I don’t know what sparked the memory. It might have something to do with the Elemental symbolism and magic of the upcoming workshop weekend. And we had been talking about gardens with one of my son’s neighbours… and gardens are a bit of a preoccupation at the moment, what with my almost-bare, iron-hard and fissured patch staring at me balefully, while my son’s garden is being ripped out and made safe for his wheelchair, which is a major undertaking. It was probably looking after my son’s pond that did it… but the mind makes strange connections and somehow I found myself remembering my grandfathers’ gnome.
The gnome sat, eternally fishing, beside a small pond, tucked away in the shade cast by the sycamore trees in Grandad’s garden. As far as I know, he never caught a thing… except my imagination. He was not a cheery, round-faced, Disneyfied gnome as are most modern examples… rather, he was a dignified being with a serene and knowing smile and stories to tell. Looking at the old pictures now, he reminds me of my grandfather somewhat, and I wonder how many of the stories the gnome told me came not from old stone after all.
Somewhere, though not in my share of the family photos, there is a picture of me teething on the point of the gnome’s hat. It was probably not a great idea, as there was still lead in many paints at that time… and concrete is not an ideal teether for a baby. But I fell in love with that gnome early and he was always part of my life as a child.
The pond was a rather formal, concrete affair… rectangular, not very deep and with steps down into the water at each end. My memories of very early childhood are patchy, but those that remain are clear and go back to my first few years. I recall very clearly watching the fire-bellied, great-crested newts in the pond. I can see the scene in my mind and, from the angle at which I still ‘see’ it, was probably in the water with them. To me they looked like miniature dragons… Grandad said they were sometimes called salamanders, even though that is not what they were. We watched the porriwiggles grow from egg to newt and, as I lay on the grass beside him, the gnome told me stories about them.
So did Grandad… though his were not about how newts lived, but took a slightly different turn. Grandad told me about Gnomes and Salamaders as creatures of Elemental Earth and Fire. Which meant he also had to tell me about the Undines and the Sylphs, beings of Water and Air. It was probably one of my earliest introductions to magical symbolism.
I remember asking, at some point in my childhood, why, if newts were salamanders… creatures of fire… how come they lived in water? The answer was an early introduction to a more abstract interpretation of symbolism… that Fire and Water, passion and emotion, were intimately linked. I did have a rather strange childhood… but it was one where magic was accepted as part of everyday life, old traditions were honoured and where imagination was both encouraged and valued.
We left cream outside and gifts beneath the trees, especially empty walnut shells, for the fairies… and if there were holes pecked in the shiny milk-bottle tops on the doorstep each morning, well… fairies could look like bluetits if they chose. Fairies were nature spirits… not the same as the Fae-folk, who were altogether more beautiful and perilous. Sometimes we boiled water in eggshells, just to check for changelings. Which, I suppose, must have included me as the only child in the house.
The pond was gone not long after I started school, presumably for my safety. The house changed hands long ago and the trees were cut down by the new owners. But not all things disappear so quickly. One of the pink leather shoes I was wearing in that photograph with the gnome… my very first pair… is now in my grandaughters’ memory box, along with a lock of pale blonde baby-hair that matches their own. The gnome is in my mother’s garden. Last time I saw him, he was almost unrecognisable. His fishing rod is long-since gone… over half a century of wind and weather have worn his features to a blur… but he was still there.
So, in an odd way, is Grandad. The stories he and the gnome told me, so many years ago, shaped the child who shaped the woman in whom the child still lingers. And, no matter what life holds, how dark some days may seem or how much madness goes on around me… thanks to Grandad and the gnome, life always holds the possibility of magic.