Our grandson River, who is not yet two, seemed to know what was about to happen. The Christmas presents this year were piled up on the floor rather than under the tree and River sat himself in touching distance. There were packages of all sizes but amongst them one dominated. Compared with the others it was enormous and, as it was covered by a tablecloth loosely tied with a ribbon, its shape gave no clues as to its content.
By chance, the overlarge package, which was the first present to be given out, was for River. Helped by his father, he loosened the ribbon, pulled off the wrapping and stared mesmerised as a large elephant slowly emerged. At 70cm from the top of its head to the floor and 150cm from the tip of its trunk to the end of its tail, the elephant was a match for any toddler.
With her polished brown pelt, her large ears, her white tusks and her neat tail, Ellie looked splendid and very soon a smiling River was sitting astride her back. This was no ordinary present, River could not have known that Ellie had been a favourite of mine for some fifty years.
By my late twenties, collecting elephants was already a serious hobby. My mother knew of my interest and decided that she would spend part of a windfall on a memorable elephant for my 28th birthday. While any elephant was welcome, in keeping with my mother’s character this new addition was to be as excessive in size as it was extravagant in price. Moreover, the story of its purchase became part of family lore thanks to there being a witness to the event – my wife, Rohan.
My mother invited Rohan to go with her to buy the elephant. They would go to Liberty, an up-market department store in central London. Rohan was there ostensibly to help; in reality she was there to accompany, show interest and agree.
Herded together at one end of the store’s third floor were dozens of over-large hand-made, stuffed leather animals which included rhinoceros, hippopotami, lions, pigs and, of course, elephants. My mother summoned a shop assistant and described in an overloud voice the key feature required of the elephant she wanted to buy – “it must not have a large bottom”. Customers’ heads turned and my mother, who prided herself on her capacity to project her voice, repeated her demand several times and with the same effect. Doing his best, the hapless assistant presented her with several elephants for inspection and as the choice from those on display dwindled, more were brought up from the basement. Finally one was acceptable – a female elephant immediately named Ellie – and my mother and Rohan headed home with it in a taxi. For Rohan, the departure was none too soon – the session at times had been embarrassing, not to say painful, however learning more about her mother-in-law’s quirky behaviour had provided interesting insights.
At my birthday party a few days later, Ellie was welcomed to my elephant collection. However, rather than being put with the others, her home was the sitting room and it was in the equivalent room that she lived in our three family homes. There she was a much-loved toy on which our three children sat, rode or snuggled, as did their friends.
After thirty five years Ellie, who by then was worn and without various appendages, was retired to the relative calm of my study. She was still loved, but no longer doted on, which was a shame.
Late last year Rohan and I decided that if Ellie could be fully restored, she would make a perfect Christmas present for River. Such a gift would also fit well with the movement to recycle whenever possible.
The artisans at our local leather shop warmed to the project. Repairing leather bags and belts was one thing, restoring an old giant elephant was altogether special. Ellie was examined in detail and although she was missing her tusks and her tail and had only had one ear, the assistant felt that, with the help of some old photos, his workshop could possibly ‘bring her back to life’. However, it might not be easy, her leather coat was now so dry and friable that sewing parts could be a problem.
A few weeks later Ellie was ready for collection and hugging her again in her pristine self, as large as she is, was a delight. The restoration had worked.
Giving River the newly-restored Ellie was a success. Whether he will ever be able to imagine what she was like just a few weeks before Christmas, or recognise her unusual family history, remains to be seen. All that matters now is that he has a special elephant to befriend
The illustration shows a photo of River and Ellie soon after they met.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Pantelis, Ali, Joshua, Rohan and Vivien