Elephant with Mismatched Ears

Harry Drabik

Stirred by chance, recollections of childhood rise with sudden vividness. The color-swirl of a long skirt, buzz-whirr of a playing card against bicycle spokes, or the oily smell and pump-hiss of an air rifle hold bytes of memory. For me the words “Red Ryder” bring an image of being dressed in clean white shirt and bow tie for family Sunday visits to my grandparents’ high-ceilinged house smelling perpetually of slow-simmered soup. There, if I begged long enough, my teenage uncle would allow me into the guarded bedroom for the sacrament of touching his carefully unwrapped air gun. At age ten, I wanted one of these proofs of manliness so badly my jaw ached with the unsatisfied desire. With my mother, any b-b gun hope stood the same chance as if I were to request whiskey, a brassiere, and a space ship. Mother’s reason for denying my dream always the same: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Knowing I’d have to argue the point (uncontested surrender: the darkest doom of boyhood), I kept track of boys at St. John’s and the neighborhood. All had both eyes. I’d never met a one-eyed lad. Uncle had both eyes and he had a b-b gun and a .22, both of which he’d had for years without loss of a single body part or function. Saying “You’re not sixteen, so forget about it” was Mother’s way of sentencing me to six more years of dull obedience. I knew that was her object. Mother would say she was concerned for  my eyes, but I knew her real intent was to keep me as far as possible from the devil’s workshop of air guns. This meant crisp St. John’s school uniform and white shirts with ties on Sunday marching into the future far as my nearsighted vision could go. Good was boring. I knew that well enough.

I knew it too well. The year before, Mother broke the boredom shell long enough to get me a Davy Crocket coonskin cap, at the time high excitement. The first day of wear no doubt caused concern that the look in my eye would turn me into a frontiersman or something worse. Nipping that bud, Mother removed the cap’s tail and returned the castrated result. The thrill was gone. Without the glorious tail, I might as well have put a dead cat on my head. Its fun murdered, I refused to wear the minimized remainder and was called ungrateful. Truly, I was ungrateful for that kind of fun, one on par with a weekly bubble bath (not too many bubbles) for good behavior. “Sit straight, hands at your sides, no splashing.” Being good had rewards, but high-spirited enjoyment was not among them.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m bewailing lost childhood. There’d be no point. In any case I don’t believe any childhood idyllic. Expecting so is to entertain fools’ gold as real. Parents are no more perfect than their children, so it’s a fair trade all around. My sorrows over the Red Ryder I’d never possess are no greater or less than other disappointments of other childhoods. I’ll not complain, because as time would show, those were the relatively calm years that took a turn at the end of grade five when St. John’s was left behind and we began our chaotic move to Minnesota. A new school for grade six was followed by enrollment in three different seventh grades in two states. It was a difficult time for my parents and no less for me.
I suppose I wore the situation as well as could be expected when a child that age leaves a set of friends behind, makes new friends, leaves them, and then loses his dog to a vengeful neighbor’s poison. Surely, parents are an emotional anchor for us. Even awful parents are clung to with desperate need. One’s child friends at a time when childhood is becoming adolescence are of great moment, too. I greatly missed the best friends I’d never see again. Increasing the loss, the amount we moved in grade seven made making new friends difficult, keeping them an impossibility. It was that year I turned to an old, old friend: the elephant with mismatched ears.
Going through packing boxes in search of something needed to suit a particular house or climate became a family necessity. I was in search when the elephant, at first unrecognized, tumbled out. I held it up. “What’s this?” “Yours,” Mother spoke the suddenly obvious. “Your favorite so I saved it.” I didn’t remember it at all, and certainly not as a favorite, but I took it on a whim. “Oh put that back.” I didn’t budge. Flustered by my uncooperative attitude, she asked, “What are you going to do with that?” I shrugged. I didn’t know, other than the certainty I’d already accepted the elephant as mine.

When I first loved it as a toddler, I doubt caring (or knowing) the ears (one rounded, the other squared) didn’t match. I’d have known nothing of piece-work where a worker is paid by the piece. The faster you go, the more you make. A small thing like ears matching was easily overlooked. As an about-to-be-teen, I looked at the mismatched ears and felt instant connection. At the time I wasn’t matching up well with anything either. The elephant and I were equals in condition. It seemed the most natural and necessary thing to take the elephant to bed with me. A boy that age does not lightly sleep with a stuffed animal. I denied the fact by hiding it first thing each morning and sneaking from bed tip-toe to bring it to me. Coming from my past, the elephant helped fill a gap of friends lost.
The elephant played its part for as long as needed—I think close to a year before it was put away a second time as connections with the living reduced the need for comfort. A stuffed toy could not, of course, fill the deep hollow of lonely depression I’d gone through, but it did help. It was a comfort. I realize now that so-necessary source of comfort was not something the elephant gave me. It was the simpler, more fundamental fact that it allowed me to give. Watch any small child with a much-loved toy. They do not take love, trust, and affection from the object. They give it. It pours from them like water out a pipe. The worst things we can ever do are to impede or stop that flow in any way.
For 2013 I was reminded of the elephant as I put away holiday decorations and it tumbled from storage. I see this chenille toy differently than I did as a toddler or new teen, and as an adult put it carefully away because of the message it reminds me of. We are all of us in some way mismatched. This makes us no less worthy of love or capable of giving it. Indeed, in many it is the mismatch we will come to appreciate most.