When my sister was a toddler, before I was on the scene at all, she would talk in different voices. My parents worried that something might be wrong with her, and thought briefly about getting her tested. But before they did, someone gave her a stuffed bear. An adorable little panda named Pammy.
Suddenly, Pammy started talking in one of the voices. Dr. Cuddly, a brown bear, started talking in another. There wasn’t anything wrong with her, (clearly I hadn’t been born yet, or I would’ve told them that) she just needed an outlet.
By the time I was old enough to talk in at least one squeaky voice of my own, I had quite the collection of stuffed animals. They all had names, and I was mother to the whole lot. They called my sister Aunt, as hers called me, and all of ours called our brother Dad (we were children. It made sense at the time). They slept on our beds, went on camping trips with us, watched movies, and occasionally became ammunition to huck at each other from behind our furniture bunkers. (They shrieked with joy the whole time, they loved flying.)
And, they were our voices.
Our animals (we hardly ever included the word “stuffed”. It seemed harsh.) said things we could not. They took risks that seemed too scary for our tiny bodies. My sister learned at a young age to steel herself from the world, to keep herself safe. Sometimes this was seen by other people as a poor attitude or general uncaring. But if you were worried about something, Pammy would always come out and cheer you up. Her pal Newberry would give you a hug. And Booberry, the third amigo, would come scare away whatever was troubling you. If that didn’t work, they’d send in Dr. Cuddly for a follow up.
My brother has been a giant most of his life. He reached 6′ before he got to middle school. And he’s the gentlest, kindest person I know. At a time when boys were told that becoming men meant being louder, meaner and tougher, he quietly disagreed. He often let people say what they wanted without arguing, because it made them happy. When I dreamed of having a big, scary brother that would threaten jerky ex-boyfriends, reality would set in and remind me that my big brother was much more likely to buy them food and ask about their family. But his gaggle of penguins, (usually Pengywinwin and Tacky) always came to check on us, pat us on the shoulder with a soft wing, and check the perimeter for threats before reminding us that we were loved, and to-bellying back to their room (it’s like tobagganing. But on your belly, because you’re a silly penguin).
My animals were brave. Goofy, like I was, but they said what they thought. They didn’t back down. And they loved everyone, boldly and without hesitation.
As we got older and moved apart, we talked to each other’s animals less and less. But we never got rid of them. When I visit my sister, three panda bears come out, shouting “Aunt Kris!!!” and give me hugs. The ringbearer in my brother’s wedding was a small penguin named Cookie. Sometimes I get texts that a lion (or a kidnapped turtle…) sends their regards. But mine don’t talk much anymore.
My favorites sat on my shelf in my room, but the other 500 or so stayed in plastic bags in my son’s room. They’d been cooped up in there for over 5 years. Part of it was that my second husband wouldn’t allow me to take them out. I refused to give them away, but they had to stay contained, and in the garage. Part of it was that I finally found my own voice.
When I realized earlier this year that these little animals had very literally saved each of us at some point, I shared this epiphany with my sister. “Sissa!” I said, “did you know that we used our animals to express the parts of us that we otherwise couldn’t have let the world see?” “Yes, of course I know”, she replied in her usual fashion. “Once, someone asked me when I was going to get rid of them, because I’m an adult. I told them never, because they are the only source of unconditional love I’ve ever known.” My heart broke right then. For the little girls we were, that were so scared. For the big brother that didn’t know how to keep us safe. And for these worn, faded, sweet wee animals who took on such an enormous job.
Last weekend I finally opened the bags and let mine out. I intended to give most of them away, but as I sorted through, I was overwhelmed by how much comfort they still give. What my sister had said came rushing back, and there was no way I could let them go. They had never let me down, I had to return the favor. I kept probably 200 of my original crew. And I talked to all of them.
I know my family is weird as shit. I know we were barely normal as kids, and just get stranger as adults. I know that now I’m the single chick who has a 3 foot tall stack of stuffed animals in the corner of her room, all looking at her, which doesn’t help the chances of finding someone to sleep in that room with me. People think it’s creepy. People still think we should get tested. And I give precisely zero fucks.
Rattles, Clodhopper and I don’t have time for judgement. We’ve got letters to write, to panda bears and penguins.