musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

a memory of elephants...

". . . graceful as a baby elephant . . ."

I wasn't 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 all.

Back home 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.

Looking 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 everywhere.

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.

My 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.

When Grandma 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.

Over the 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.

And what, 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. 

It's been 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 baby elephants.

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington.

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At 8:45 am, Blogger Sandy Cody said...

Omigosh! I so identify with this post. I am the most ungraceful person ever - and I also love elephants.

BTW, have you read The Elephant Whisperer?

At 9:54 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

We're kindred spirits, Sandy! I haven't read The Elephant Whisperer, but just added it to my list. Thanks!

At 11:45 am, Anonymous Patricia Anderson said...

A wonderful (and eerily relatable) story. Only 2 days ago I also added 'The Elephant Whisperer' to my TBR list, a recommendation from a South African Postcrossing. Thanks for sharing, Cheryl.

At 12:25 pm, Blogger Colleen said...

Awww, love this story, Cheryl, and love the elephants! What a great way to turn something difficult into a triumph. We all have similar memories of hearing painful things in childhood and you've given a great example of how to defeat that negativity. What a cool collection!

At 2:12 pm, Blogger Karen McCullough said...

Love your elephants! I'm a total klutz myself. But I love the way you've managed to draw strength from your negative experiences and turn them into something far better.

At 6:00 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Patricia - thanks for reading. Funny how many people find this relatable. Looking forward to your thoughts on the book.

Colleen - very kind. Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

Karen - Klutzes of the world unite! ;- ) Thanks for visiting.

At 12:05 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

What a fabulous blog Cheryl and motivated me to order the elephant book through the library. Elephants are such beautiful creatures who have been so horribly treated through the years. These magnificent animals have a lot to teach us. Love your collection.

At 1:38 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Susan, I couldn't agree more - they are truly magnificent. Hope you enjoy reading The Elephant Whisperer - I'm on the library wait list for it, too. Thanks for reading!

At 11:08 am, Blogger Joanne Guidoccio said...

Excellent post... I love reading about elephants. I'm putting The Elephant Whisperer on my TBR list.

At 1:32 am, Blogger Sheila Seabrook said...

Add me to the list of ungraceful klutzes of the world. :) I always wanted to take ballet classes, but my parents couldn't afford them. Just as well. Instead, Mom sent me for piano lessons, and like you, my fingers move much more gracefully across the keyboard than my feet (or me!) would have ever moved across the dance floor. My DH used to wear steel-toed shoes whenever we went to a dance (no joke!).

Your elephant collection is gorgeous! And what a joyful twist to what could have been a difficult experience!

At 1:10 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Joanne, thanks for the support! Looks as if a lot of us will be reading The Elephant Whisperer.

Sheila, I've been surprised (and, I confess, a bit pleased) to hear from so many fellow klutzes. I'm certainly in good company! I wound up taking piano lessons, too, and finally felt I belonged. Thanks for visiting!


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