I am the baby of my parents’ brood. Fourteen years exist between their oldest and me, and well over seven years went by before my sister had to relinquish her hold on the privileged ‘youngest’ status. Mom and Dad’s kids span the boomer generation — the first was born in 1947 and the last in 1961. They saved the best for last. I’ve been saying it for years. The fact that my sibs made a point of complaining that I was ‘spoiled’ seems to add a good bit of credence to my claim…
Being the baby of the family meant more than being spoiled. It meant that I watched, in blissful ignorance, as the oldest left for Viet Nam. It meant that I was an aunt before I finished 1st grade. It meant that I was the only kid at home by age 10. I naturally acquired an odd blend of youngest and oldest (perhaps ‘only’) traits. The spoiled part. The learned helplessness part. The privileged part. The take charge part. The only opinion that gets heard part. The left behind part. More often, the lonely part. A farm girl growing up, my most reliable playmates either had four legs or existed in my active imagination. Dolls sat at my tea table (laden with cherry kool-aid, cheese & crackers), and kittens had to be sneaked into the house against my father’s stern edict that animals belong, forever and always, outside. Dogs and cats, and along the way a couple of rabbits (but never cows, thank you very much) kept me company during my outside adventures. Inside, a host of stuffed animals offered companionship and a sense of ‘belonging’ that I’ve never outgrown.
I am sad to report that a wonderful photograph proving my affection for my stuffed and fluffed friends is probably tucked away in a forgotten box of family pictures at my mom’s house. I wish I had that photo — it tells the story better than I can, I fear. Still, one must try. When I was around 4, my mom plunked me down in the center of her oasis of a bed (it was merely queen-sized, yet felt enormous!) for a nap, I think. I asked for a stuffed animal, and ended up fetching my entire collection to keep me company while I feigned sleep on the chenille-covered island in that cool, wonderful bedroom shared by my parents. The photo centers on me, but whenever I’ve looked at it through the years, I’ve always been struck by the vast array of cherished (read: threadbare and worn out) critters I depended on. A monkey with movable limbs — a gift from a beloved uncle. A remaining bit of fur attached to a bit of plastic face — an absolute necessity to accompany my thumb-sucking habit, one I wouldn’t abandon until learning to write in 1st grade, when pencils, erasers, crayons and paste made my thumb a bit less tasty, and the habit a bit too babyish. A bright red teddy bear that sat upright no matter what. When I tried to lay him down to go to sleep, his feet pointed ceiling-ward, and I always felt a bit sorry for his awkwardness, so I sat him up to keep guard as my eyes fluttered shut. Other cats and bears and a pup or two — I was surrounded by furry friends when I napped, when I played, and when I drifted off to sleep each night.
Growing older only meant my taste in stuffed animals grew a bit more refined. A huge teddy. Okay, confession: I bought that one for a boyfriend, but we were no longer dating when Christmas-time rolled ’round. I’d purchased pre-maturely — and foolishly, it turns out. Still. I loved that bear. An Easter rabbit. Okay. Three. And, most dearly beloved of all, an adorable stuffed Snoopy (yes, from Charles Schultz’ ‘Peanuts’) that went with me to college, and actually had little outfits to change his look. (O, Hallmark, how I loved thee!)
My husband has given me stuffed mini-Snoopys, complete with Valentine’s candy. He’s indulged a long-lasting love affair with Boyd’s Bears, and laughingly, lovingly looked the other way as I purchased bear after bear after pup after bear plus a crateful of Beanie Babies for our boys. (not my best idea)
They’ve outgrown those stuffed bears and Clifford the Big Red Dog, of course. Happily, they haven’t gotten rid of those stuffed, fluffed, and well-worn friends. (I might have had something to do with keeping them, I suppose…) My decorating tastes have surpassed the 90s country look that included baskets and bears and all of that — praise the Lord! And, my Boyd’s Bear collection is smaller than it used to be; many of them have been relegated to a room we don’t use very much. But I haven’t relinquished my hold on those symbols of my childhood playmates. In fact, a new collection (build-a-bear this time) is waiting, not for me, not for my boys, but for my future grandchildren. I know they’ll be glad to discover the same stuffed comfort that made my childhood a little less lonely. It starts with a Teddy. Start your own collection. For the grandkids. They, and you, will be glad you did.