of woman with dull, listless hair, bad teeth and a way of never looking you in the eye. But on the day I first heard that stupid song, which was her favorite at the time, she and her young niece Sheila danced and cavorted around that tiny apartment like that old expression about dancing like nobody is watching. She sang, she danced, and she laughed. They played that stupid record over and over and over, dancing and laughing until they just collapsed on the floor, exhausted, but still laughing.

Looking back, I’m just realizing that’s the only time I ever saw that woman laugh.

My brother was abusive to her – so abusive that, following a particularly brutal beating, she went into premature labor. She was in the early third trimester but there was no stopping the inevitable. I don’t know that Shirley ever truly got over losing that baby, and HOW she lost that baby. She got pregnant again not long after that and delivered a healthy son in early June of 1976.

Shirley never felt welcome at my mother’s house. She confided to me that she felt judged and looked down on, for being that older woman. I don’t know if this was truly the case, but I’ve always said that when someone makes you feel some way, they have done something to cause you to feel like that.

One day I was home on leave and was visiting them. As we sat at the kitchen table, my brother asked Shirley what was for dinner. She answered “Macaroni and mayonnaise, which is all we have.” He shot her a look which told me that long after I’d gone, she would suffer for having embarrassed him that way. He deserved it, though. No money for food, but he always had all the latest, greatest video games and other expensive toys. And cigarettes. My mother once described him as a 30-something teenager. It was fitting.

As she passed middle age, Shirley became more assertive and started to speak up for herself more and more. I don’t know if she suffered consequences for that, but I have to believe that standing up to my brother was good for her soul, and the fact that she continued to do it told me that she was “getting away with it” more and more. I silently cheered her on.

One July evening in 2003, Shirley laid down on the couch for a “nap,” which was apparently not an unusual thing. My brother went to bed and left her there on the couch as she lay sleeping. He got up the next morning and saw that she was still sleeping on the couch. He decided he’d let her sleep and make a run to the dump. When he returned, she was still asleep, and he knew then that something was wrong. She was cold to the touch when he tried to wake her. She had slipped away some time in the night. She was three months shy of 57. (The coroner apparently told my brother that, based on the relaxed state of her muscles, it was apparent that she’d never felt a thing – and I was grateful for that.)

I was never what you would call “close” to Shirley, but my heart went out to her because I related to how she felt. Trapped in a world of abuse with no way out, too timid to speak up for herself, wanting desperately to escape but without the strength (or means) to do so.

I hope that, in the 17 years that she’s been gone, she’s been dancing and singing, that there are no spiders and snakes, and that she knows peace and love.