In the little alcove off our bedroom, three porcelain elves sit cross-legged along the top of a window. They are among other mementoes--an ikon my parents brought back from Ukraine, a painted wooden spoon given to me by someone in Petrozavodsk, a tiny framed photograph of my father as a very small boy.
When I was young, the elves lived in the dining room at 2315, on a wooden shelf that hung on the wall by the breakfast nook.
Each one is about the size of my thumb.
It was my job, every Saturday morning, to dust them. For a six-year-old girl in a disorganized house overrun with people, this was more complicated than you might think. First I had to find the spray lemon wax, and a dust cloth. The spray wax might be anywhere; it might be where it belonged, under the sink, or it might be in someone's bedroom, or it might be all used up, the can making no noise at all when I shook it, letting out only a quiet psssssst when I pressed the top.
A dust cloth, in my mind, could be anything; one of my brother's socks; a paper napkin; a dish towel; the edge of my shirt. We did not have any cloths that were specifically designated for dust because we almost never dusted. So mostly, when in need, we used paper towels by the yard.
Next, I squirted dish soap into a bowl, filled it with warm water, and sloshed it carefully into the dining room. I shoved a chair over to the wall, climbed up, took the little elves down one by one, and set them in their bath.
While they soaked (and they made grumbling noises, and complained about the water, and the splashing, and the wet) I climbed back up on the chair, sprayed the shelf, and wiped it clean. If my mother was paying attention, she would holler me down from the chair and take the shelf off the wall so I could do my dusting at ground-level. (This was a problem, though, because I did not know how to put it back up and by the time everything was clean and ready to re-hang, she was gone.)
Or if she was busy and frazzled, which was more often, she would hurry by on her way to somewhere else, tell me sharply to get off the chair, tell me not to worry about the chore, and then she was gone.
As I washed the elves, they grumbled and complained and sometimes danced across the table. "You can't catch me!" one of them would call, and the others would run after him, lugging their shoe and their pan of gold, until someone--a bossy older sibling, almost certainly--would come into the dining room and tell me sharply that these were not toys, they were not meant to be played with, what was I doing, trying to break them? I would silently dry them off and climb back up on the chair and put them back on the shelf.
Then, and only then, could I collect my allowance from my father: 25 cents, which I always immediately spent on candy.
And for the rest of the week, whenever I walked into the dining room, I looked at the elves, and they looked at me, somberly, quietly, but always meeting my eyes. Once back on their shelf, they looked right at me, but they never said a word.