Clay was never anything I thought too much about for nine months of the year, until spring. That's when I'd be reminded of its nuisance. That heavy, gray matter would loosen up beside our Maine streams, and then lie soft and wet in our yards and on our children.
It wasn't entirely the clay's fault. Spring had this way of arousing the digging instinct in our daughters. They'd flip over the wooden garden box in the garage looking for their tools - shovels and buckets and hoes. And then off they'd go to a shallow streambed behind our house.
I'd stand beside the garage door, arms folded, wondering why they couldn't play in the white gravel in the driveway - those nubby, polished stones my husband and I had delivered by truckloads in the fall.
"Wouldn't it be cleaner and safer?" I'd plead.
Yes, but the clay held more "promise," they told me. "You can make things."
Promise? What's promising about dirt? I wondered.
Nevertheless, our oldest daughter, Lara, would trudge fearlessly into the muck wearing a pair of my old green wellies, those tall rubber boots made for warm, wet weather. Her younger sister would hesitate, but not for long. Heidi would remove her shoes and socks and then sink barefoot into the goo. I'd wince from the window as I watched her drop down. Drop down into what?
For me, "clay" was always changing. One day it was muck, another day goo or gunk, depending upon the weather. It was great at holding cattails in place and it caked fearlessly onto footgear and wheelbarrows. But could I embrace the plastic side of clay that children adored? The side that could be molded into shapes with a firm shovel and an imagination?
But clay's promise was that one could draw "art" from the stuff, and it was this promise that I eventually found most appealing.
"Lara!" Heidi would call, "I've got enough for eight creatures in this bucket!" That was Heidi's signal to her sister that she was done digging. Then I'd hear that "phlop" sound as her legs, sucked down into a foot of clay, emerged.
"Great! Bring it over to the oven!" Lara would reply.
The "oven" was strictly an outdoor affair, nothing adobe-looking, just a dock beached beside the stream over the winter (we didn't float it until summer). For four months it sat idle along a bank until Lara and Heidi got it "cooking" in the spring sun. It now was an open-air kiln, completely solar-powered.
"Isn't that mud you're playing in, girls?" I'd call from an upstairs window, with just a touch of warning in my voice, as in "you're going to get dirty and then you'll be an awful mess to clean up!"
"No," my potters would reply. And then would come the words that finally changed my way of thinking. "This is clay, Mom," they'd explain. "Clay isn't dirt. Clay can make things."
With a bucketful of gunk, they'd mold that gray matter. If they saw a sunfish swim by, they'd create a likeness. They would sit on the dock (I mean the oven) re-creating whatever caught their eye, their hands squeezing through freshly mined goo. One day it might be a frog. Another day, an eel.
After a few days of baking in the spring sun, the clay creatures would be firm and ready for painting.
AT first the clay objects would be all gray and lifeless. They would be lined up on the dock like a regiment of soldiers. Did I see some promise now? Yes! With a few strokes of a paintbrush, turtles bore spots to really look like turtles. Salamanders as heavy as bricks, had a reddish glow. If a fish was to be a rainbow trout - well then, his body would need all the colors on the palette. I'd peer around the side of the house as the girls painted, pretending to rake among the daffodils, all the while curious and admiring of what was now, for sure, a tadpole!
By June, the pieces that had been molded and painted in early spring were ready for show. As the girls moved each one carefully from the oven to the house, I astonished them with my quick recognition.
"Now, isn't that a dragonfly?" I'd ask hesitantly, hoping I could see what they saw. They would smile and nod.
But that was not the end of it. Our daughters quickly found habitats for everything they had made. The turtle and the tadpole were positioned in the bathroom, near the sink. The salamander sat on the woodpile. A sun-dried crab stood sentry near an exit pipe.
Ten years later, the two clay figures that remain are the tadpole (40 times life size) and the spotted turtle, who was knocked off a bathroom vanity and has only a jaw left for a head.
These days the two clay animals sit on my desk, holding my papers in place. (No, it is not an aquatic habitat.) But, believe me, they are heavy enough to be paperweights, and when I think of the muck and the goo and the gunk they grew from, they are about the best inspiration I can place beside me.