Learning from ABCs

I go looking but the centre of my palm remembers more. The shelf gave up the dark mahogany wood to my daughter but only briefly can I recall the gifting. Such small carpentry with its little metal clasp hiding the treasured alphabet. As a child I wondered at my mother’s trinket collection: locks of baby hair in tiny ribbons; the baby teeth of me and my siblings; the miniature pencil encased in silver; and the mahogany box of animal bone letters, carved with such care that it was hard to fathom. The miniature alphabet’s font is unfamiliar but if I had to hazard a guess from its apparent function I would think it was Century Schoolbook. What small hands held these letters? I know that my mother was given the box by her godmother Edith in Herefordshire. Weeks were spent at her farm after the war learning how to churn butter and pluck a chicken.

B U T T E R

C H I C K E N

Edith was beloved in the family as she represented the best of old England. She had no children of her own and treated my mother like family. The bone letter box was a prized possession for what it symbolized and it was not lost on me that my mother considered Edith her first true teacher. To spread the bone letters out on the table is to reach into the history of childhood learning. The letters have sharp corners, except for the rounded ones, and are the colour of cream. Tiny cracks reveal their origins though not enough to suggest cow versus horse bone.

C O W

H O R S E

The box is lined with dark blue velvet, or is it black? Torn in places and smelling of the musty quality of old wood, this box has ancestors. Once grown for its timber, the mahogany tree became a valued commodity to Britons starting in the 18th century. The houses of Victorian England cannot be imagined without the ubiquitous dark wooden furniture, finely carved and lacquered. Reeking of Empire and assets, this little alphabet box could not be here without Britain’s slave history. Mahogany was a status symbol and no amount of tiny bone letters could have been separate from our colonial past.

B O N E

S L A V E

Whether or not she was cognizant of the box’s origins, Edith was a woman of her time and she loved my mother through her gifting of practical skills and encouragement. Gathering up the letters from the table and placing them back in the box, I wonder if my daughter knows its history through osmosis. She knows British colonial history and she knows the alphabet. But she doesn’t know how to churn butter nor pluck a chicken.   

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