Out of the Mouths of Babes

Sharon Pywell

Birthday Parties That Take Some Creative Management, or What Does the Bottom of an Elephant’s Foot Feel Like?

Here’s what an elephant foot feels like: the bottom of an unfired pot— rough, firm, dusty in places, thick flesh cracked in places like desiccated clay. It’s about the size of a bathroom trashcan but four of them can support between ten thousand pounds, and carry it all around in almost total silence.

I know this because I got an elephant trainer to ask her elephant to let my daughter, my husband and I pet her big toe. And foot. It was a birthday party of sorts, and it had taken about a year to talk the National Zoo into letting us come to the elephant house before opening and meet the residents.

I’m touchy about presents—I got quite a few of them from my own mom that just howled “I want you to be the kind of person who wants this even though you aren’t!” and I know that can be sad. I know some parents who dread birthday parties, and I have thrown a couple of them that, to be generous, didn’t work so well. When the parties in my kid’s circle started to involve sitting around and watching a movie, I suggested we make a movie ourselves instead. Let’s just say it was interesting. The year Beanie Babies were ubiquitous we turned the entire first floor into a Beanie Baby city–white paper over every inch of floor which became a network of Beanie Baby roads, white boxes to decorate and transform into Beanie Baby garages and homes and grocery stores. . . and finally, individualized faux-fur Beanie Baby sleeping bags which were the cue for everybody to lie down and fall asleep. At one in the morning my husband and I were woken by loud breathing at the foot of the bed–eight pairs of eyes waiting for us to wake up and feed them Fruit Loops, which we actually did because it was a birthday.

When it worked, it worked because I struggled to master that all-important creative skill: shutting up and listening. But then the daughter went to college, and wasn’t there to listen to. I started picking out Wrong Gifts, and my passionate relationship with decorated cupcakes, which made me a Goddess when the birthday girl was in fifth grade, now only got me mocked. So when the visiting college kid casually mentioned that she’d always wondered what an elephant foot felt like, I filed that away carefully. Then I started my campaign.

How do we get to touch an elephant foot? I asked the Elephant House Manager at the National Zoo. He suggested we fly to Thailand, where he knew for sure there were lots of elephants. Negotiations started from there, but nine months later he caved. We were in.

We told our daughter to meet us at the National Zoo an hour before it opened on a specific day (the one easy thing about the kid being twenty is that you can get away with things like this, which don’t work at all well when they’re seven). And there we were, meeting Shanti, whose handler asked her to turn around and offer us the bottom of a rear foot. She swiveled smoothly, nine thousand pounds revolving as gently as if it were balanced on a divot. Her skin felt like heavy luggage but when I pressed my hand against her flank we could feel her twenty-five pound heartbeat.

I thought I was the Queen of Birthday Surprises that morning, and it lasted right until lunch when my kid said, “I appreciate it and all, and it was a unique event. But. . . was that my birthday present?” Yes, I said. Didn’t she remember asking for it?

Turns out she didn’t even remember saying that she thought touching an elephant foot would be amusing–which is why the best kinds of birthday presents for kids, of any age, are the ones that the parent will have fun giving. That covers a lot of territory, actually.

Is your book club looking for a great read?

cover art for My Other Mother “Action Figures” by Edie Vonnegut

Nobody ever said that motherhood was easy, and the same applies to daughterhood, especially if the mother in question adopted you but failed to tell you the truth about where she got you. That doesn’t mean everything isn’t fine. . .here’s Karli Benmidich, main character of My Other Mother, on the subject of lies that mothers and daughters tell each other:
In the midst of what could be the most intimate relationship in the universe, we struggle to become invisible to one another and then, sadly, we often succeed. That was me and Mom. The bond begins in a kind of tropical heat—the helpless baby and the lioness protector, seeing one another through a lens entirely free of intellectual analysis. The relationship is chemical, mesmerizing. If it were otherwise, of course, you’d be seeing a lot of babies being pitched off roofs by exhausted and tormented caretakers. She knows what she’s talking about—she’s a mother herself.
Find out what Karli Benmidich finds out in this new novel by Sharon Pywell, author of Everything After and What Happened to Henry. What Karli’s mother eventually tells her leads her to Lakota Sioux territory, to million-dollar Native American artifacts, and to a different understanding of her own children.
To find out more, access this link to reach a first chapter.
To order the $3.99 Kindle version, click here. The purchase the book in paperback, order through the Harvard Bookstore.
If your book club would like to preview My Other Mother, please contact Sharon at pywellbooks@gmail.com with your name and address for a free copy.

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