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  • Jamie Wilson

What’s the deal with the snakes? A family love story

“What’s the deal with the snakes?” - a question asked by many significant others over the years upon meeting my maternal family; the Reaugh (“ray”) family to be exact. With our recent family reunion, the recent passing of my sweet Aunt Judy, and the general holiday spirit (or maybe a midlife crisis), I felt it was time to officially document the roots, or tell the “Tail” (see what I did there) of a beloved family tradition.

My maternal grandparents were Vern and Elaine Reaugh. They had 4 children, Dianne, Duane, Pam (my mother), and Judy. My mother attended Virginia Tech, aka VPI, Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Like many random promotional items you can find at any campus bookstore, my mother somehow ended up with a small stuffed snake whose tag said “VPI”. My mother was unpacking while home on a school break when Elaine picked up the snake and read the tag upside down. “Who’s Ida?”

My grandfather was a colonel in the army and relocation was a frequent part of life. The way I heard it, “Ida” tended to show up in random places and scare the crap out of Elaine

as boxes were opened, continents were crossed, and the logistics of becoming empty nesters progressed. Apparently, Elaine hated that d**n snake. Come on!? Who doesn’t love opening a random box and seeing what they think is a live snake?

I think it was probably my Uncle Duane (sorry dude – I think it’s safe to assume it was you) who took the Ida phenomenon and ran with it. We don’t know what happened to little Ida, but as far back as I can remember, 40-plus years ago, little Ida was replaced with a 3 ½ foot long stuffed animal (snake).

And there were rules. Yes, rules. With the 4 siblings spread across the greater VA, NC, SC areas, the game was to SECRETLY pass Ida along from house to house. You got extra points if the “target” took Ida out themselves without knowing. And you could not wrap her up as a present. That was lazy.

You were never quite sure who had Ida. The last morning of any family gat

hering, my 10 cousins and I were often employed as rodeo clowns to protect luggage, large purses, coolers, etc. Our family goodbyes looked like a Norman Rockwell painting full of loving hugs interspersed with pre-pubescent NBA players defending our respective belongings with outstretched arms. I still feel the shock of going to take a bath only to pull back the shower curtain and see a giant snake staring down at me from the shower head. My Aunt Dianne’s family had been visiting for the weekend. Well played, cousin Gwen. Well played. At the heart of this game is the message: SURPRISE! I love you… even if I’m not here… now go change your underwear.

When I was a sophomore in high school, Vern suffered a stroke. Elaine had passed away several years prior. While convalescing in the hospital, we put Ida by his side. He couldn’t speak, but he understood us. There was a lot of hand squeezing. I still cherish the memory of holding his hand and asking if he wanted me to replace the saline in his IV with gin. BIG hand squeeze and a laugh. He passed a few days later. And what better than to cremate him… with Ida. So, Vern, Elaine, and Ida’s ashes were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery | Army Cemeteries Explorer

There is a new official Ida that recently showed up at my cousin’s house in Tennessee. In addition to that Ida, my mother has hidden small toy snakes across the lives and property of the people she loves. Idas have shown up in my car, purse, office, etc. My aunt Dianne donned a beautiful, bejeweled snake necklace at her 50th wedding anniversary to my uncle Fred. At this point, I just assume outsiders think we look like a fun cult. I began digging into the historic symbolism of snakes. Their most dominant appearance in today’s society is in healthcare. “The caduceus, a staff with two snakes coiled around it, is the official insignia of the United States Medical Corps, Navy Pharmacy Division, and the Public Health Service.” Medical Symbols: The Caduceus - Mayo Clinic Proceedings Caducei appeared in ancient Greece when trading with Phoenicians as a symbol of peace. Medicine uses it as a symbol of healing and renewal, i.e. a snake sheds its skin for new growth.

As for the Reaughs, Ida, in all her many forms, has sustained us through extremely tough times for more than 50 years and 5 generations. She’s a cathartic reminder that life requires change, acceptance, healing, and love, even if it is in the form of a wacky memento or two.


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