“What do you want me to do with Wooly Bully?” my mom asked. She had presented me with some plastic trash bags of stuffed animals, the most prominent member of which was the gentleman who prompted the discussion to begin with– my first husband.
“Do with him?” I said. “What do you mean?” Like, were we going to put him in a home, or send him on a cruise, or get him a pedicure?
Childhood memories are so natural in your mind, and so alien when put out to air. Wooly Bully is a stuffed bull that my dad won at a carnival. He was only slightly smaller than me, at age three. He is fake cheese orange and white. Either my dad or I named him “Wooly Bully,” after the song. We both like it.
There are photos of me marrying Wooly Bully, using our red brick fireplace as the altar, wearing the corsage that my mother had recently worn to my aunt’s wedding. At the time, I had bangs and very straight white-blonde hair, and I was wearing a lovely green jumper. We’re an attractive couple, young and rich. Imagine John-John and Carolyn Bessette. Just like that.
When I saw Wooly lying in the trash bag where he had been retired for many years, I noticed that he had no back legs. He had never had any back legs, come to think of it. I had married an amputee! I also saw that his stuffing, cheap white styrofoam stuff, was scattered around him.
“Take a picture of him,” I said tenderly. Then, like Michael Corleone ordering the hit on Sonny, I added, coldly, “Throw him away, and let us never speak of this again.”
There were a lot of other exes of mine in those bags. Not ex-husbands, but ex-beloveds. The doggie I got while I was in the hospital recovering from my appendectomy. A flattened bear with scuzzy fur, every shade of ’70s brown that existed, and he jingled when you shook him. There was a bear who actually looks like some other animal wearing a bear suit, with spots on his hands and feet and belly that made different tones when you honked them.
I didn’t love either of those bears, but seeing them activated pathways in my brain that had long been dormant. When we created our own safari trail in the backyard, stuffed animals were stationed in the undergrowth and on low-hanging trees. When we threw a jungle party for my sister’s birthday, they were woven into houseplants and tucked into bookshelves. They were extras in all our productions.
There was the stuffed Ramona doll that my best friend got me for my tenth birthday. We were reader friends, girls-with-glasses friends. Ramona is still clean and perky enough to go to Goodwill and have another life with another little girl. Be warned: when we pulled her out of the trash bag, she was mooning us. She has pants but no underwear.
Stuffed animals aren’t necessarily the kind of thing you can pass down to other kids. Lots of ours had bellies that had been slept on until they were flattened, like they’d had liposuction. They had been drooled on and kissed and dropped behind beds and sat on. Some of them, to be honest, looked like they belonged on skid row.
Missing were most of my most intimate stuffed animal friends: Miss Mousie, who went to the hospital with me when I had my appendix out, Pink Bear, who I bonded with when my parents divorced. Grover, with his long, lanky limbs, was my favorite when I was very small, maybe because he looked and acted so much like I would once I grew up.
Unlike my approach to human relationships, I was fickle with stuffed animals. I had some of the same friends from kindergarten to 12th grade, but with stuffed animals, I loved, I lost interest, and I didn’t look back.
We kept going. My mom held up an animal. I gestured yay or nay.
In “Toy Story 3,” the toys get thrown away, go to the dump, and finally, hold hands while they slip down, down toward a firey furnace. Everyone said that bit was about the Holocaust. It was, especially to people who have learned too much about the Holocaust, like me.
To the left, to the right, into the firey furnace. It’s offensive, right, horrifying, to compare stuffed animals to people– but then, the loss of a beloved stuffed animal might be just as traumatic for a child as to lose a human friend.
Your stuffed animal friends were always there for you. They would always take you back. They are a way of softening the loss of beloveds. They are something to hold onto when your mom and dad are gone, whether they were gone for an hour or forever. Losing stuffed animals is practice for other kinds of losing you’ll have to do.
The ones I saved I’ll take to school. I have a couple of stuffed animals there who hang out and make the place look softer. They can be with kids who are in one of the last years of being kids, my sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, who like to carry Cookie Monster backpacks and Hello Kitty pencil cases, because they know their childhoods are almost over.