My mama collected elephants. Brass ones, ceramic ones; little elephant teapots designed so the spout was the elephant’s trunk. A couple in the collection were almost knee-high on a short person and there is a teeny-tiny one whose torso is fashioned from a marble. It’s sitting on my bookshelf right now.
Maybe you collect things and know how a few can grow to too many. Word spreads among friends and family members so each person wanting to give a gift or token of appreciation brings you something they found. Mom’s elephant collection was like that – in spades. But there was a time when she could tell you the giver or the story behind each member of the collection, and it delighted her to do so if someone asked.
I remember our home in Sanderson in the ’60s, when our family grew from three children to six in a half dozen years. Personal space was at a premium, and novelties and collectibles were a luxury Mom didn’t indulge in for herself. But on her dresser was an ever-present miniature bridge with three thumb-nail-size ivory elephants trekking across it. We knew our dad, who was her smitten boyfriend in World War II, had bought her that little gift when his Merchant Marine ship was in some harbor in some far-away and exotic land. That tiny bridge may have been the inspiration for the eventually huge collection.
Oh, also on the dresser was a long-empty white glass cologne decanter (from Avon, I think). The bottle part was an elephant figurine, the gold plastic lid was the cargo on the elephant’s back. I can imagine Mom looking through the Avon catalog and spying the bottle figure, then thinking of a budget corner to cut to allow herself that bit of whimsical luxury; the tiny pleasure it afforded for years there on her dresser.
Anyway, the bulk of the collection was amassed once there were fewer hungry mouths at the dinner table each night and more space for shelves to house the non-food consuming elephant herd.
We’ve just passed the third anniversary of Mom being in a care facility. Alzheimer’s has taken her peace, her dignity, her beautiful smile and her wonderful memory. Now the disease ravages are giving their nearly final insults, pulling her limbs into a fetal position. She doesn’t speak or move on her own.
A year and a half ago, when Mom’s husband was admitted to the same care facility and his children gave us a small window of time to take Mom’s things from their house in Kingsland, my brother Terrell made a fast trip from Austin to gather what he could. He boxed the elephant collection and the doll’s china tea set Mom’s grandfather had given her when she was a little girl; some files; some photos. But the biggest part of the load was the frustration of not having the time and resources to take all that he needed to take.
For a year, the elephants languished in boxes in Terrell and Anne-Charlotte’s spare bedroom, considered occasionally with all six of the siblings remembering affectionately Mom’s delight in the collection, then – in the same breath – saying, but there are so many.
In November, when we gathered for Anne-Charlotte’s mother’s memorial service, we squared our collective shoulders, opened the boxes and divided the collection. The experience was much more pleasant than we expected. My niece, who’d just purchased her first home, claimed a couple of the largest elephants – one to stand on her hearth, another for a corner spot in her foyer. I chose a couple of the teapots, and a few I knew my sons would remember, deciding to gift wrap them as part of the boys’ Christmas gifts. Brother Wayland’s wife, Roxanne, said she had the space – and would love to have – the tea set. Of the several gifts in their Christmas bags, my sons seemed the most appreciative to have the mementos of their grandmother’s collection.
Said and done, Anne-Charlotte gave the perfect observation that the outcome would have only been better if our mom and her mother could be back as they were, happy in their little homes, surrounded by their favorite things.
And that is true.
Alzheimer’s steals so much so cruelly and stealthily over such a long period of time. We find ourselves devastated by what it’s done and how it’s destroyed those we love. Who knew that in spite of it, our loving precious mother could reach beyond our heartache and restore such joyful memories?
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.