Monday, January 17, 2011


This small child's cup - 3 inches high, two and three-quarter inches in diameter - has been in my life for as long as I can remember. When I first wrapped my fingers around it I was three or four years old, waking to the delights of blackcurrant juice (can one still find Ribena in supermarkets, I wonder?), fresh mulberries, slipper-footed bantams and freshly-laid eggs. 

The cup lived in a cupboard in my grandparents' kitchen where it shared space with an odd assortment of old metal baking tins, jelly moulds, a glass lemon squeezer and a collection of variously-shaped 1950s Twinco plastic drinking vessels. The smallest pale green one was my pick of the bunch and, if memory serves me well, the one I repeatedly chose over all the others. I would drink my Ribena tap-water-cool in summer, warmed-for-comfort in winter. 

I can still smell that kitchen and the mysterious fragrances that emanated from its many cupboards - freshly-cut rhubarb and plucked-from-the-tree lemons, the particular smell of a damp-metal cheese grater, coffee grounds from the percolator (always at the ready on the back left plate of the stove), the dusty perfume of lumpy old marshmallows. . . (Marshmallows have never tasted better than the ones my grandmother kept in a tall lidded storage jar at the back of that cupboard; they were pale, stale and chewy. Perfect! Miraculously, that jar never emptied.)

When the time came for my grandparents to sell their rambling old house and move into a small  retirement village cottage, they went through the inevitable process of sifting and sorting, deciding what to take with them, what to pass on, what to send away to the auction. . . It must have been 1984. I would have been twenty-four at the time, newly married and expecting my first child. (I live so much in the present these days that my chronological memory quite often fails me; I recall the stories, with all the feelings and sensory details, but specific dates seem to elude me - does this happen to any of you?)

Young, idealistic and intent on living a simple, uncluttered life, there was very little I hankered for in the way of material things - but I did want that little green cup to come home with me from my grandparent's house. I wanted my children to grow up with it. 

And so it was the cup came to live with us.

My then-husband and I started our married life in a converted tractor shed on a pig farm outside Johannesburg - a characterful, if unusual first abode. P was away more than he was home, tangled up in what was compulsory military service in those days; as a medic, he was spared from having to perform some of the more appalling duties but the army kept him away from home for several months at a stretch. During one such period, he was called away to serve time on the Caprivi Strip, a narrow, dissent-stricken belt of land on the North-Western tip of South West Africa (now Namibia), bordering on Angola, Botswana and Zambia. While he was away, two unrelated murders took place in Nooitgedacht, the rural area we were living in. Translated literally, Nooitgedacht means 'never thought of' and looking back at that time now, it was a pretty isolated spot. . . The first death took place a few miles from where I was living; the second occurred a week later on the farm adjoining ours. 

I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, living out in the bundu*, sans husband. Another young family lived in the main farmhouse not all that far away from me, but they weren't exactly within easy calling distance. The day I learned about the second death, I set about packing our few belongings; I scooped up my clothes, our mattress and bedding, my furry companion (a cloud-coloured cat named Count Cumulus), my stash of art materials and drawing boards and - with my family's help - moved into a small flat in the city. I was working towards my first solo exhibition at the time - the flat belonged to the gallery owner and happened to be empty at the time.   

But that's a whole other story. . .    

Staying with the little green cup. . . my three children drank fruit juice and elbow-temperature rooibos tea from it during their growing years in Cape Town. It spent a decent bit of time in sandpits, garden and bath. When it wasn't in use, it lived on the window sill in our kitchen (holding parsley or flowers), otherwise with all the other plastic bits in the kitchen cupboard.

When our family of five moved to New Zealand in November 1994, the cup took on a new role as sugar scoop in a sugar bin. My ex-husband sold the family house at the end of last year and he and I spent several weeks sorting through the accumulations of two and a half decades lived out on two very different continents. Towards the end of the process - literally moments before we closed the door on that particular chapter of our lives - I remembered my childhood cup. I went through to the all-but-empty kitchen and there it was, nestled in amongst the sugar in the old bin, just as it had been for the previous fifteen years. I brought it home with me that night and use it every morning to scoop-and-scatter seed for the birds that visit my garden, brightening our world with their song. 

Few things remain the same, do they? Given all that's happened in the past forty-six/fifty-plus years, it's remarkable to me that this pale green plastic cup has survived; not only that, it looks exactly as it did when I was three or four years old. What a stalwart. So much of what I considered once-upon-a-time to be permanent, reliable, enduring - 'forever' - has in fact tumbled down, fallen away, cracked, crashed and burned. Other things have risen - are rising - up in their place.

The objects that remain are little more than prompts for memory, for the stories of our lives. The objects themselves aren't 'it.' It's the stories that dwell within them - within us - that live on and continue to imbue our time here with meaning.


