". . . graceful as a baby
elephant . . ."
meant to hear those words. But after weeks of practicing the five positions and
struggling – unsuccessfully – to make my demi pliés and grand pliés bear any resemblance to Madame's graceful
movements, her stage-whispered comment to Mom brought my ballerina dreams to a
stumbling, bumbling end. I was five years old.
As Mom and
I walked home after that fateful lesson, she tried her best to cheer me with talk
of the joys of tap dancing. I barely listened. Instead, I thought about the elephants
in my story books, Babar and Celeste. I thought about the elephants I'd seen at
the zoo and on television. I liked elephants. I liked elephants a lot. Maybe this wasn't so bad after
in my room, I stood in front of the mirror and frowned at the girl who stared
back at me: a chubby child with curly blonde hair that would not be tamed,
scuffed ballet slippers, and a too-snug black leotard. I thought of my friend, Judy:
she who always looked so perfect in her pink tutu and matching slippers; she
with the long legs, long neck, and sleek dark hair twisted into a tidy bun; she
who never flubbed a plié. Okay. Well. Elephants had big, tap-dancey feet,
didn't they? I swapped the leotard and slippers for shorts and sandals and ran
downstairs to tell Mom I'd be okay with tap lessons instead of ballet.
back, I realize Madame's heartless comment in that final ballet class was the lone rogue in a lifetime of happy elephant moments. I seem to encounter them
As a child,
Saturday mornings meant new episodes of Circus
Boy on TV. I'd imagine myself into the stories. Wearing that coveted pink
tutu at last, I'd turn graceful pirouettes on Bimbo the elephant's back, and
never, ever flub a plié. The crowd under the big top always cheered.
grandmother kept a collection of elephants in her sitting room. Fascinated by
their wildness and their strange searching trunks, I'd cozy up in the big
armchair and imagine myself walking through the jungle with the herd or perched between a massive pair of ears as we travelled a dusty road. Grandma once told
me a gathering of elephants is called a memory. A memory of elephants. I like that. I like that a lot.
passed away in 1966, these two gems from her collection came to me. The little
one is cast bronze, the larger is ebony. Given its nineteenth century origin, there
is a good chance the tusks are real ivory. In Grandma's time, ivory was a coveted curiosity. The thought of how it was taken makes me terribly sad.
years, my herd has grown. Carved from stone or wood or sculpted in
clay, each little elephant has its own unique personality. Most found their way
to me in antique shops, galleries, or pottery studios but this gilt-eared cutie
was a gift. (Thanks, Wendy!) He always makes me smile.
A few years
ago, I tried to call it quits. Life in a one bedroom condo demands moderation
and there was, I told myself firmly, no
room for more elephants. That was before I met this gorgeous big girl,
created by Toronto raku potter Zsuzsa Monostory. I went back to the gallery several
times before finally admitting we were meant to be. She was my retirement gift
to myself and I've named her Thembi, after a real Botswanan elephant and a
fictional Ontario lake.
you may ask, has an African elephant to do with a Canadian lake? Twenty years
ago when I was researching and writing Sparks
Fly, a friend put me in touch with a young Canadian float plane pilot who shared
his experience of life in the north and the risky business of flying in the wilderness.
At the time, his fiancé was working on her thesis project with an elephant foundation
in Botswana. He travelled there with her – bush pilots are always in demand in
Botswana – and was able to meet and interact with the foundation's elephants,
Jabu, Marula, and Thembi. It was an experience he described as the most awe-inspiring
of his life. When I needed a name for the fictional northern lake in Sparks Fly, I chose Thembi as a nod to
his favourite elephant and as a way of saying thanks. I've lost touch with my
pilot, but the foundation is still active and doing good work. You can meet the
elephant trio and see photos of the real-life Thembi on Facebook at Living With Elephants.
over a year since raku Thembi took her place as The Last Elephant in my
collection. There is still absolutely no
room for more elephants. Of course, that's never stopped me before.
Afterword: The tap-dancing lessons were short
lived. I adored my shiny, patent leather tap shoes and the clack-happy sound
they made when I walked. But walking isn't dancing, and the coordinated rhythm
that marks a hoofer was never going to be part of my skill set. So … I decided
to take up figure skating, instead. Elephants on ice! I imagine you can guess
how well that turned out.
Eventually, I found my niche and now my fingers do
the dancing – across the keyboard. No fancy footwear required. As I write this,
I'm wearing a floaty summer dress. It may be more muumuu than tutu, but it is pink. And even better, it's patterned
with row upon row of happy, dancing, graceful
stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington.
Labels: Cheryl Cooke Harrington, collecting, dancing, elephants, memoir, story, Thembi, writing