Eric Conklin - Use this One

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To Hilda Orfini, always filled with “clever” thoughts.

Snakes and a payphone have helped create the most comical recollections of my grandmother.

She’s been a natural at creating unintended, priceless moments. She most likely doesn’t know how unique she is at crafting them. Sometimes, they take reassembling after years of storage, but after a few minutes, they feel brand-new.

I was about eight years old when the payphone incident happened.

My grandmother, known to me as Grandma O., was a different species of New Jersey driver, one that preferred short drives and didn’t enjoy straining the gas pedal on a two-lane road, like the Parkway. She, like many older folks, relied on buses to shuttle her on longer trips.

Caesar’s, in Atlantic City, was always her first South Jersey pit stop, then my father and I would typically provide further transportation.

During one of her trips, we couldn't find her in the bus lobby after treading the area for nearly a half-hour. Finally, after five more minutes of walking and my father swearing, he spotted a petite blonde-haired woman with glasses at one of the lobby's payphones. She had a locked stare at the phone's numbers as she frantically tried calling someone, either us or the police.

After a closer look, my father confirmed his mother's identity.

"Get off that phone," he exclaimed jokingly.

There she was, with a phonebook in hand and specs supporting her obscure sight. She shrieked, as she was as jumpy as grandmas come. Even clinking wine glasses made her squeal like a child scared of erupting fireworks.

Now, on to snakes.

My grandmother hated them her entire life. The noun itself made her cringe, gag, and wish she could write it out of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Even snakes on TV, like Disney's "The Jungle Book," would trigger a squawk. She would plead for us to shovel the creature away.

"It's just on TV, Grandma," I recall my 5-year-old self saying, while sitting in front of the TV on her close-quartered living room floor.

There are, of course, honorable mentions, including the time she dropped the dishwasher tray, the Smithville Inn story, getting lost in Shoprite, among others. All of those, however, don't match up to the odd couple of snakes and payphones.

Now, at 89 years old and a resident of a healthcare facility, she joined New Jersey's confirmed case statistics April 14. She felt horrible at Easter, she told me over the phone.

Unfortunately, what started as a low-grade fever morphed into several doses of morphine. Her situation appeared in limbo, like thousands of others.

The following days exhibited a decreased fever and fewer coughs. Exhaustion remained, but her alertness returned.

Last week, she began physical therapy to recover from a fall she had while quarantined. She’s giving the staff trouble, which, knowing her, is something to smile about.

From the beginning of this pandemic's Bergen campaign, I felt my grandmother was safe because she could be sealed from the outside world. I, too, learned how no one should believe that those we love most are exempt from falling victim to the world's latest tragedy. I have, however, been reminded that even those most vulnerable, like my Grandma O, can beat the odds.

"This, too, shall pass" remains my theme for these times. I'll use snakes and a payphone for laughs on the side, reminding me that the end is nearer than it seems.

ED. NOTE: The author is the editorial assistant at the Cape May County Herald. To contact Conklin, email econklin@cmcherald.com.