Thursday, January 28, 2010


On the left, a glass prism, its angled spire roughly chipped. In the center, a battered doorstop. On the right is a fragile celluloide swan, remnant of my babyhood.
The heavy doorstop, an elephant, was made in two identical halves.  When he was newly formed tusks and a tail were tucked somehow between and held together.  When I was a child, when we still lived in my grandfather's house, the elephant braced open the parlour door. Even then he was bandaged, a strip of now grubby, faintly flowered muslin stitched around his middle over a binding of twine--likely some of the "saved string" that my grandfather thriftily unraveled from the tops of feed sacks, wound around the paper tags and stuffed into a large Prince Albert tobacco can--all handy when a bit of mending was needed.
The scrap of red cloth, now so rotted and frayed, was wound under the elephant's chin and over his back, secured with more stitching.  In his days of shabby glory I recall the fabric as still a sturdy red swath which neatly hid the earlier mendings.

The parlour sat at the south west end of the farmhouse. My uncle believed it had been one of first two rooms of the house to be built and surely the wide painted floorboards attested to an earlier incarnation. Part of the floor was covered with an ingrain carpet, patterned in flowery swirls of dark gold, blue and green against a dull red background. My grandmother's upright piano had pride of place, flanked by a plaid-cushioned loveseat and matching chairs. A very formidable and stiff black rocker defied anyone to sit in it comfortably. One door, the door the elephant guarded, led into the living room, the other into the narrow center hallway where the staircase with its worn treads rose to the five bedrooms.

When my next younger sister moved to the farmhouse with her family to help care for our grandfather and later our uncle, the dignified square parlour was divided to create a bathroom and a rather dreary little bedroom.  The elephant, by then mysteriously minus his tusks and tail, his wrappings decidedly faded and tattered, now served as a deterent to anyone inclined to burst through the bathroom door without knocking.

Our grandfather died in 1978 and our uncle followed a few years later, leaving the old house crammed full of the belongings of three generations.  My sisters and I, with our mother, sorted for days, unearthing a few long-hidden family keepsakes and treasures as well as an ever growing heap of items which, as my grandfather might have declared had "out-lived their usefulness."
Some of the finer things, to my regret, my mother decreed must be sold. Many items found their way to the trash bin. 
There remained the bits and pieces of no great worth, the oddments to be carried away simply because we couldn't bare yet to  part with these things which had been taken for granted, a part of the familiar trappings of an old home for so many years.
I took the derelict elephant home with me and set him near my bedroom door, where I sometimes stubbed  my toe on his cold heavy form.
I brought him west with me nearly a dozen years ago--along with the cracked celluloid swan and the chipped glass prism. 
I have started packing---stowing newspaper-wrapped dishes in cartons, removing things from cupboards, wandering through the house with a speculative and appraising eye.  My friends at work have donated boxes, our daughter lugged copy paper boxes [with lids!] home from school.
The process of dismantling and packing my household goods is dauntingly familiar. Somehow it will get done and in the coming few weeks the house will become unsettled, less welcoming, as pictures are removed from the walls, dresser tops cleared, books bundled into the stacks of boxes which will soon rim the edges of each room.
I wonder if a few decades hence, someone will wonder at finding among the hoarded oddments of my lifetime a broken doorstop in the form of an elephant. Who will remember the part of his story that I know?
Perhaps I should make him a new red bandage.


  1. Hullo MM,

    Perhaps you should write his life story to date with his key reminiscences of the people who he has had contact with and put it in a home made howdah on his back, or sealed in an envelope on his flat side so that those who inherit his care know why he should be treasured for their future generations.

    Like you I have some family pieces either in daily use or tucked away in cupboards awaiting the right time to pass them to another generation: Great Grans wedding china from 1890, Grans {and great Grans} Ansonia clock bought in NY by her great uncle when he was a ships carpenter sailing between Glasgow and US, Grandads precious ebony and ivory dominoes carried through WW1, a precious plant and many others - each with a story passed and held in trust to go on down the years. Continuity and contact between generations. These things have always been important to me somehow and even as a child I wanted to know the story of things that were precious to those I loved.

    I think that's why I have ended up with so many things where my brother did not. Like you I was a guarantee that these would be around to be passed on. I think that was a comfort in itself to their owners.

    Lovely post. Great that its the items with a story rather than a monetary value that are important.

    kind regards.....Al.

  2. When I was at Uni, we had the most incomprehensible quote from a media studies book set as an essay question. I had not the least idea of its meaning, despite seeing the lecturer several times. In desperation, I set to work the night before it was due in and wrote about how our the rooms in our house had evolved and meant different things to different people, how grave goods which appeared to be a necklace or a spear or a bowl had deeper, secondary and personal meanings to the people that put them there and the person they accompanied. How the little crawler quilt for Tam became Gabby's much-loved comforter (and is still in a drawer in her bedroom as it is so intensely personal to her).

    So it is with items like the ones in your photograph. You are party to their history and meanings, but they need your explanation to bring them to life - and keep them alive. What a fascinating trio. Thank you, you've got me thinking now . . .

  3. I was just thinking exactly the same thing, about some little oddments in my home. They would be cheerfully tossed into the dustbin by someone who didnt know their rich history. Unlike a quilt, we cannot label them. very interesting post MM.

  4. You've captured so well the heart-wrenching aspect of moving, sorting thru things, knowing you should be lightening the load, but unable to abandon dear things. My mom has been gone since 1971, and I'm still carrying some things of hers along with me. And I wonder what will become of all the pictures of a lifetime of loved pets - who will treasure them as we do? Well, I guess detaching ourselves from the material things in life has to come about - but I still don't like it!!!

  5. I think he deserves a new red bandage. (Perhaps you could sew his history as you know it, written on a piece of paper slipped beneath his wrappings)but he definitely looks as if he'd like a new robe.
    How strange I've just read Alistair's comment before typing the word verification and see he had the same idea only far more elegantly expressed :)

  6. I have really enjoyed the comments and suggestions. It is heart warming to realize that others also cherish the bits and pieces of our families' history.
    I think a note about the elephant, tucked into a new bandage, will be a good thing--might not get done before I pack him away.
    RE the photos of beloved animals: I cherish an old one of my g-grandfather with my Uncle Bill as a toddler---the photo is labeled in my grandmother's handwriting and she notes the dog, Old Shep, as well.

  7. When my father got our family home ready for sale last year, he fairly ruthlessly got rid of things. It's true that he was moving from a home of 48 years into a 2-bedroom apartment, but i was saddened by the things he gave away/sold/auctioned/trashed. He did keep the family photo albums, mostly because my sister and i would have had a fit if he'd thrown them away...but when we're gone, who will care who those blurry sepia people are? I think what counts is that we still have them now...later, they'll become someone else's problem! I loved your bits and pieces and the lovely old elephant who really could use a new belly band.