By Heather Lloyd
The last items I gave Lisa to work on were two sets of deer antlers. The antlers were part of a greater collection my father had accumulated over the years — a collection that featured regularly in the blessedly uncommon, but memorable, nightmares of my youth. After successfully shepherding my six older siblings through childhood, there was nothing my little brother or I could do that would surprise my parents. They were good parents, but then, I would say we were essentially good kids. Given that we lived in a bungalow, there was very little mischief we could get away with on the main level of the house. When my father was home and not out back tending his massive garden, he could be found reading the paper or yelling at something on the television in the living room. My mother was usually in the kitchen, and with the open door policy on all bedrooms, very little slipped past their attention. So on days when weather or whim kept us indoors, we’d troop down to the basement.Our basement was unfinished, and, by consensus of every neighbourhood kid who ever visited, pretty scary. The basement lights had independent pull-cords that had to be yanked to turn on, with naked bulbs that would sway, creating suspicious looking shadows around the edges of the light’s low-wattage glow.
To the left of the stairs was our clunky old furnace, and beyond it a washer and dryer, a concrete laundry tub, and an old desk that mom used for folding. To the right of the stairs was an enormous freezer and a beaten up old refrigerator that had to be opened with a screw driver because the handle had broken off. It was where we kept extra bags of milk and other perishables that did not fit in the upstairs fridge. An assortment of steamer trunks and wooden packing crates lined the back walls, and in the far corner opposite the appliances were a series of homemade wooden shelves on which sat suitcases and boxes of vintage clothing, books, and all things forgotten or stowed over the past several decades. We had ample play space in which to run around, and we had bragging rights for the best indoor hide-and-go-seek play space in the entire neighbourhood.The space beneath the basement stairs was the only place that really gave me the creeps. The rough wooden stairs to the basement were open-backed and well-worn, but sturdy. It was easy to imagine hands reaching out to grab at passing ankles (easier when you remembered that your older siblings still did it at random times for sport). But it was what lay under the stairs that caused my hands to get clammy and the hair to rise on the back of my neck. As I mentioned, my father was a hunter, and he treasured his collection of deer and moose antlers. My mother hated them, and had forbidden him to display them on the walls around the house, so they were banished to the spot in that awkward, otherwise unusable space directly under the stairs.
The trouble was, directly behind that spooky spider haven was a set of open shelves my father had built to house our non-perishable pantry. Inevitably my mother would call to me, and ask me to go fetch a can of peas or jar of homemade pickles or chow. Each time I would pretend not to hear, hoping she would ask my little brother in my stead. But when it came to kitchen matters, my mother insisted on my help. And so I would be forced to acknowledge and go down into the basement, passing by that cobwebby centipede graveyard to reach the required food item. To me it seemed that this was as good a place as any for the ghosts of my nightmares, or even the mice my father swore he could hear between the walls, to lie in wait for me. So I would keep up a running chatter to my mom as I went down the stairs, hoping that if I were to stop speaking my mother would intuitively know something was wrong and would race down to rescue me. There were always hanging threads of dust and web that would brush my cheek or arm and make me jump. My skin would feel icy cold and my heart would pound in my ears as I raced to complete the task. Once back upstairs I would feel giddy and laugh, on an adrenaline high. I would feel like I had cheated the monsters in the dark yet again. On dares, my brother and I would challenge each other to go downstairs — sometimes we would hang over the edge of the top stair and drop a favourite marble or other object down into the antlers to see if the other would go and retrieve it. Usually we would make it half way down the stairs and then come charging back up, convinced we had heard something move down there.I never thought there was anything beautiful about those antlers when I was a child. In fact, it is only when I saw two small pairs leftover from what my siblings had not wanted after my mother’s estate was settled that I felt my first twinge of appreciation for them. I realized then, that like it or not, they represented a part of my dad that I can now respect and admire. Thinking of the animal that once wore the antlers is still hard for me. However, the love and appreciation of nature that my father embodied, and all the values of environmentalism he ingrained in us are things that I now cherish. (I consider myself a “non-practicing vegetarian,” loving the ethics of shunning meat in theory, but finding I have about as much discipline in practice as I do for abstaining from red wine and potato chips.)How about a hood ornament for the van?
Lisa and I brainstormed for a while about what to do with those antlers. At first I was opposed to the thought of putting them up on a wall, but after an exhaustive web search yielded little help for creative ideas that suited my taste, I began to consider it. I did not want a chandelier or a set of bottle openers, I didn’t need a coat rack or gun rack, and I was not interested in knives with antler handles or woodsy centrepieces. (Not that there was anything wrong with those things…) So when Lisa suggested painting them, it gave me pause for thought. “What could we do with them painted?” I asked Lisa one evening. “Oh I could totally see them painted an antique white colour and put up on a wall somewhere,” she ventured. “Hmm… I don’t know,” I said, and then asked, “won’t they look tacky?” Lisa knew I was not drawn to “traditional huntsman” style. “Why don’t you give them to me and see what I can do. Worst case you don’t like it, and they go back into a box in your basement,” she reasoned. It seemed fair to me, so off she went, with the two sets of antlers, and her little white dog, Mugs, who looked a little too eager for a nibble. It took her a couple nights, but when she returned, they were painted and there was a wire hanger contraption at the base of each antler set, which allowed them to hang easily from the wall. The white was beautiful, and made them look quite stylish. With Lisa’s help, we sought the perfect spot to showcase them. First we tried hanging them in my bedroom. They looked okay beside the window, and while I liked the idea of possibly hanging jewellery from them, it just didn’t feel like “THE” perfect spot. We tried the ensuite bathroom, but I had visions of my husband getting up in the middle of night to use the facilities, and losing an eye when he rounded the corner, so we kept looking.
Eventually we ended up downstairs in the living room, where we decided to try putting them up beside the TV, with one set directly above the other. The effect was slightly unusual, but the contrast with the red feature wall was stunning. I get lots of chiding from friends and family who know my secret vegetarian fantasies, but everyone who sees them has to comment, and while the style is not for everyone, I think they look amazing. And best of all is the fact we were able to take a feared object from my childhood and turn it into a set of conversation pieces that make me smile.