Monday, May 3, 2010

Memories, Sacred Objects, and Chance Encounters

One of the treasures of our household when I was growing up was a brass elephant bell. About the size and shape of a cantaloupe, it was a pleasure to look at, satisfying to hold, and it made the loveliest of sounds. The top half of the bell was solid, with a knob at the top. The bottom half was made of many prongs that continued the spherical shape of the bell. When picked up, the clapper in the center would strike along the prongs of the bell and would cast a delightful blend of chimes and bongs.

That elephant bell always sat in the corner of our living room. From my earliest days, I can remember the delight of handling the bell. As toddlers, my siblings and I each in our turn found joy in rolling the bell across the floor. I was still a small child when my parents explained to me that the beautifully pleasing bell was an elephant bell, and that it was given to them as a wedding present. That knowledge only made the bell more special. Elephants were fascinating! They were big and exotic. The fact that it was a wedding present gave the bell the highest aura of respect.

I can remember as a child thinking that my parents’ wedding was the most important thing I could imagine. I suppose I knew instinctively that it was the cornerstone of our family. It was the event in the distant past that made it possible for my brothers, my sister, and me to be here. It was the foundation of my security. That the bell was a wedding gift let me know that it was uniquely theirs – enjoyed by all of us, but a special possession of my parents.

Several years ago, when my daughter was eleven, she and I went browsing around in a second-hand novelty and antique shop. On a shelf I spotted a perfect replica of an elephant bell. Only 2½ inches high, it was more the size of a plum than a cantaloupe. I picked it up and slightly tilted the bell. That same magical sound flooded around me. It was not as large a sound as I knew from my childhood, but it was similar enough to carry me back to that secure, enchanted time.

My parents are both deceased now. My siblings are scattered, miles apart. The instant I picked up that elephant bell replica, I knew that it belonged in my house. It was only $6.50 – I would have paid much more to have it. As I was purchasing it, I told my daughter all about the elephant bell that had been in my home when I was growing up. I brought my find home, found a place on a shelf in our living room for the bell and told my wife the whole story.

My bell became a sacred object the moment I picked it up in that shop. It calls forth the spirits of my mother and father as the chimes meet the ear – just as surely as a photograph when the image meets the eye. The bell summons my own history, honors my ancestors, and recalls my inward delight as it calls my soul to contemplation.


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