My Animal Friends

They were with me from the very beginning, or so I’ve been told. At least most of them were. Most were in place by my second birthday; some had been there for the first. One, I’ve been told, was given to me after I’d been born.

I remember my momma entertaining me with two of them – it must have been at a young age, for it is one of my earliest memories – her using Alley the Alligator and Leo the Lion to play with me as the plane came down.

Then there was Chee-Chee, the wondrous bear. He was my favorite friend of all; his small eyes a warm brown, his body soft and a fuzzy mottled golden brown. There’s a bald spot on his head where my Uncle and I gave him a small trim – much to my consternation then, and a bit of sadness now. I didn’t want to give him a ‘haircut’ but my Uncle did. He was always sort of destructive that way whereas I had to take care of what I was given; it had to last for awhile. A long while. And in some cases I’ve managed to make them last a life.

These were my friends, my stuffed animals. There was “Monkey”, a Steiff monkey, who I lost in the woods. Chee-chee and Grandpa (another, big ol’ bear) – and of course my brother’s bear, Teddy (kind of a plain name, but true). Leo the Lion, Alley the Alligator (and later on Squirrel and Wolf) were the Steiff puppets we had. Leo was mine, Alley my brothers, and Squirrel and Wolf I bought on another trip ‘over there’, when I was ten or eleven.

I’ll never forget losing Monkey – I was about four years old, and I used to take him down to a tree that bordered our yard. I would climb that tree with my monkey (though it probably was more of a bush) and sit there with him, playing little games and letting him climb around in the tree. How he got lost remains a mystery to me; I cherished my little friends. But when my dad came home we went walking through the woods, looking for him. I was sure he’d taken off, so here I am, a little kid – anxiously scanning the tall pines, looking for him, calling his name while my dad walked by my side, holding my hand. He was dressed in his Army uniform, a drab olive green, along with his Army boots polished to a high shine. We looked for what seemed like hours until the light began to go, and then he coaxed me into giving up and we headed home. I never saw that monkey again.

My parents bought me another one some time later – “Monk-monk”, a plain brown American made thing – not quite as cute nor anatomically accurate as the Steiff ones. After all, Steiff is known as a quality toy maker. They should be. They’re German, and they’re highly given to being anatomically accurate (in some models), cute, cuddly, and made from high quality materials to exacting standards. Which is also why they are collectable, expensive, and a treasure to behold if you’ve got one left over from your childhood. Though mine, for the most part, won’t be worth much. Not only are they very old – they are worn with love.

My Steiff bear, Chee-chee, got some new paws (and a heart to go along with it!, courtesy of my Aunt Nelle). He also got some new stuffing and a seam up his back. Most of my animals did; they needed them. And their hearts are psychedelic. I know; I chose the material at that time. Wild rainbow colors; a sixties pattern if I’d ever seen one. I loved the colors as a kid.

And then there is Valentine. I got her when I was about six years old. She was sitting there (or laying there, to put it more accurately) in a bin at Southgate – a K-mart or Woolworth type of store; perhaps even a grocery one. (Whichever one it was, it was facing east, so it must have been on the west side wing.) I saw her among a pile of other snakes, and there was a special going on. Not only this, but she was named “Valentine” because she was my Valentine’s gift from my mom (in a way). I looked and I begged for her; begging over and over again. And it must have been around Valentine’s time, for there was a silky tag sewn onto her collar (her neck) that said “Happy Valentines!”.

At first my mom was extremely reluctant. She was trying to check out and I come up dragging this thing – it looked about nine feet long though it’s nearer to five, and about four inches wide – red, with white puffy cheeks and a white puffy nose. She used to have different eyes; now she has kaleidoscope ones – made out of patches of that same cloth (I insisted) that her heart is.

But I’ll never forget when I got her. The very next day I found a thread hanging off her side. It looked odd and I pulled it – and it just came. It was clear. So I went to my mom and asked her about this thread. And I guess she was regretting her decision, because she told me:

“Fine. Then I’ll just take it back to the store.” And the way she said it – hard and firm; mean, sort of – I knew: she was going to do it. She was going to take my friend.

So I went into my room and cradled my poor snake who would be condemned back into the bin for some other stranger to find – only no stranger would want her, not with a string hanging out of her side – so I cried – jeez, I don’t know. It felt like hours, about a half day.

