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The Object of Life – Moo Cow – She Came, She Saw, She Stayed

Toy Cow

Moo Cow has travelled with our family for at least five decades, a witness to everything, patiently putting up with the touch of many hands, both tiny and large (maybe she could teach Belita, Lucy and Mary-Rose a thing or two…). I’m not sure how she’s finally ended up in my eldest sister’s house but I’m borrowing her for this post. She seems to feel at home.

Toy Cow

I cast my mind back. I’m eight or nine years old, sitting under the branches of an old stone pine in our garden. I dig my fingers into the ground, through the first crispy layer of needles, through into the damp peaty leafmould below. I bring it up in fragrant handfuls, inhaling deeply. And then the most amazing thing happens. Those tiny earthy granules are so real to me, almost like they’re charged with a never ending thread of connections, popping like tiny bubbles deep down into centuries. I feel an intense union with life, with its tragedies and potential. Maybe it is a reaction to the crazy instability of our family situation at this time, but whatever it is it exerts a potent force on me.

Under a Pine Tree

The physical objects of our lives can do the same thing. As soon as I look at Moo Cow and roll her wooden wheels and hear her funny moo, I am transported somewhere else, my four year old cheek pressed against the scratchy carpet on our upstairs landing because I like to look at the sisal weave close up. Beyond this, across the plain, still within my field of vision, there is Moo Cow, hanging about at the foot of the bookcase, and behind her the spines of the stories which we have heard again and again – The Tomten, Where the Wild Things Are and The Happy Lion.


Her wooden are wheels sturdy and solid, her tightly coiled tail is jaunty, and her compact body is familiar to my hand as…what? This is where I get stuck. Do I actually remember playing with her or am I just imagining it?

Now I see her in her present state, I’m not really sure I can recall a time when her yellow plastic horns were intact or her paper hide fresh from the Fisher Price factory. But because I know what she must have looked like, due to others’ recollections and the tell tale scraps of information still sticking to her sides, before one of us filled in the gaps with some creative paint work, I can conjure her up, nearly new, complete with her perky horns and glossy black and white skin. But isn’t that the way that memory works? We remember certain things and not others, we unconsciously blank stuff out and make other stuff up. I once thought it was linear and fixed but that was before the complexities of living had exerted a kind of alchemy on the events of the past. It seems to me that when we revisit places again and again, memories seem to change and merge, and are sometimes as clear as – well, mud.

Toy Cow Reflection

I ask my three siblings what they remember about Moo Cow and it sets off a train of reminiscing, leading among other things to our memories of listening and singing along to Pete Seeger and his album God Bless The Grass, introduced to us by our dad. In a way, his dying seems to have, for me anyway, fattened out the past and made it more present. It feels good to remember.

God Bless the Grass Album Cover    This is a really nice version of the title song.

The cyber conversation went something like this…

Well I liked the yellow plastic cog mechanism and the little yellow horns. Also the cow was always there, and generally stood in when we needed to populate a game. And was free of the obsessive attachment I had to my dolls. It was an old friend even when less battered than now!

 She was always there, with her springy tail and strangulated moo; I can remember investigating how the moo was activated – all linked up to the head oscillation as the wheels turned – and working out why she didn’t always vocalise on shiny floors (another reason to lament the absence of fitted carpets that so blighted our early lives)

That moo was really unconvincing wasn’t it :)Haha remember that grid pattern on our knees as we relaxed in the sitting room listening to Pete Seeger.

 That would be “God bless the grass” – I still know all the songs; even quite a lot of the words…. it’s available as a MP3 download…. and, according to a recent passenger of mine, the old greenie himself is still belting it out.

 You could never get comfy on that stuff!

 You didn’t by any chance saw the horns off whilst fiddling about – they have disappeared….

Off thread a bit but thinking about Pete Seeger reminded me that (just found out) ‘Midnight in Moscow’ by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen was in the charts in 1962 This has put to rest a humiliating episode at my primary school, when we had to paint a picture about our favourite pop song. I didn’t actually know what a pop song was…Anyway I did a very dramatic picture of ‘Midnight in Moscow’ – mainly BLACK paint, whilst all the other pictures were of flowers and bees and mainly pastels. The whole class gawped at it with incomprehension and the teacher seemed rather concerned. DAMN IT – if only I had known the facts I could have wiped the silly expressions from their faces and saved myself an uncomfortable hour of feeling as if I were from another universe. Having spaghetti bolognaise for supper was bad enough!

Ha ha your painting was too cool for school!

While the particulars of this conversation may only be really poignant to its participants I hope it shows how a beloved object from the past can transport us – besides, I’ll use any opportunity to get a bit of cow chat in…

And how fitting it was that today, when me and my sister of the painting were shopping in our local town, Kenny Ball’s Midnight in Moscow should waft down the aisles of the shop we were in. There was jigging about amongst the muesli and the steel cut oatmeal I can tell you.

