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.
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.
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.
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.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r85OxK58KnE 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.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggCQx5MtzX8 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.
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.