One of the interesting aspects of my childhood was the gifts that showed up for me. Other children, it seemed to me, received things I saw on TV: Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels racing sets. I got a little bit of that – not Barbie dolls, which my mother was opposed to on some sort of political correctness basis – but other things like a Big Wheel, various plastic dolls, and games like Tiddlywinks and Hi-Ho Cherry-O. I don’t remember the things so much as the stories that were invented around them; one of my dolls had her arm chewed off by the dog, an event I don’t recall, but she was ever after the doll victim of many shark-attack scenarios devised by my cousin, which I remember well.
My grandmother’s seemingly endless siblings presented me with a number of treasures, mostly, I suspect, handed down from their own grandchildren, but all of them “still with lots of good use left.”
More exotic items arrived at the house for me, though, from all over the world, and these were presented to me always with a bit of awe and an effort to impress on me what a wonderment such things were. Jewelry from my grandparents and aunt in South Africa. Marvelous toys from my godfather, a Swiss banker.
The Swiss Banker sent an expensive set of plasticine clay to me one Wisconsin Christmas, exquisitely beautiful in the packaging, but I wanted to play with it – it was clay, after all – so I sat at the kitchen table and tried to make things with my four-year-old fingers, I don’t remember what. I liked the feel of the clay and all the different colors.
I showed my mother what I had made, and she told me I wasn’t doing it right. That’s not how you use clay like that.
I had been happy with what I had made and how I had spent the afternoon, but now I was not so sure. I went upstairs, and later, to bed, but I peeked downstairs that night, because my mother was not upstairs, asleep with me. She was at the table, modeling with my clay. In the morning, there was an array of zoo animals – I remember a tiger with carefully applied stripes in particular – on display on the kitchen table. I stared at her perfect figures made from my clay, things I could never hope to make. That is what you do with clay like that, she said.
I determined to try, and sat at the table that day, pulling apart what bits remained of the clay and trying to copy the little animals she made, or make some of my own devising. They didn’t look like hers, and after a while, I realized I didn’t want them to. I mashed up all my failed attempts into a ball and then mashed that together with what remained of the clay and by then there was an ocean of grey clay and her animals were the creatures that missed Noah’s Ark and got eaten by the flood and turned into grey clay too.
I made little balls out of the grey clay, which is what my mother saw when she found the whole mess.
She was angry at me for ruining that beautiful, expensive clay set, which seemed logical enough, and I was angry at her too, though I couldn’t explain why.