It was a hot summer day that is typical of the Midwest, but my grandparents’ yard had huge trees that afforded a lot of shade. Besides, when you’re seven years old, heat is not really a factor. It’s incidental. It’s just there, and you keep doing whatever it was you planned to do anyway. It wasn’t a particularly special weekend, not a holiday, birthday, or anniversary, but nevertheless quite a few people had found their way to my grandma and grandpa’s house. My cousin Matt and I spent the late morning and early afternoon alternating between swinging on Grandma’s swing in the shade, playing Star Wars, chasing each other around the trees, and pestering my youngest uncle who had a volleyball net set up in the front yard and was playing with the neighbors from across the street.
Grandma and grandpa rented a farmhouse that they did not own, so there was quite a bit on that property that was off-limits to my cousin and me. For example, we were not allowed to explore the big white barn that sat far behind the house, or go to the pond behind the barn. We were not allowed to cross the far end of the circle driveway and play around the silos unless we had an adult with us. This didn’t really matter because the yard we were allowed to play in was absolutely huge according to my recollection, with a big open sunny patch in front of the house and a wide heavily shaded space between the house and the driveway where Grandma’s freestanding swing stood. All around us was corn fields, and the nearest neighbors lived right across the street. It was the only other house in plain view, even from Grandma’s front porch.
One place Matt and I were allowed to play was the small, cinder block shed that sat in the middle of the circle drive. Grandpa stored his tools in there, and we knew better than to mess with them, but we loved to duck out of the heat in there and cool off while playing in the big pile of saw dust and dirt Grandpa swept off to the corner. On this particular weekend, however, Grandpa had warned Matt and I to stay away from that little shed because he noticed some yellow jackets or something flying around there, but he hadn’t had a chance to find the nest and get rid of it. Bummer. But ok. I wasn’t a risk taker when it came to stinging things. I’m still not.
It was clear that everyone was going to stay for dinner, so my grandma asked my mom to run into town to buy groceries at Kroger and to pick up a box of Oxydol while she was there because she was also out of laundry detergent. I knew Grandma was waiting for Mom to get back from Kroger, but I kept running inside the house and asking Grandma when we were going to eat, hoping the answer would change, I suppose. And I actually remember her getting a little impatient with me, which I don’t recall ever happening before or since. I must have been really hungry. Matt and I had burned off a lot of energy running from the shaded side yard all the way up front to where Darrin and his friends were playing volleyball. Back and forth. Back and forth. Barefoot, sweaty, lay in the grass, swing on the swing, get a drink of sweet tea, lay in the grass, jump up and do it all over again.
When Mom’s car finally pulled into the drive I was ecstatic. Food! She parked in section of the circle drive that was closest the back door of the house, but it was still quite a way from the drive to the house. I went running along to the passenger side of the car, scooting sideways between the open car door and the cinder-block shed and jumping up and down chanting, “You’re home, you’re home, you’re home.” Matt came running along after us. She handed each of us a loaf of bread, grabbed the big box of Oxydol and told us to go to the house. We had barely made it to the front of the car when suddenly, and unmistakingly, this huge buzzing thing made a wide circle around all three of us. Like I said, it huge. It was loud. It was after us. It was sizing us up and choosing a target. We all three stopped instantly and stood silently in our tracks for about a second before Mom looked at Matt and I, and I heard her say, “Run!”
We did. And we were about halfway to the house when I accidentally stepped on Mom’s foot with my own, tripped and fell down. Instantly I felt this very large bug struggling around in my hair and bouncing up against my neck. The buzzing was so loud it sounded like a chainsaw. I was scared. Too scared to get up. It had already caught me, or rather, my hair had caught it, so running would have been pointless anyway. In my fear, I did what your normal reflex is to do; I grabbed the knot of hair that it was tangled up inside, and I was stung on the finger. It hurt. Bad. Mom picked me up and could see that it was caught in my hair. To this day I will never understand how she got that thing out of my hair alive, but she did. But it came back. Oh yes, it came back.
Once I was stung, I was completely unaware of what was going on around me. I suddenly found myself standing on my feet, but all I could look at was my left index finger that was throbbing with heat and pain and rapidly swelling. I remember standing on the walk looking down at my finger and crying hard. I had no clue that Mom had successfully disentangled the vicious creature, and I was unaware that it had come after me again. All I could do was feel the pain. So I stood there looking at my finger while my mom was heroically trying to defend me. With an Oxydol box. Every time it came near me, she valiantly took a swipe at it with the box samuri-style. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have this whole scene caught on video tape so I could see it for myself.
The insect clearly wasn’t going to give up on the fight. To this day Mom says she has never seen anything like it. Whatever I had done (jump up and down near its nest when I met Mom at her car), it considered me an intruder and wasn’t going to stop until I was either dead or no longer a threat to the nest. It continued it’s pattern of retreat and attack, and my mom, bless her heart, every time she would swing that box she would miss this insect and give me a little more than a glancing blow, but not exactly a direct hit, to the head or back. It wasn’t enough to counter the pain in my finger because I didn’t even feel it… I didn’t even know it was happening. But…
…But to everyone else–my mom’s brothers, the neighbors playing volleyball in the front yard, all the great-aunts and great-uncles in the house–it looked like she had completely snapped and was beating the living daylights out of me with a box of detergent that was nearly as big as I was as I just helplessly stood there without moving. Shocked, they all watched this unfold. I can only imagine what must have been running through their heads. Meanwhile, mom is defending me with the box that must have started to separate at the seams, because when she finally landed a direct blow on the insect and to the top of my head, the box flew open and Oxydol went flying across the yard, through the air, settling softly on the deep green grass. Snow in July! Whopee!
Of course, it all happened so fast. After all that commotion Mom finally got me into the house, still bawling hysterically, and there was a lot of explaining to do. They all thought they had just witnessed a terrible beating. The only other person who knew that the yellow-jacket/hornet thing was even there was my cousin Matt who had made it safely to the house, but evidently hadn’t yet had a chance to explain what was really going on. Once it was understood that, no, they had not just witnessed a horrible incident of a mother completely snapping on her child, the story quickly became funny. I remember Grandpa, of all people, insisting that he be the one to administer the first aid to my swollen finger, and he quietly chastised himself for not disposing of the nest sooner as he wrapped my finger in gauze.
I don’t really remember what happened much that evening. Maybe because it was uneventful. Maybe it was because I had a mild concussion. Who knows. I was probably pampered a bit, and I probably took advantage of it. I would find out a few years later that Grandpa and my great-uncle had gone out late that very night into the summer heat with long sleeves, heavy pants, work gloves, and flashlights, to seek and destroy the nest. Har har Har! So I got the last laugh, you vicious, relentless, stingy-thingy.
This story used to be recollected fairly often at family get togethers. It always began with, “Hey, remember that time Rita beat Denise with that Oxydol box…” to which we’d all laugh and the story would have to be retold. Enjoy!