1279733415_kenny-ball-and-his-jazzmen-midnight-in-moscow A gravelly croony Russian version of the traditional song with words

In a culture which is so fearsomely forward looking, it is sometimes easy to forget in the mayhem of everyday life that it is these shared histories we have with family and friends which are most important; it is what connects and shapes us and can help us remember a person who has gone and give solace in the difficult times. So much of life is spent forging ahead that we barely draw breath to consider and reflect, to pause and look behind, or even just to value the present moment.

A buddhist might say that this is the endless dance we enact to escape the reality of death, the only one thing that is absolutely certain in a human life. I can’t argue with the fact that becoming aware of one’s own and others’ mortality can stop us in our tracks. And perhaps it’s part of a general middle age rite of passage too. As with most things, reasons and motivations are complicated. How nice it is then, that at this point I have the simplicity of Moo Cow to help me pause and remember. I’m so thankful that one of us decided to keep her, when at the time I probably would have been one to disavow the need for a shared history as I veered off a bit blindly but resolutely down my own path.

Moo Cow helps with the bulb planting

Moo Cow helps with the bulb planting

We are so often exhorted to get rid of stuff, by the culture at large or by ourselves, to clear out, to live minimal lives without clutter, and encourage ourselves to view our stuff as the detritus of life which in an ideal world would miraculously evaporate without us having to make any heart rending decisions. We dream of empty spaces, order and a life lived out in perfect balance. We have fetishised the unobtainable – and believe that then we will finally be on top of things But, as Alain de Botton puts it: we seldom succeed in laying claim to lasting equilibrium, traversing our lives like stubbornly listing ships on choppy seas (The Architecture of Happiness).

While I also haphazardly aspire to a little more tidiness and order (retraining still in progress), I’m also voting for the positive rehabilitation of the culture of saving stuff, the personal archaeology of time, special earthly objects to help reignite the threads of memory and illuminate some of those never returning moments.

The Ark

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a great ramble. Amazing to look back at our child-selves and recognize the seeds of our adult passions. And you have the shared memories of siblings and great treasures to boot. I love Pete Seeger and often saw him play in an informal setting at a spot on the Hudson River on the outskirts of NYC, where I grew up. A great, sloping lawn at Wave Hill in the Bronx – majestic cliffs of the Palisades across the way. Singing along under blue skies. Not sure I can bring myself to post today, but here you have inspired me to ramble! Thanks.

    December 16, 2012
    • That sounds amazing! Lucky you. Glad it set off some good memories in this difficult week.

      December 17, 2012
  2. Julia Wylie #

    Maybe I should get you a onesie for Xmas!

    It’s a shame I missed the programme that was on last week about adults who like to wear nappies and be babies again, maybe it would have had some relevance to your moo cow mumbles.

    I wonder what happened to my rabbit,whose whiskers I used to put up my nose to cause sneezing fits that were so violent I was often able to stay at home instead of going to school.

    Maybe dust collectors are not so bad after all.

    December 16, 2012
    • I think that’s called rabbit flu

      Ah yes, beware the maligning of dust collectors…

      A onesie sounds quite appealing, specially with the draughts around here!

      December 17, 2012
  3. Harriet #

    Lovely – how amazing that Midnight in Moscow was playing. Think I’ll have to get the album. And seeing my old friend helping with the planting brought tears to my eyes.

    December 16, 2012
    • Aw, she’s sweet isn’t she?

      Rocking Midnight in Moscow in Wadebridge…I know, a serendipitous coincidence…if that isn’t laying it on with a trowel 😉

      December 17, 2012
  4. Finding the balance between that fully-cluttered life and a kind of austere minimalism is the trick. After my mother died, and as I’ve gotten older, there’s been a need to pare down – but who wants to get rid of all the good memories? Not me!

    So, for the most part, I’ve gone with representative mementos. I don’t need a dozen report cards from grade school – a couple will do. I don’t need all of my childhood toys, but just try and get my favorite doll or my building blocks away from me! Things that were important to my mother but irrelevant to me, like my five-year-old handprint in plaster, are gone. On the other hand, her autograph albums, her report cards and my dad’s cuff links and watches still are around.

    In the new year I think I’ll finally get around to a post that’s been put off and put off – about my china collecting. I learned a good bit in the process that’s relevant.

    The funny thing is that music evokes more memories for me than things. “Midnight in Moscow”? Oh, my. I was in my sophomore year in high school. Bill Wert took me to the homecoming dance, and that song was the first song in the Swing contest. We won it, two years in a row. Oh, did I love to dance!

    December 16, 2012
    • Ooh I’ll look forward to your china post! Did you see some of mine on the cornish cream tea post? Not sure you were following then.

