Thursday, August 21, 2014

HIPPOPOTAMUS (with apologies to Eugene Ionesco)

The Christmas when Justin was nine, Paula pulled in with a large wrapped package under her arm, intimating that I might not be pleased with what she was about to bestow on my son. I'm not sure why she thought so, except that our condominium wasn't large and the object in question clearly was.

It proved to be a gray plush hippopotamus, four and a half feet long, a couple of feet high, and correspondingly bulky. She made it, of course. Paula makes many clever and intricate things.

Justin loved it. He established it in his room and lived with it day and night, using it as a pillow in childhood and beyond. He also vented his frustrations on it, wrestling with it and punching it. He had a lot of frustrations. A strong, energetic, active kid, he was in some sense, as he put it, under house arrest because his interactions with the neighborhood kids often brought grief on all of us. His father had stopped seeing him on weekends when I remarried. His stepfather yelled at him a lot; Justin was a kid who could get yelled at, but Laurie overdid it. My health wasn't reliable, which was hard on everybody. That's a lot for a nine-year-old to deal with.

Paula's sturdy and meticulous stitching held up remarkably well; but the hippopotamus could hardly have taken that kind of punishment indefinitely. Seams leaked, and then burst. Bits of hippopotamus stuffing appeared, and more bits, and bigger pieces, and once a small sofa pillow that Paula had shoved in when the batting was running low. By Justin's early twenties, the hippopotamus was tattered and its stuffing scanty.

Justin brought this pathetic rag to Paula's attention and begged her to save it. Undaunted -- Paula raised three boys of her own -- she took it in hand. The head was held together with a lot of seams but had lost at least one eye and a bunch of stuffing and clung to the body by a few threads (I think it still had both projecting fangs). The body was no better. The only thing for it was to construct a second hippopotamus out of a sheet and line the original hide with it. In two or three places where the damage to the fabric was beyond help or hope, she stitched brightly-colored cotton patches over the holes.

The resurrection of the hippopotamus was complete by Christmas. Again, Justin was delighted with it; it was, he said, the best present he had ever received. He carried it home proudly on Christmas night, by way of a date with a young woman he had long been interested in. The young woman didn't work out, but it was reported that she thought the hippopotamus rather cool.

Paula doesn't remember what prompted her to select the hippopotamus pattern out of the offerings at the fabric store. Once in possession, she made half a dozen hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) for her grandchildren and two for her husband's nieces. At the baby shower anticipating Aurora's appearance, Paula arrived carrying a round-ish package a couple of feet long. Somebody said, "It's a little hippopotamus" -- Justin's having become modestly famous. Paula smiled enigmatically: "Open it and see." Sure enough, it was a purple plush hippopotamus about half the size of Justin's.

For Xavier's second birthday Paula produced a similar object, in bright red. Amanda commented, "I feel like I should have a hippopotamus, too." I had thought of that and suggested yellow; Amanda put in for orange. Paula mentioned having orange fabric that would just do among her bales of fabric, boxes of sewing notions, big cutting table, and, at one point, seven sewing machines. Amanda may get her orange hippopotamus yet.