And then my mom came in – saw I was still upset – and caving in, clipped the loose thread (it was ‘fixed’) – and that was the end of it. I got to keep my new friend.

 

That was the thing of it in a way: these things were alive to me. Everything was in a way; everything had a purpose of some kind. And it hurt me to see something wasted with no purpose, or not for the purpose it was built. I remember crying once when I broke a living room lamp – not over the beating I was about to receive (I had been clumsy, rolling around on the floor and snagging the cord) – but over the fact that this lamp, a living thing to me, could no longer serve the purpose for which it had been used. I had ‘killed’ it, and it was all my fault. So I sat there and cried.

I guess I was kind of a sensitive kid when it came down to it.

 

And I remember those days – sometimes long, lonely days and hours – sitting in my room playing with my animals. “We’d” sit around for hours playing some game, or having a party or two. It was great fun for me. I could imagine these animal’s minds – my friend’s minds – for I knew them so well. Chee-chee was in / a part of me. (He was the good part; he was my friend; he was the best, always loving. Never caring what you did to him; he loved you just the same; always and forever my little friend – yes we still love him and him us today, we are sure sure certain).

 

But you see how it is.

 

We’d sit around – me making up voices for my friends – and play. And no matter where we went – overseas, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia and New Jersey: there were my friends. The only ones who stuck with me through ‘the end’ (though the end has not come – not quite yet.) They stuck with me through bad times and good. When other friends died and moved on – they were there. When we moved – they came with me.

 

Leo the Lion has a small ink mark on him. This was from one of the few times I took my animals in for “Show and Tell” – and I only took him and his friend, Alley the Alligator (the only two puppets we had at the time). I think I must have been in third grade and the kids were passing them around – I had stood up, pulling them from my brown grocery paper bag, and nervously giving my ‘presentation’. And some kid marked him up before they turned him in. I got him – rather sad, somewhat mad – and resolved never to take them to school again. People were too unkind; you couldn’t trust them – hell, I couldn’t even trust my own parents – but I took care of them. After all; they were mine to take care of. And I always try to be good to my friends.

 

I think my mom knew – and appreciated – my deep devotion to my animal friends there at the house. She made clothes for almost all of them. I don’t know if maybe she was just bored, or practicing making patterns to sew. She took clothes in and made new ones, functioning as the seamstress of the ‘hood to make extra money. Money was tight in those days. But in doing so she taught me to sew as well – how to ‘throw some stitches’, that I should turn things inside out before sewing them (that way the seams don’t show); how to thread a needle, how to choose the thread. And while it was some years later, I ended up making my own stuffed animals – rather plain and sad affairs, really, for I could afford no ‘fur’ cloth for them, and used buttons for the eyes. I made a red owl out of some clingy yarn material my mom had left over from something (naturally called her “Owl”) who was more of a pillow than a comfort, and I made a snake for my friend, Valentine, giving her a checkerboard plaid husband, complete with whiskers and a smile.

I remember dressing Chee-Chee – changing his clothes. At night he would wear a red pair of soft snap-up flannel pajamas that covered his round body firm; during the day he would have on his Army outfit, or a pair of overalls. My brother’s Bear also had overalls; his had an Army badge. He still wears them.

 

Nowadays? I got Monk-Monk back just the other day. My mom has been hanging onto them – my entire crew – for many years. She’s always known how fond I am of them, and lately I’ve been wanting them back.

I’ve had Valentine under my bed for awhile; her and her husband, too. Her ‘fur’ is matted and her fabric has gotten weak – I have to be careful, for she is brittle. And I have sewed. I had to sew a new ‘collar’ on her – she had gotten a hole, and the time-rotted fabric wouldn’t hold. But she is still mine, and I know she loves me – and I ‘love’ her (yes, I know, but I am of multiple minds). Or at least a part of me holds her very very dear – and so I, the adult, honor that love and devotion and am willing to keep her near. Her and all her friends – my friends, my childhood friends who held my dreams and tears; who listened to me when I was said (and Chee-chee, his little arms raised as if to say: gimme a hug and I’ll give one to you, little boy blue).

They stuck by me – were my friends. I’m not ready to let them go. And I won’t. They are a part of me – or a part of a part of a part I once had, one who’s quite alive . . .

I think I’ll keep them for a little time more.

My stuffed animals,

cherished memories, warm friends, loved ones, comforts . . .

all the things a family should be

and often were when I had none.

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