Reflections on an unlikely family heirloom

Dog surprise
Illustration by Michael Morshuk

You never knew which one of you would get it next -- or which one it would come from. You just knew that out of the blue the little creature would show up -- in your top drawer with your socks, or tucked in the toe of your sneaker, or nestled in your lunch pail under your sandwich. Your probing fingers would discover the by-now familiar but always unexpected white ceramic toy dog -- a small handful sitting on its fat haunches, with a ridiculous grin on its doggy face.

One time it was even found smuggled into someone's mashed potatoes. How everyone would laugh at the recipient's surprise. The butt of the joke would laugh hardest, feeling loved. Later, when you had gone off to camp, or even later, to college, there it would be, falling into your hand as you unpacked your lonely suitcase. Gotcha! it seemed to say, bringing family and home close.

It came into our lives first, I suppose, as a present to one of us, who thought it so silly it had to be pawned off at once on an unsuspecting sibling or parent. Perhaps every family has such an object -- one that becomes a talisman, taking on a significance related not in the least to what it is but rather to its entanglement in webs of relationship.

At Christmastime and on birthdays in the first few years we were all very careful about largish, beautifully wrapped packages of unknown origin -- large to conceal the size of the contents. In turn we tried to be as sneaky as we could in passing it along. What fun it was to anticipate the pleasure given and received. And what fun it was just to be in touch.

It got to be years between sightings. It got to be many years since the last. And in those years the fabric of the family loosened, lost its holding power. There were marriages and breakups, partings and misunderstandings, hostilities and bitternesses. There were deaths and resentments and heartaches and not-speakings. I think every family has these, too.

And then one day ... You know what should come next in a satisfying story. But alas, no. Vivid as the smile of that dippy dog is in my mind's eye, tangible as its smooth-skinned, lumpy body is to my mind's touch, I cannot quite visualize it in a place. I have searched and searched the recesses of my knowledge, turning memories over like piles of discarded garments. Who could have had it last? And then one day came the staggering thought: could it have been I who let it fall, who let us all fall, from grace?