On the large chest of drawers that's in my small study (because the chest is too big to fit through the strangely angled, narrow hallway to our bedroom) I've had two baskets of old stuffed animals that I've decided to put away. By "old" I mean nearly all of them are from my childhood and even some from my older siblings' childhoods. That means many of them have been my companions off and on or at least have been in my possession for an average of fifty years. And the animals that belonged to my brothers might be sixty to sixty-five years old.
As you can imagine some of them do not exactly look too spiffy. There's Jocko, a ten-inch chimpanzee who is now blind in both eyes (missing the glass), with only one hand and no feet intact. There's a lovely tiger, still pretty handsome to look at, who sports an Arthur and DW band aid around his broken tail (and I notice that even that repair needs repair). The "pink" bunny I loved well, now mostly without any fluff save for the secret patches of blush pink hiding in the folds of her limbs and ears where they flop forward.
Many are small Steiff animals, including three from the African plain that inspired my first, still unfulfilled, longings to go on safari--a lioness, a zebra, and my favorite, the gangly yet graceful giraffe. (I did a report on giraffes in elementary school, with photos clipped from a National Geographic. I still remember the shot of a giraffe bent low to drink water, forelegs out wide, and the caption about her resulting vulnerability.)
But of course most of the animals in the collection is are bears. There are eight very small bears--good for putting in dollhouses and houses built of blocks, sometimes even dressing the designated girl bears in skirts made of fabric cut in rounds with a bear-bellied hole in the center--and there are five larger, though still very modest bears. One was my own--she's white with blue felt eyes that still remain stuck on her face, though her pink nose and mouth are gone. One was made for me at an older age by my mother--a lovely piece of craftsmanship.
And one bear belonged to my brother Dicky, if I remember right, my brother who died before I was born. That one, perhaps as much as sixty-eight years old, has lovely velvet pads on all four paws. His glass eyes are still in place though a bit askew and dangly. The short nap of his fur is patchy and barely there, and his now silent squeaker protrudes from his belly like a very large and misplaced hernia.
Why do I have all these animals (and a few more that I haven't named, thus breaking one of my cardinal stuffed animal rules: to treat all of them the same and never, ever leave any of them out)? Somehow as the youngest in my family at some point I appointed myself the guardian and collector of the abandoned and the cast off, especially when it came to animals. When I was ten and my parents had a new wing added to our house, I moved from a smallish bedroom to my parents' former room, complete with a window seat and bay window. That window seat became the gathering place of my animal kingdom, sometimes even to the point that it was difficult to find room to sit on the window seat.
(Though sometimes on hot summer nights I would clear off the window seat so that I could sleep on it, or attempt to, imagining that being that close to those three windows would cool me off. I remember once being awake late at night and seeing a skunk cross our lawn to or from our neighbor's garden.)
About my cardinal rule. I believe there was a part of my heart, perhaps even a large part of it, that was moved by the plight of overlooked, forgotten, abandoned, or unwanted things. (And people? Yes, later I also tended to ache for and sometimes even to advocate for the ones picked last for games at recess, or the kids who were the brunt of others' teasing, or later, the boy who was broken-hearted for having been rejected by the girl he loved.)
So in gathering up these left-behind and outgrown stuffed animals, I made a silent pledge to myself never to let any of them "feel left out" by me. It was my work, my solemn and holy responsibility, to treat each one with kindness and loving attention. Which got to be quite a job as their numbers grew. For a time this became a piece of my bedtime ritual--to say goodnight to each and every stuffed animal on my window seat, perhaps touching my hand to each head as a shorthand for saying their names aloud. When I got older or lazier, I think I nodded toward them from my bed--but still, I could not let any of them down by leaving them out.
I am sure that on some level I saw myself in those left behind and seemingly unwanted animals. I identified with them, and not wanting any of them to feel left out or unloved, I was unconsciously expressing my own deepest wish not to feel that way myself. I imagine it's not just sentimentality or nostalgia or the thought that one or two of these animals might be valued antique specimens that has caused me to keep this many stuffed animals well into my sixth decade!
But for the moment, though I do not plan to toss them or give them away (being as old and dusty as they are, I'm not sure who would want them), I am clearing space for something new. And I am trying to decide on just how to pack them up for storage in order to spare them the ravages of rodents in the attic or mildew in the basement.
And you can be sure that wherever I do put them, I will be sure to give some sort of blessing, once again making sure that none is left out or has any cause to feel unwanted, though just what stories of neglect or abandonment are locked inside their own heads is really beyond the scope of my control.
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