Effigy of Fear

When I was very young boy I was afraid of everything. I mean everything. I was small for my age and everything just looked overwhelming to me. I was afraid of heights, I was afraid of insects, I was afraid of losing my family in a crowd, I was afraid of the dark and I was really afraid of dogs. I don’t know where my fears originated from but I couldn’t deny them. I would try, but each time I’d fail and run to the safety of my mother.

My mother was very good at calming my nerves and trying to help me over my fears. A few weeks before I was to start school she showed me the huge set of stairs I would have to climb to the front door of the school. She knew about my fear of heights and she wanted to prepare me. The wooden slatted stairs allowed you to see through to the ground below. This terrified me. Mom urged me to try. The first few steps were ok, but by the fifth or sixth my knee caps would shake and I’d freeze. My mother would have to carry me back down to the bottom. So we practiced and practiced and practiced and with her gentle prodding and encouragement I was finally able to conquer those stairs before school began. (As long as I could hold on to the railing and not look down) My first day at school was a success thanks to her.

My mother used to walk me to and from school. I felt so safe with her beside me. One of the houses we passed everyday had a couple of dogs behind its wire fence. I used to make her walk with me on the other side of the road just in case they got out.

“You’re going to have to face all of your fears one day or they will keep you a prisoner your whole life. Get to know them, push yourself through them and you will come out the other side free. Just like you did with the stairs at school.”

I thought about her words during art class that day. We were going to create whatever we wanted with clay, our creations would then be glazed and fired in a kiln. I had no idea where to start with my clump of clay, but as I massaged it with my fingers my mind wandered back to what my mother had said that morning and a shape began to form in the clay. To my surprise it was of a dog’s snout. I worked at it some more and my fingers began to form its mouth. This is the part of a dog that scares me the most, I thought, and its teeth, those are what really scare me, and so I added large sharp fangs.

When my creation was done I took it home and showed my mother. She was surprised that I, of all people, would choose to sculpt a dog’s fanged mouth for my art project. I explained that I planned to place it in my room and face it everyday, get to know it, until I wasn’t afraid anymore.

That was many, many years ago. I’m a grown man now and yes, I did conquer my fear of dogs. In fact, my wife and I have a wonderful lab that follows me everywhere. I can’t imagine life without that sweet dog.

I live on the opposite coast from my mother but I visit her as often as I can. The year my father passed away I went and stayed with her for a few weeks. During that stay I noticed she had my old ceramic dog’s mouth on the dresser in her bedroom.

“I can’t believe you still have that old thing!” I said.

She explained that she put it out after my dad died to remind her not to be afraid.

“You see, you’ve taught me some important lessons too” she told me. “If you can face and conquer your fears, so can I. Sometimes it helps to have a little reminder though.”

My mother called me last month to explain she was going into the hospital for a week but that it was just to fix a simple “lady issue” and I shouldn’t worry. It turns out she really went in to have a tumor in her brain removed. She died during surgery.

My sister lived closest to my mom and so she volunteered to go through and sort her things. I mailed her a small list of items I’d like to have to remind me of my mother. One of them was my old ceramic dog’s mouth.  She called me as soon as she received my letter.

“I let the hospital staff take the few things that mom had in her room to give them to the
Salvation Army. I feel just terrible. Among her things was a ceramic statue that she insisted on keeping beside her bed so she could always see it. I didn’t realize what it was or that you might want it. It’s already gone. I’m so sorry.”

The funny thing was I didn’t feel upset at that news. Instead a deep calm settled over me then and I realized that neither my mother nor I needed that effigy any longer. It was meant for someone else now. I hope they get as much comfort from it as we did and I hope it swallows up all of their fears.


P.S. This story came to me when I saw the picture above posted on Jaquie’s  Facebook page. She found and purchased it for 89 cents at a thrift shop and was bothered that some parent had let it go. Thanks for the inspiration Jake! xo



  • jacquie

    Oh! This is the first time I’ve teared up while reading a post. What an amazing story and I’m so sorry for your recent loss.
    It’s not the big, expensive things we remember in life. That’s just stuff. It’s the precious memories and experiences connected to special treasures that we hold dear. I can actually see your story would make a perfect children’s book, complete with great illustrations. What a fantastic message it contains. Several, in fact. How to deal with fear, how to let go or survive loss, how art can be therapeutic…
    I’ll think of you and your mom when I look at my shark head and remember your love and how to not be afraid. Thanks for adding even more great karma to my thrift store find. Who knows what story is hidden in those silent jaws…

    • Bonnie Johnson

      Oh no no no. It’s just fiction. All of it. That’s why I did it in the voice of a man. The fictitious story was just inspired in my imagination by your thrift shop find. My mom is just fine. 🙂 Sorry to have not made that clear enough. But thanks for your kind words. When you look at your ceramic piece I hope you allow it to swallow up any fear you may have. (I saw it as a dog’s snout but it sounds like it’s a sharks head.) xoxo

  • Francesco

    Jacquie…you have a piece of art that seems to be connecting and finding reactions in people.. it did for me. Don’t stop it… search for more.

  • Kevin

    You had me in suspense there Bonnie. For a moment, I thought, your post was going to turn out to be like a Lou Reed song. “Johnny became Bonnie” … and here’s the rest of the story. Thanks for clearing that up 😉

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