      It sounds like you’ve mastered the art of loft or landfill quite skilfully!

      Actually that reminds me of going into a gift shop at a National Trust property last xmas and my friend muttering ‘landfill’, clearly already jaded by the excesses of the festive season!

      December 17, 2012
    • So pleased Midnight in Moscow set off these heady memories – twice in a row, wow! What happened to Bill?

      I still love to dance…but don’t do enough of it anymore!

      I didn’t realise that it was a traditional Russian folk song til I started looking on Youtube! But might explain my love of gypsy groove…

      December 17, 2012
  5. mmw #

    thoughtful post, loved the bit about sitting under the tree going into the earth; the soil is a great heap of fundamental clutter…wonderful picture of moo cow and discreet portrait of notre soeur ainée.

    December 16, 2012
    • Oui, mon frere ainee, un nouveau bloggeur j’espere, elle est tres mystereuse n’est ce pas? Or something…;)

      December 17, 2012
  6. I love it when photographers find themselves unexpectedly in their photographs…it’s sort of an Escher moment without the planning :). Moo Cow is still redolent with “Cowness” despite her lack of features or any other accoutrements. A bit like rocks that endure…Moo Cow is enduring despite the odds. I find myself transported back to memories via smell and the scent of pine needles is particularly potent especially in our hot Aussie summers where pine needles are closest to their native environment (well the hot climate species anyway! 😉 ). I think that memories only start kicking in after you have lived a bit…the early years are full of exploring (or they should be!) and it’s only when you have time to reflect that they come back when tied to something enigmatic like Moo Cow that has guided generations of children through their own peculiar wordly discoveries. I love that she can talk! All the more senses to stimulate your memories :). My mum took me to see Kenny Ball when I was a child. He was touring and I had no idea who he was and just loved the music…Music is my particular memorie stimulator and Herb Alpert can transport me back to when my parents were still alive and a single Christmas years ago…You have just legitimised my hoarding! Cheers 🙂 (Steve may not be so accomodating with the praise 😉 ).

    December 17, 2012
    • It’s great isn’t it? Kenny went global! I just love those slightly mournful Russian melodies and folk songs – did you have a listen to the other one? Quite amazing.

      I know what you mean about music being the memory stimulator, it seems to be the same for lots of people. God Bless the Grass was a big one as we used to sing along. I love Herb Alpert too, though don’t have any particular associations with him. My dad was really into Let it Be by the Beatles, and Sergeant Pepper (we played that at his funeral)

      I hope Steve won’t be berating me about this, I wouldn’t want to jeopardise my chance in the spoon draw 🙂

      December 17, 2012
      • It’s Earl you need to keep sweet…He is the one drawing your walnut! If you see your way clear to bribing him with a pillow or two (he is particulary partial to pillows filled with feathers…) you should be fine ;). Midnight in Moscow was one of the songs that really got me sitting up in my chair at Kenny’s concert. If I got nothing else from my parents (aside from Serendipity Farm and a genetic predisposition to run to seed…) I got my predilection for music. My ex scored the original Sergeant Pepper album in the split… I got The Spin Doctors…whatchagonnadoeh? 😉

        December 17, 2012
  7. Beautiful and a very different perspective to what is found at the Krishna temple! Whilst there, they reinforced the belief that material ‘stuff’ simply clutters our path toward God, that we should therefore remain unattached to material possessions. Oh my, this just seems too far removed from living this present life! Like you say already, there are such simple pleasures held in the memories of old things past. Gotta hold on to them, some of them and definitely not all of them… there’s balance in there somewhere! 🙂

    December 20, 2012
  8. It’s great that you have people from the past to discuss moo cow with. The older you get, the more you value those connections with your early years. I don’t know quite why it’s important, but it is. Perhaps it gives us a sense of our place in the passage of time, a little footprint in history, although why that should be important I don’t know either. Life is a great big mystery and no mistake.

    December 21, 2012
    • Maybe it’s because when we’re younger we’re not so aware that one day it will all be over! – as we get older the time ahead gets gradually less than the time perhaps the idea of a footprint makes us feel more solid on this wobbly journey.

      December 21, 2012
  9. Lovely post. You had Tomten when you were young?

    December 23, 2012
    • Thank you!

      The Tomten was one of my favourites. Sounds like you know it too…actually until this post I didn’t realise it was swedish…is that why you’re familiar?. I just loved the deep snow, and the footprints and the yellow light. My mum was really good with the dramatic voices.

      December 23, 2012
      • YES. I wonder if we had the same book. Was it the one where he walks to the cowshed in the middle of the night? At least… that’s what I remember…

        December 23, 2012
      • That’s right YES! I’d forgotten about that. Crikey, these cow references just keep on coming…

        December 24, 2012
      • How pleasingly appropriate. Tonight is the night when the animals will talk to Tomten. x

        December 24, 2012

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