I received a Bols Ballerina on Super Bowl Sunday in 2005, the day I drove a friend home from our church in Jacksonville, Illinois. She was an elderly lady with white hair slightly tinged blue, and whiskers growing out of a mole. Her back was bent like a weathered tree trunk, and her hearing didn’t serve her well. Her memory, however, was sharp. She was also kind and thought-provoking. She was not afraid to tell me of her past mishaps, particularly concerning romantic relationships.
She lived in a chocolate brown ranch-style house nestled between maple trees. As I pulled into the driveway, my friend insisted I come into the house. I was tired; sports journalists work late hours. But I accepted the offer.
I got out of the car and began walking toward the front door, but my friend said we would go through the garage instead. She took a garage door opener out of her purse and firmly pressed the button.
As the garage door climbed, I stopped in my tracks, starring.
The site was a catastrophe.
The inside of the garage was a cluttered heap of outdated collections. Model cars. Mugs. Political buttons. A row of 1966 encyclopedias. Baseball caps. Plastic cups. Item after dusty item sat on makeshift shelves and tables, as if in commemoration to a great yard sale held during the Johnson administration my friend never had the heart to tear down.
“See, here are some cardinals,” she said, turning to me while holding three plastic cups I never saw her grab. She suggested I take one.
I told her she didn’t need to give me anything. She insisted. I tapped the cup in the middle. She set the one I chose on the step behind her and handed me one of the other two cups instead.
She told me to take a look around while she went into the house to retrieve something. I was examining her Avon collectibles when she returned.
She said she didn’t bring me there just to “show off.” She had something to give me. She handed me a bottle. With a ballerina in it.
Lucas Bols manufactured Bols Ballerina liquor bottles in the Netherlands from 1957 to 1978. The clear bottles have long shafts that arch into a hoop skirt bottom. A ballerina stands en pointe on a platform at the bottom of the bottle, underneath an overturned shot glass. The bottle is also a music box. Upon winding it, the ballerina twirls and jumps.
I studied the gift. I had never seen a concept like this. The idea initially struck me as vulgar. Why would a ballerina, the symbol of grace and control, be at the bottom of a liquor bottle?
Still, I was intrigued.
“This is incredible.” I whispered. “But I don’t know if I can accept such a gift.”
“Push in the needle on the bottom,” she said.
I held up the bottle and tilted my head to see a slightly bent pin next to a winder. I wound it and gently pressed in the pin. Immediately the little ballerina began to flitter, turning and twisting to a music box rendition of Le Bleu Danube.
“I love that song,” I said, looking from the bottle to my friend, who bore a warm, albeit crooked, smile.
She told me that it mattered to her that I received this bottle. She compared the ballerina at the bottom of this liquor bottle to her first marriage. The symbolism was not lost on me; we’d spoken about the marriage numerous times and what she wanted me, then a single woman, to learn from her experiences.
I forgot my fatigue. I stayed awhile. We talked. When I went home, I dusted the bottle and set it on my bookshelf.
I left Illinois soon after, moving to Minnesota when I married. We moved to Maine in order for my husband to attend graduate school, then back to Minnesota for me to attend graduate school. We moved to North Carolina, where I earned my doctorate. Then we moved to Arizona, where I’m a university professor. But the bottle has had a permanent place on my bookshelves in each place I’ve lived.
I recently took the bottle down from the shelf in order to dust it. I smiled as I held the sentimental gift and recalled the day I received it. I wound the bottom.
The music, however, didn’t begin. After some examination, I concluded that the music box had played its last tune.
I contemplated having it fixed. Then, I decided against it.
I recalled the bottle’s symbolism. I thought about the conversations I had with my eccentric friend and my life journey since that time.
No, I thought. I would make no effort to “fix” this ballerina.
In honor of my friend, who passed nine years ago as of May, this ballerina will simply stop performing.