The Greatest Show on Earth

I saw them there, in the back of the cupboard, hidden behind all the others as I hurriedly rummaged for a cup for my morning coffee. My eyes paused for a moment. One was adorned with a joyful purple elephant whose raised trunk formed the cup’s handle. From the other leapt out a bright orange tiger with black stripes and ferocious green eyes.

I stood frozen, my hand still sunk in the chaos of the cupboard, as I recalled mornings short years ago when my children, clad still in one piece pajamas, bounced up and down and shouted, “Daddy, I want the tiger cup! Give me the elephant cup!”

The adorning animals made their juice and milk immeasureably more attractive. Sitting at the table with their tousled hair and sleepy eyes, they held the cup out before them between sips, drinking in the wildness of their favorite beast along with the beverage. Then, the liquid half drunk, they dashed off to the next adventure, leaving the cups to be again collected and hurled into the sink for a later wash.

Now these same cups sat hidden behind the serviceable mugs and squeaky clean glasses, gathering dust with the terrible silence of all forgotten toys.

Hesitating, I pushed aside those in front and reached deep within the cupboard for these remnants of the past. Fishing in the dim light I grasped the elephant’s trunk as it had not been grasped in many years, then did the same with the tiger’s tail. I set them down on the table and sat down myself for a closer look.

I wondered what it was about these objects that infused them with such strange charm, for they were no more than trinkets, I saw, purchased when the circus came to town. I remembered how the two boys were amazed at the man on stilts, shocked at the bodies flying through the air, and, long before the last act was done, were sound asleep in their seats, half-eaten bags of cotton candy slipping from their grasp.

It was the joy, the way good feeling was spontaneously translated into movement, that made those moments special. It was the way a child was so possessed by inspiration that his feet would leave the floor in a sudden effort at levitation as he lumped with joy. Back then, small things, decorated cups and cotton candy, brought small people great joy, and joy had the power to raise people up from the ground.

But then one day, one morning, a child awakens heavy enough to hold him to the earth; his body mass passes an imaginary line that prevents effortless, unplanned movement, and, just like that, the long somber trek to adulthood has begun. The features thicken, a bridge arises to connect the forehead to that dimple of a nose, the body stretches, elongating like clay rolled upon a table until the regal head and vulnerable gaze meets yours eye to eye – or from above.

I held elephant cup in my hands, turning it slowly, as the world turns, and yet it took but a few moments to complete its revolutionary journey. Inside the cup were flecks of dirt and cobwebs, some no doubt dating from the last time it was held in small hands. Now the boy who for a few precious moments cared only for its contents was thinking not of chocolate milk but of social relationships, personal achievement, the future. The complete childish immersion in the present had been successfully turned toward the attempted mastery of what is to come, toward the creation of a life with purpose and meaning, toward the gruesome daily toil to forge his own life, his own world. He was on his way to becoming a man.

Like millions before me I was both sad and joyful at what had been gained and what had been lost. The unmitigated joy of childhood, both experienced and witnessed, had now drifted into the fragile world of memory, theirs and mine. I wondered if I had honored it enough when it happened, back then when they were bundles of joy wrapped in their fluffy pajamas – or if anyone ever can.