An Elephant Pilgrimage

Mom Elephant


We are in Africa so my mother can see elephants. She has a special reason for loving elephants. One saved her life when she was caught in the Hartford Circus Fire at the age of 10. She and four other girls were there for a birthday party. When the circus tent caught fire, amidst the flames and smoke and chaos, Mom saw an elephant stoically holding up the burning stairs. She and her friend ran down the stairs and escaped. The other girls, who were seated separately, did not make it out.


Mom has only told this story to me a few times.  I was shocked to stumble upon an independent account of the fire when I read Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Heffer, which describes Modoc’s life-saving efforts.


At any rate, we’ve come to HHuluwe so Mom can see elephants in the wild. She is 84. We are here, 6 women from the family, our own kind of herd.   We are on a pilgrimage.


With some hesitation, I privately told our guide, Rian, the background story behind our trip. He proceeded to look for elephants for us. Yesterday, just after sunrise, he spotted three massive grayish lumps on the hillside opposite. Even with binoculars, I could not detect they were living creatures; they continued to look like boulders. Rian, however, knew exactly what they were, what they were doing, and where they would go next.


He maneuvered the Land Cruiser through the brush for about 20 minutes, stopping in a stand of acacia trees. In a few minutes, three elephants lumbered in front of us. They were 3 ladies, Rian told us, two sisters and one three-year old calf. They paid no attention to us, but proceeded to demolish an entire acacia tree, placidly reaching up with their coiling trunks, delicately stripping off leaves, yanking down branches, and finally uprooting the whole tree, and stuffing its roots in their mouths.  We watched in awed silence as these massive creatures went about their business, oblivious to us, though we were only 10 feet away.


My attention was torn between the elephants and my mother, who was seated in front next to Rian. She looked like a child again, gazing in wonder. A half hour later, the elephants lumbered off into the bush. When they were out of sight, just as Rian started up the engine, I heard Mom tell him, “I was in a circus fire once…”


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Into the Blue

The Equatorial Jungle, Rousseau, National Gallery

A sweet old nun recently told me this story.  She’d had a grand time in Ireland, visiting family and many sacred sites, including St Brigid’s Well in Kildare, from which she drew some holy water.

On her return to the States, she was carrying the holy water in a plastic bottle, along with a fifth of good whiskey, a gift for the friend who was to pick her up at the airport at an ungodly hour.

Arriving at the head of the security line, she was shocked when the TSA agent told her she couldn’t bring the liquids with her.  She slowly uncorked the holy water, tipped it to her mouth, and guzzled it down;  then she picked up the whiskey and presented it to the TSA agent. “Call your friends and have a party,” she sniffed, and sailed up to the scanning machine.

I tell you this story because I’m about to set off on an adventure myself, hopefully a little better informed than Sr. Margaret.  I’m heading into the blue, as the South Africans say, going on safari with my mother, two sisters, sister-in-law, and one of my daughters.  

Since childhood, my mother has dreamed of seeing elephants in the wild, and when my sister Patricia saw a safari being auctioned at a charity event, she couldn’t resist. She won the bid, then called me. “You know I can’t take Mom to Africa by myself.” Indeed, I knew she couldn’t.

As it turns out, the lodge agreed to sell additional slots to family members at a very reasonable price, so there will be three generations of Schlichte women on safari.  I’m bringing my laptop and hope to blog along the way, technology permitting,  so stay tuned.

The image above is Henri Rousseau’s The Equatorial Jungle, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


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