Rattlesnakes And Tumbleweed: A Memoir Of South Dakota


One morning a Mr. Smiggles and his daughter arrived in a wagon. He left Rosie to play with me; then he and Uncle Leon set off in their wagons for Capa to get supplies for the winter that had been ordered from catalogues. Rosie was a chubby, blue-eyed child with thick, light-colored hair that fell in curls around her shoulders and little ringlets about her face. Rosie was about twice my age, but we had so much to say to each other the time just flew, and it was lunch time before we knew it. After we had eaten, we talked until Grandmother told Rosie to go home. She asked if I could go a pieceways home with her, and Grandmother said that I could walk to the edge of the woods. Before we realized it, we were in the clearing a long way from the edge of the woods and Grandmother. I had to walk back alone, and I was stricken with fear of the unknown dangers of the woods and what Grandmother would do to me for disobeying her. At last I heard the sound of the bleating sheep and the dogs barking as they were returning to the corral. I knew I was near home, and I started running; but when I saw Grandmother standing in the door, I knew I was in trouble. She scolded me until Henry and Grandpa came in, and I hoped that was the end of my punishment, but she told Henry to go to the woods and to bring back the longest switch he could find, and she would teach me a lesson I would not forget. I think my worst punishment was her telling Uncle Leon how bad I had been. He just looked at me! But he let me carry some of the supplies in, and I watched Grandmother open some of them. When I saw a darkgreen bottle with a clear glass stopper, I thought it was perfume, and I begged her to let me smell it. Her answer was “ NO !” I asked again, and she told me to take a good deep breath. I learned there is quite a difference between perfume and smelling salts. That should have taught me not to ask for things more than once, but one day I saw her with a bottle filled with sugarcoated pills that looked like candy, and I wanted to taste one. She said “All right” but that I had to chew it. I bit hard and tried to spit it out, but she wouldn’t let me. I went outside and lost most of it. Quinine is bitter, and I learned another valuable lesson.

Although Grandmother was stern, she truly believed it was her Christian duty to rule with a rod. She earned my respect for the many things she did so well. She stoically accepted what life offered, and I doubt whether she found much happiness except in her hope of a better hereafter.

Not long after Uncle Leon brought the supplies home, the first snow fell, and we had bitter cold, sleet, and snow upon snow. Without a sled, I climbed the hill and rolled down until Grandmother gave me a big tin dishpan with handles to use for a sled. It was hard to guide, but the hill was icy, and it was easy to reach the bottom.

As the Christmas season approached there was talk among the men about Santa Claus. Henry wondered if Santa would be able to find us, since we were snowbound. I was quite worried by their talk, but Grandmother said it was a lot of nonsense and to put such silly notions out of my head. “There is no such thing as Santa!” I went into the bedroom crying and thought about it. I tried not to believe her, but it was hard to doubt her word when she seemed so sure of everything.

Yet if Grandpa, Uncle Leon, and Henry thought there was a Santa Claus, I decided they must be right.

On Christmas Eve, Henry and I were excused from classes until after New Year’s. Uncle Leon told us to write notes to Santa and tell him if we had been good or bad. He thought that I could say I had tried to be good, even though I had disobeyed when I walked through the woods with Rosie. We hung our stockings under the window. Since my stocking was so small, Uncle Leon gave me a paper bag to set on the floor under it.

Grandmother read the story about Christ’s birth, and I went to bed. As I lay there thinking about Christmas I heard sleigh bells, and I slipped out of bed and peeked into the kitchen. Uncle Leon was standing at the kitchen cabinet pouring something that rattled. Grandpa and Grandmother were reading, and then Henry came in from outside carrying the tarpaulin. I saw him unfold it and arrange it in the shape of a round pack. When he finished what he was doing, Henry said, “Everything is ready,” and he went outside. I heard the sleigh bells again as Uncle Leon started toward the bedroom door. I ran back to bed. Uncle Leon wanted to know if I was asleep. He said that he heard Santa and if I was awake, he would pass on. By this time I was convinced that Grandmother was right and I was fooled. I covered my head and cried myself to sleep.