  1. I find myself in this even if I have no place in it. Is that strange? 1984 - depending on the month - I may not have even existed but only as a fluid little being attached to another and yet you so full of a life you were on the brink of living. Strange to think about, eh? There are always lives living in these ways.
    I feel I am where you were - on the brink of your life as an artist, just beginning and it makes me feel better to see where you've gone, what you've accomplished as if it can be out there for me as well.
    Cheers to your cup, to the beautiful life you have made - of your own making - I raise a plastic blue bowl that I've carried with me through many moves, one that I took camping in the California desert as a child. I remember the Froot Loops and tie-dye milk. Cheers to what is and what will be.

  2. Oh Claire...this post was so beautiful written. I felt myself traveling back through time with you.

    The only thing I think I have from when I was a baby is a gold locket with my initials engraved on it. It is dented where I bit on it when I first got teeth.

    I used to drink from the multi-colored aluminum glasses. Not too long ago we were reminiscing with friends and I mentioned the glasses. On my next birthday, they presented me with a set of them. I still love the way it keeps milk so cold.

    In 1984 my marriage was breaking up and in 1994 I was going through a very difficult time in my life raising my two daughters on my own. As bad as that year was, the following year it was just the opposite and one of the best years of my life.

    What a talent you have. You are an excellent story teller. You take us by the hand and welcome us into your adventures. I am so happy to have found your writing.

  3. On the windowsill behind me are two Sylvac rabbits. Here’s a photo of one if you don’t know what they look like. They were my parents and the only things to survive their marriage undamaged. They aren’t the prettiest-looking things and they’re quite common but they have become symbols of survival. They sat on either end of my parents’ mantelpiece (which they called a ‘Cornish’ for some reason) for over fifty years and somehow despite their having three kids who managed to break just about everything else in the house at some time these two rabbits managed to stand firm and not get knocked off.

  4. What a story/stories just from one object of memory!

    Ribena still exists in Scotland!

  5. A pleasure, a prompt, a pivot. Please allow these P's. Am I reading in bittersweet?

    Looking back I usually get the sequence right but not dates. I feel akin to you, dear Claire who practices to live in the moment.

  6. I enjoyed what a part of your life this cup has shared. When I first saw it I thought of a ceramic one a bit smaller I always drank coffee from with a uncle when I was at jis farm visiting. Mine would be mostly fresh milk from their cow and lots of sugar, but we shared many a story around the table, which all made an impression in my life. I am glad you are still using this treasure, it is small parts of our lives that enrich happiness as this had for you.

  7. I think it's wonderful that small cup has elicited so many memories.

    One of my favorite moments in Out of Africa is when Karen's (Dinesen's) 'things' arrive from Denmark and she is so comforted by having these venerable items around her.

    I'm afraid I've used that incident to justify a lot of accumulation around my house.

  8. Dear Claire, thank you for bringing us back through the threadings of your life, so many memories looped around the handle of that small cup, from the little tow-headed child to the woman who has made a life making art and feeding bell-birds and tuis on a new continent, in a completely different emotional landscape. We think we carry things through our lives but in fact the things carry us.xo

  9. Claire, I "love" the story of the green cup--past and present and all possible and impossible futures blending into the "one moment now" that is the cup ... brilliant!

  10. Froot loops (fruit luips?) and tie-dye milk? A happy, splashy image - one I know well, and have tasted; we have plenty in common, dear Rachel! Thank you for honouring my green cup with your blue bowl.
    Life is (to quote my friend Penelope) 'feast and forge' - a bit of a muddle and mess at times, but for the most part heading in a forwards, 'say yes to life' direction.
    Cheers to what is and what will be.
    And again.
    L, C xo

  11. Hi Donna - you still have the gold locket you bit into as a babe with new teeth? Wonderful! As a metaphor, too! It's good to sink our teeth into certain things. . . and to leave a mark (in the very best sense). Thank you for sharing some of your story with us here. Kind friends to have found your favourite multi-coloured aluminum glasses. I know just what you mean when you say about they keep the liquids they hold beautifully cold. (Sometimes there'd be slight frosting and tiny droplets of condensation on their outside?).

    Thankfully fallow years are very often followed by fecundity and fullness. . . as you described has happened in your life. Whew. We are not alone! Thank you for coming by, Donna, and for your generous comments.

  12. Jim! Sylvac rabbits - yes, I remember them. I believe my aunt and uncle had a pair of green ones and my grandparents served their blue-cheese coleslaw in a Sylvac salad bowl (shaped like a cabbage leaf). Characterful, slightly doleful rabbits (or is that just me?) and happy rabbit story. Simple emblems of triumph and survival seem important right now. It's interesting the way some things endure and others disintegrate; often in an order and shape we'd least expect. It's always great to see you here, Jim. Thanks.

  13. Ah, Gordon - Ribena still exists in Scotland! JOY! You've just made me a very happy woman. It's probably been staring me in the face for years at our local supermarket but I've not really wanted to taste it again till now, so now is probably the time it's most likely to re-appear? (Isn't this so often the way things like this work?).

