January 12, 2012

In Defense Of Childhood Stuffed Animals

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What is the issue?

I sleep with a plush rabbit called Tubby, although to describe him as plush is a stretch; he is more worn, like an overused dishtowel, or a well-loved sweater — thin, transparent, and drooping from its owner’s shoulders. His eyes, once solid black, are now chipped plastic white discs looking out from a head that hangs limp off a turtle-like neck. He is really more an exercise in negative space than a rabbit, having now formed to the curves and contours of my torso where he spends his nights, folded into my abdomen. I am 31-years old.

My father gave me Tubby as an Easter gift in 1982 when I was one. Too young to remember the day I like to imagine my father walking into my mother’s house without knocking [Hello?], keys to his Lincoln Continental in one hand, fresh toy in the other, unwrapped because where would a man realistically obtain paper to wrap a gift for his illegitimate child. His wife? I’m sure my father gave me other gifts and toys before he started simply slipping me folded 20-dollar bills, but Tubby is the only item I attach to the memory of his handouts.

According to his original tag Tubby is of an ilk called “Playful Pets” made by “Dan Dee Imports” out of Jersey City (U.S. Copyright Reg. No. VA38 – 217, 1980). The front of the tag features a photo of a robust stuffed toy with full white cheeks, a bulbous pink nose, and taught limbs that protrude from its round belly — a likeness virtually unrecognizable from Tubby’s present state. The tag folds out into a two-page booklet that informs me my purchase was designed to give me years of joy and pleasure (which it has), and also that its materials meet or exceed all government safety requirements. On the opposite side there are cleaning instructions, but I am fairly certain the rabbit has never been cleaned.

I had many toys and stuffed animals growing up, but Tubby reigned without question over the others — my confidant, my right-hand man, the only one worthy of sleeping beside me. Over time our relationship inspired within me a kinship with all rabbits. I deplored the animated children in the Trix commercials for depriving the cartoon rabbit of his sugary cereal. I read and re-read Margery Williams’ devastating book, The Velveteen Rabbit, feeling perhaps my first empathy with the young boy forced to part with his germ-infested toy and fearing I would one day have to part with an equally infected Tubby. I am convinced that book also prompted a series of re-occurring nightmares in which my entire family was in a spaceship spiraling uncontrollably toward the sun; the only thing that would save us was sacrificing Tubby by throwing him out the window into the fiery flames. I always refused and we would begin to burn right before I awoke in a sweaty mess of sheets.

My family treated Tubby like an ordinary member, speaking directly to him, asking how he was feeling, how his days went. I don’t recall dubbing in a voice for his response; we simply accepted his placid expression as contentment. Every Easter until I was about 11 or 12, the entire family celebrated Tubby’s birthday by dressing him in a custom-tailored suit jacket and singing Happy Birthday around a pair of homemade cakes in the shape of two rabbits—one chocolate, one vanilla—nestled in a bed of coconut shreds food-dyed to resemble green grass. No one present considered this ritual abnormal or emotionally counterproductive. Even my older brothers in their cynical mid-teens offered Tubby birthday wishes and shared in the celebration. Tubby, silent and docile, watched from a chair as we sat around the dining room table eating cake in his honor.

Other than Easter Tubby didn’t do much. I never dragged him around the house or brought him out in public like some other children did with their coveted animals and dolls and blankies. Tubby remained mostly in the privacy of my bed. Ours was arguably the most intimate relationship I had growing up. Tubby has spent more nights by my side than any other creature. He has seen me piss myself, vomit all over myself, cry myself to sleep, wake myself up laughing, stay up all night reading; he remained through the chicken pox, several cases of strep throat, and later a blood clot in my lung; he was there the night my mother tried to kill herself and the night my eighth grade crush succeeded; he saw me discover my first period, find my first orgasm, lose my virginity. When I showed (introduced?) him to my current boyfriend I warned: this is what you will look like after you sleep with me for thirty years.

I realize sleeping with a cherished childhood toy after the age of fourteen might raise a red flag. There has to be some identifiable stunt in my emotional growth that allows such an attachment to persist. I have met other adults who hold onto such comforts—withered blankets or similar animals whose innards have long ago clumped into tumor-like stuffing clusters under their frail faux fur coats. One of my friends has a 4′ x 5′ wall portrait of her teddy bear (Huggy) constructed entirely of little metallic stars. We all seem like functional members of society, but I have little perception of how we appear to others — naïve? sentimental? callow? I don’t see much difference between Tubby and an orthopedic pillow; we have a history, yes, but his purpose in my bed is now primarily to support my body.

There is a bit of anthropomorphizing occurring, of course. As a rational human being I know Tubby has no actual feelings at stake, but a superstitious sliver of me believes some of my excess childhood emotion and sentiment seeped into his polyester pores and burrowed there, sort of like a poltergeist. When I stare hard into those scratched out eye-buttons I see something alive, even if it’s just my own blurry reflection.

If I wanted an easy explanation for my affection I would say the rabbit filled some absence in my life where a father should have been, but I want to give Tubby more credit than that Freudian shortcut. I’d rather see Tubby as a symbol for how I don’t give a f-ck, and how I can choose to hold onto something just because it feels good. We are taught to let go of things at certain times, move on, grow up, but when I look at Tubby I am reminded of the unselfconsciousness of childhood, a careless disregard that fades with maturity. I suppose I see some merit in holding onto that uninhibited joy, even if only in the nocturnal curve of my torso. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

Candace Opper

She lives in Portland, Oregon, and hopes to one day become an honorary suicidologist.

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