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By Bethany Thornton

I stared at the pieces independently writhing on the hot cement and wanted desperately to put them back together -- to mend it and make it whole again.

Instead, Mr. Leland shoveled each piece into a cardboard box and walked back across our adjoining lawns to dispose of it. When I'd called for his help upon first seeing the four-foot reptile in my driveway, I hadn't expected him to cut it in half. I'd expected something more heroic, like taking the snake to a nearby field and setting it free. But before I could state my wishes, he chopped the brown, scaly thing right in two, dead center with the blade of the shovel. He wasn't the type to give a snake a proper burial so I didn't follow him across the lawn.

Our lawns merged to make one large, rectangular playing field, only Mr. Leland didn't allow us to play on his side. We tried to observe the imaginary line between our yards, but in the midst of playing baseball or Frisbee, it was sometimes hard to recognize. My older brother, Todd, was especially unaware of the boundaries, which often resulted in a screeching Mrs. Leland putting an end to our game.

"Witch," my brother would mumble as we headed to the backyard. The backyard was not nearly as fun. The small patch of grass was surrounded by low-maintenance bark chips that stuck to our knees when we fell, and the overgrown pyracantha bushes swallowed our baseballs like a black hole. Our mother budgeted only for a gardener to mow and trim the front. We couldn't afford even this, but the pressure to keep a meticulous front yard was intense in our small neighborhood. It was bad enough that we stood out as the family without a dad; we didn't want to be poorly groomed too.

Unlike our neighbors, we had a single, working mom. Every afternoon Todd and I were home alone. We were latchkey kids in 1970, a time when most people in our northern California suburb didn't even lock their doors. My parents divorced when Todd and I were barely out of diapers. My dad settled us into a house in a safe neighborhood with good schools, and then he split.

There were certain advantages to being home alone. We had the luxury of screaming at each other without adult intervention, and we wrestled over which television show to watch -- Nanny and the Professor or Star Trek. We didn't start our homework until we saw Mom's headlights turn into the driveway. "She's home!" one of us would shout, and we'd run to the table to open our books. Mom had one rule: no visitors while she was at work. It seemed like a ridiculous rule to a nine and 11-year-old, but it was to be respected, just like the Leland's invisible border.

Our mom worked 40 hours per week in an office, but she made time for Little League games and root beer floats on Saturdays. She created grammar sheets as "weekend homework" because "to get anywhere in this world, you must know the basics of grammar." She rarely raised her voice; her stern glare was far more effective than yelling would have been. At times, it stung worse than a belt on a bare behind. She was quiet and intellectual, and she expected us to be the same. Sometimes late at night I'd hear her crying in her bedroom, so without even knowing why, I'd cry too.

My brother's friends drooled over Mom's good looks. She resembled Jackie O. who had also lost her husband, but in a different way, and Mom was also a Democrat. She dressed professionally, mixing and matching her jackets and skirts to make it through a whole week without wearing the same outfit twice. With all of this going for her, some people still kept their distance; I guess they worried her independence might rub off on them like a disease or poison oak.

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