    It was interesting to 'sit quietly' with my little green cup and then to find a whole raft of stories coming up. Then again, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. Cup = container. I wonder. . . do you have a childhood object that carries your stories?

  14. Dear Mim - your Ps, yes please. They are welcome - as is your reading through to the bittersweet layers. Thank you. May they add flavour without sourness? Wistfulness is in there, too.

    It's heartening to know I'm not the only one who gets sequences, but not dates.

    Wishing you off-the-calendar fun in SoBe.
    Love, Claire

  15. Memory and symbol, proof that there is continuity rooted deeply behind what feels like constant change. The humble yet meaningful, eloquent object...a prism through which we observe time.

    My sense of time has become entirely fluid, I'm not certain I can even claim sequence...two former husbands sometimes merge into one...

    There is such a graceful flow to this piece, like walking through a room and touching each item with affection, yet no sense of longing for what is no longer here. I so admire your clarity.

  16. Hi Steve - ah, so you had a small ceramic cup brimming with stories, too. . . isn't it interesting how these blog conversation become a little like gathering around a table or camp fire. As the hours go by and we share our tales, we come to understand how much more we have in common than not. And yet, no two stories can ever be the same. How miraculous is that? All it takes is ready company, a sip of Ribena, a small porcelain cup holding coffee, milk fresh from the cow, a dollop of sugar. . .

    I'd like to share a link with you (on the 'Ecology of Magic' - and vice versa) - will post it on your blog, too.

  17. Hi Kass - I love the word 'venerable'. Your use of it here prompted me to look it up in the dictionary again. A 'venerable object' is one 'accorded a great deal of respect, esp. because of age, wisdom, or character'. Lovely, thanks.

    'Out of Africa' - Karen Dineson - is remarkable for so many reasons. I wonder it it might be time to read this book again. . .

    Like you, I have an accumulation of things here. I've been looking at them differently, though. Considering them and their place and whether it might be time to write their stories as a first step to passing them on? What do you think? I like the idea of living lightly, of having just a few things around me that lighten and brighten the space (the internal space, especially). Like most things, it's a process - and sometimes a slow one.

    Then again - if we let go of the words 'early' and 'late' what does it matter how long things take?

    Thanks for coming by, Kass. I hope your writing year has started wonderfully. L, C

  18. Dear Melissa, I appreciate the way you lovingly reflect back what you see and in so doing, affirm both 'then and now.' You have a gift for synthesizing things; ideas, images, intentions. Thank you.

    "We think we carry things through our lives but in fact the things carry us." Perhaps both are true, M, in the way of it being a conversation? Even in the lives we share with our objects, getting the relationship 'just so' can be a bit of a trick or a challenge, though?!

    Claire xo

  19. Helen - thank you ; ) You've just summed something up for me; something that's primarily about work habits and intentions but also v. relevant life in general.

    In a nutshell, it boils down to one word - 'distillation'- which implies simplification over scattering. (Scattering - it seems to me - can be shattering?)

    Hmm. Thanks for helping clarify this ; )

  20. Dear Marylinn
    There seems to have been so much murkiness lately, I'm encouraged to hear you speak of clarity. I guess that's what happens after periods of shake-up? With time and patience the twigs and sediment settle back down to the bottom of the jar and the water begins to clear.
    I love your description of the humble 'eloquent object' - it's beautiful, like something about to burst forth with stories. I imagine we all have one or two such objects in our midst. Perhaps they're waiting for a cue to speak? (I wonder, might there be a community collection brewing. . . ?)

    On closer consideration, I'm not sure I get sequences either, Marylinn (and Mim). Does it matter? Do we simply go with the flow?

    Thank you, too, for what you say about affection and longing, Marylinn. Ideally we would reach a place of being able to be at ease with both - as you wrote, 'no sense of longing for what is no longer here.' While I sometimes think I might be making baby steps forward with this, I'm aware of how great a distance there is yet to go. . . Companions on the road make it a whole lot less daunting. L, C xo

  21. Claire, thanks for clicking the follow button on my blog! In fact, I have been reading you for a while, ever since I ran across your post with the poem that began, "Blue is a vagabond among colors." Ahhh.

    You write so beautifully, and I love this reverie in a little green cup. You are right, it is the stories embedded in the object that make it a thing to be cherished and kept and shared with our children. And yes, Ribena is still sold in the Caribbean, where I grew up.

    I have a friend from Druban, SA, and we often marvel at the similarities in our upbringings on different sides of the world, the beach days with friends, the family parties attended by all generations, and yes, the British colonial products like Ribena that no others of our friends are familiar with!

    Lovely post.

  22. Dear Angella - I've only just found this comment from you - how happy I am to find you here! (Lovely, too, to discover you've been coming since that 'Vagabond Blue'!). Thank you for your full response. I have been reading you for a good while, too. We find each other out here - our kinship circle - don't we. It never ceases to amaze that this is what wants to happen. Daily blessings - Love to you, Claire