Sunday, May 20, 2012

Poppa Perry and the Snapper

Sometimes a dream can spark a string of memories. When I woke this morning I was dreaming that I was driving along a country road beside a river. In the passenger seat was an elderly man, in his eighty's perhaps. I knew him well. As we crossed the bridge he pointed to a point where the bank widened and said, "I had a twin brother. He drowned there when we were nine. I'll never forget that."

But as is common in dreams, when I woke up I couldn't put a name to the man. All day it's bugged me. All day the rolodex of memory has gone deeper and deeper into the past, searching for the face and name of this companion. Late in the afternoon I finally remembered and I know why. A week or so ago I was trying to document my Aunt Iva's second husband, and I had absolutely no luck. I don't know when he was born, when he died, or anything about him, other than what I remember. I have no photos and though I loved him and he was like a grandfather to me, I couldn't even remember what he looked like, until my memory bank finally came through about 7:30 this morning.

My Mother's older sister Iva Lee remarried after her first marriage failed. Her first husband was described as a scoundrel by my Mother, which was a category about 7/8ths of the world's male population fell into, according to Mother's high standards.

"Remember," she'd say with an expression hovering between disgust and alarm, "they're all out for one thing." Since she never explained what the one thing they were out for was I was left guessing. She often complained that she couldn't keep a cake or pie in the house for more than a few hours I thought "the one thing" must be pastry.

My Aunt Iva was Mother's sister, five years older than Mother, though she seemed older to me. Mother was tiny and ferociously neat. Iva was taller, rounder and softer. She had blond hair and gentle blue eyes and she was a cuddler. She'd pull me into her big rocker and rock me like I was a baby, even when I was four or five years old. I never got cuddled at home, so this was like pouring water on a gasping plant. When I heard the words, "Going to Aunt Iva's," I was in the car like a shot.

Iva's husband was named J.A. Perry, but I called him Poppa. Poppa Perry was a good 20 years older than Aunt Iva, and was one of the few men Mother approved of. He was a small man, as I now remember him, with a shock of white hair that stuck out at angles on his head. He wore plaid shirts and suspenders. He liked little kids and let me tag around after him like a puppy. He made me a tire swing, or at least he let me believe he made it just for me. There were grandchildren I knew little of who probably used the swing more than I did, but it was mine while I was there.

Aunt Iva and Poppa had a small farm with cows, chickens, and some big fish ponds people paid money to fish from. That was how Poppa made his money, by raising fish for people to catch. We went fishing one afternoon. My Daddy went too because Poppa wanted to catch a big snapping turtle that was eating people's fish off their lines, and it kept getting away from him.

Poppa baited a long stout line with some small perch and dropped them where he knew the turtle lay. He soon had the snapper on the line. It had a fish in its mouth and didn't want to let go. That turtle hung on so stubbornly to that fish that Poppa was able to pull it out of the water far enough so my Daddy could grab the end of it with a big gaff hook on a pole and pull it up on dry land. That snapping turtle was as big as the steering wheel of my Daddy's Pontiac car.

Poppa then walked up the bank backwards, pulling the turtle step by step away from the water. When he'd have trouble Daddy would help with the gaff. When the turtle finally let go of the fish Poppa stuck an old broom handle in front of its face. The snapper bit on the broom handle and Poppa and Daddy carried it home between them with it biting on the broom handle. It could have let go at any time and made a run for it, but it was too determined to keep biting. Poppa said a snapper wouldn't let go of something it bit until it thundered. Once we got it home he said he was going to cut its head off with an axe and make turtle soup but Aunt Iva said he wasn't going to cook a turtle in her nice kitchen.

I felt sorry for the turtle, even though it was the ugliest and meanest thing you could imagine, biting on the broom handle and sort of growling or hissing at anyone who came near. I begged Poppa not to cut off its head but to take it to a pond where there were no people paying for fishing. He said he would, as soon as I went to bed.

I'm pretty sure now that the turtle was dispatched as soon as I'd said my prayers and gone to sleep. I guess the same lesson applies to people as to turtles, sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut to start with, but it's definitely a good idea to know when to let go of an argument.

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