Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bovine inspiration

On my birthday last year, I became the owner of an icon of Anglo tableware: the cow creamer. Normally I would not be in favor of something so obviously impractical and pointless. In this case, however, the sheer beauty and quirkiness won me over.

As our primary lactating beast, the cow is quite a natural choice for cream pitchers. The milk is added through an opening in the cow’s back and is poured through the cow’s mouth. Its tail forms a convenient handle. Some Web surfing has revealed that cow creamers were popular as early as the 1760s and produced in a range of materials from earthenware in the Staffordshire region of England to fine silver in London. G. Bernard Hughes, in “Small Antique Silverware,” calls the cow creamer “a quaint conceit of the third quarter of the eighteenth century ... the milk jug modeled in the form of a cow.”

More recently, cow creamers have inspired poetry, a rather disturbing experiment involving beads, and arguably the greatest episode of “Jeeves and Wooster”: Bertie is ordered by his Aunt Dahlia to go to a particular antique shop and “sneer at a cow creamer” and disparage the antique silver piece as “modern Dutch.” This is an effort to drive down the price before the creamer is purchased by Bertie’s Uncle Tom. With the use of trickery, however, the creamer is purchased instead by Sir Watkyn Bassett and spirited away to Totleigh Towers. Aunt Dahlia insists that Bertie follow and steal it back. This, my friends, is comic genius.

Cow creamers — even modern Dutch ones — are apparently quite collectible. I’m more than a little envious of the Rice Collection at Taylor University in Indiana. The collection of 250 creamers was donated to the university by Raymond and Garnett Rice, who were Missouri Dairy Queen moguls. I love the kitschy and the elegant and the cartoonish. All together, like life. My own cow creamer is appropriately creamy white and shiny, realistically cow-like, and fucking beautiful. I have used it for actual milk dispensing only once, as I find it most satisfying to regard it simply as kitchen sculpture. And sometimes I fondle it.

Do you want one yet? I’ll leave you with this Ikea ad, which I quite enjoy despite its pronouncement that the moo-cow milker is “tacky.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Pals of my cradle days

My mom recently gave me some photo albums from my childhood, three books filled with fascinating glimpses of a past I was too young to remember. It's strange to imagine living in those houses, wearing those clothes, playing with those dogs. My siblings look so young. My parents look too old to have a baby. My dad was 48 when I was born, but he doesn't look a whole lot younger than he did 16 years later, when he died.

I grew up with my three nephews and a niece, who were all about my age. My relationship with them was like what I assume most people have with their cousins. They didn't call me Aunt Erin or anything. We were just little kids who played together. In the photographs, you can see we loved each other. We sat close, we held hands, the older kids held the younger ones.

Jason was the rebel, the troublemaker. Christopher was funny, scrawny, but athletic. Ryan was sensitive and sweet. Alison was full of energy and could tumble and climb like a monkey. We had sleepovers, we rode our bikes, we spent hours on the swing set, we watched "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Three Amigos!" and "National Lampoon's Vacation."

As we got older, the two older boys, Jason and Christopher, ventured out on their own more, often banning Ryan from their bigger-boy games, leaving him to play with Alison and me. But Ryan was happy to play house and Barbies and paint his toenails and color. Ali and I were happy to have him.

And as we got older, as happens with a lot of kids, there was some hanky-panky. My first childish kisses came from those boys. We would often sneak out of family gatherings to giggle and kiss and peek at each other's bodies, a practice our parents tried in vain to discourage. During my brother's wedding rehearsal, Jason and I were wandering the dark halls of the church and hiding in the kitchen. When we finally emerged, our parents demanded to know what we'd been doing. I'll never forget how Jason shamefully admitted it: "kissing." Ryan and I used to take picnics of bologna sandwiches down to the creek, behind the houses in my neighborhood. We'd lie under the trees and kiss and talk about how we wished we were older.

And then we got older. We went to different schools, we made different friends. We eventually quit socializing with each other outside family gatherings. There were no more sleepovers. And certainly no more stolen kisses.

And then we grew up. Now Jason works at ColorTyme and does a lot of online gaming. Christopher recently married a woman with seven children. He runs a Wichita nightclub with her and does freelance computer repair. Ryan works at Wal-Mart. He and his 2-year-old daughter, Maddie, live with Jason. Alison is a high school math teacher in Ottawa, where she just bought her first house.

Things have changed for us. Aside from running into Ryan at Wal-Mart, I don't see them much. And when we do see each other — major holidays, the odd birthday — we lapse into the guarded friendliness of extended family. We love each other, but we're not close. There's awkwardness sometimes when we talk. It's natural, I suppose. But as I was looking through my mom's old photos, I grieved a little bit for the intimacy we had lost. It's a relationship that we will likely never get back. And yet, I feel hopeful about how things may change for us again as we age. Maybe the awkwardness of our 20s will pass. We'll never be kids again, but I'm looking forward to what we may mean to each other in the future.