My mother handed me the box, and when I opened it I was looking at a ceramic duck. She countered my confusion with, "I've decided to start a collection for you. Every time we take a trip, I'll bring one back. You'll have ducks from all over the world!"
I could tell I was supposed to be excited at this news. But I'd just had my second baby and my older son wasn't taking it so well. Ducks weren't on the agenda of the pity party I was holding in the fall of 1980. But I'm sure I thanked her. I may have told her I loved ducks. If so, I lied.
The duck found a home on the dining room shelf, and I didn't think about it until six months later, when the second one arrived after their trip to Germany. Two years later, there were five more.
I liked my duck collection enough, but dusting it was tedious. By the time all the kids were in school and we'd moved to Baltimore, the duck collection had taken on a life of its own. It needed the entire mantle above the fireplace.
My parents continued to travel. More ducks, 32 more to be exact. I was always careful not to let them fall into young hands. I dusted them. But I hardly ever looked at them.
In my last move, a house only 1/3 the size of the one before it, I lucked out with spacious built-in bookcases in the family room downstairs for the duck collection. I appropriated lots of room down there for my grandchildren's toys, too. But sooner or later, they were drawn to the ducks and wanted to take them down from the shelves and play pretend games with them.
"Only the non-breakables," I'd start out telling them. I did my best to fight for the continued good health of the duck made of crystal (Paris), or the one made of Viennese glass (Austria, of course), or my favorite duck made of jade (China). Then I'd forget about them until the next battle ensued or until they needed dusting.
One day I was on the phone (something important I don't recall now) and against my better judgment, I let my grandson take some ducks down and play with them. It was one of those "anything to get him to stop" moments. Some of the breakable ones got into the action.
When the call wound up, I realized he was deep into an elaborate story. I sat and watched. In his little pretend world, there were mothers and fathers and babies. Some of the ducks were dogs. Others were dinosaurs. He was providing action and dialogue as only a toddler can, and I knew for a fact that the main character in his scene was a duck from a trip to Alaska.
A few days later my house was filled with a contingent of my grandchildren. It was loud and raucous down in the family room, as it should be.
One of the kids called upstairs to the living room. "Can we take the ducks down and play with them?"
Everyone turned to me for the answer.
"Sure," I said.
"The breakables, too?" my grandson wanted to know. I thought of how much my mother would have loved the scene. The memories of all her trips now mingling with children's pretend games.
"That's fine," I said.
They whooped it up when they heard the news. If all goes well, I'll never have to dust the ducks again.
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