grapevineFriends of the Heartgrapevine


Of course I fell in love with him at once.

His hair was grey, with a streak of white that made him all the more becoming. His dark eyes twinkled, his friendly face beckoned. And in bonus he carried one perfect Hershey's Kiss for the woman who lost her heart to him.

Of course it was a bit disconcerting that he shed the moment I caressed him...

Shed?

Well, it was a stuffed Easter bunny, after all: grey with a white nose and cunning lop ears almost as long as he was tall, and in his little forepaws he held a silver lame Kiss.

To my mother's amusement (and occasional dismay), I have never lost my affinity for stuffed animals. They sit over my bed, dot the shelves and bureaus in the spare bedroom, perch on the sofa and a chair in the den. Several come out only at Christmas and it is the hardest thing in the world to put them away. Even as the tiniest child I would drop a doll in favor of a stuffed animal, even if it meant leaving the hapless creature on her head. Dogs, cats, and birds drew me before frillies and finery. They were huggable, companionable friends who kept your every secret and eased a bruised heart.

There were a spate of dogs before I was even five, a good deal of them poodles, that being the popular dog of the day. I always preferred the realistic animals, which meant Pepe, a distinguished pink poodle, was given short shrift next to Rollo, a miniature black canine, and Fifi, a grey-and-white beauty with a flesh-colored plastic face. I had no stuffed collies, so a fourth poodle, this one pale blue, was named "Little Lassie"; he later had a sex and name change when I decided he looked more like Fang on Get Smart and thus redubbed him. But it was Fifi who was the confidant of my younger years. She knew all my secrets and successes, my disappointments and my triumphs. Many a whisper went into those grey silken ears.

Despite my animal worship, I never was crazy about teddy bears and even today don't understand the fervor that possesses the teddy enthusiast. I did have a well-worn teddy named "Big Ted," but when he was gone I felt no need to replace him. Today's animal collection contains only two bears, a realistic black bruin bought in Lake George by my husband, and a beautiful creamy teddy given to me by a friend before I went into the hospital. The givers, not their "bearness," make them special.

The "king" of the dog menagerie in my pre-kindergarten days was "TV." He was large and plaid, with black ears, and over the years the support and stuffing came out of his neck until he assumed a perpetually tired appearance. These were the great rage of the late 1950s, when parents were afraid kids would "catch their death of cold" sprawled in front of the "idiot box" on the chilly floor of a radiator-heated home, so these television dogs were created for youngsters to sit or lie upon. (How one could catch cold swathed in Dr. Dentons and sitting on wall-to-wall carpeting in a steam-heated living room made no sense to a child until they were older and realized that parents and grandparents had spent similar nights in cold water flats with wooden floors and only stoves for heat .)

Another fuzzy companion was a white angora cat named "Fluffy." (Four year olds are notoriously unoriginal in naming stuffed animals--with one exception, as you'll see below.) Instead of combing my dolls' hair, I would comb Fluffy's, leaving white fluff around the house for Mother to pick up with a sigh.

Most of the animals were Christmas or birthday presents, but two were an exception. One was a leather animal my Papà brought back from one of his yearly trips to Italy. My cousin received a donkey, which was kept pristine for her. Papà brought me a horse. It had greenish skin and had leather tack pinned on with straight pins. At each pin was a bright sequin, so the effect of both the horse and the donkey were of gaudy creatures trapped up as the traditional beasts of burden in Sicily were, harnessed to brightly painted multicolor carts. Dad wanted to "put the horse up," but Mother said it was my toy and I could play with it if I liked. As a result, like the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, it was loved to death. I named him "Fury" after the television horse and saddled and bridled and unbridled and unsaddled until the sequins vanished and then the tack, and his real horsehair mane and tail became ratty from much brushing.

My cousin's donkey still sits pristine somewhere, and whenever I see it, I have a pang for the Fury that was--but I'm sure in the long run both of us had much more fun.

The other animal arrived unexpectedly. During the summer months, my favorite place to go was always Rocky Point Amusement Park. They had a kiddie park, a big midway with adult rides like the whip and the roller coaster, a Fun House, the wonderful Shore Dinner Hall, and a place to go to play a game called "Rocky," which was basically Bingo with different cards and a more promotional name.

Dad loved playing Rocky, but always grumbled that he never won enough points to get any of the good prizes, which ranged from caps to stuffed creatures to other little odds and ends. But one Sunday he hit a windfall and gained enough points to claim a good prize. I don't recall what he wanted; I'm sure it was something mannish, like a wallet or baseball cap.

But his little girl's eyes had fixed on a sweet brown donkey with big eyes and a big ribbon bow around its neck. She said, very timidly, "Could I have that, Daddy? He's so cute."

Wallets and caps were forgotten in one gaze from those pleading eyes and the little donkey was mine. No common name like "Skipper" or "Pal" was good enough for this little guy. Instead, I named him "Roscoe," after my favorite character, the racetrack tout, on 77 Sunset Strip, which was one of my favorite reruns.

Then tragedy struck in the form of an affable, older man, who incredibly turned out to have been one of my dad's battalion doctors in World War II. Friendly army doctor Friedman had become friendly allergist Friedman, and when my nose kept running and running from what seemed like a series of perpetual colds and my pediatrician got tired of pumping me with gamma globulin shots, he recommended the same Dr. Friedman to my mother. In the converted dining and sitting rooms of what was once an opulent home on Waterman Street, Dr. Friedman carefully scratched my skin and deposited tiny drops of various substances on them.

The news couldn't have been worse. I'd been promised a dog when I was old enough to take care of one. I was allergic to dogs--and cats. Horses as well! I was allergic to so many plants and flowers that I could have never gone to camp (I ended up not joining the Girl Scouts because what was the fun of being in the Scouts if you couldn't go to camp?).

And I was allergic to dust, the same dust that rested, no matter how hard my mother cleaned, on all those stuffed animals.

Most of them, save for two or three well-loved ones, were banished to the attic. I would creep up there occasionally, enduring the dust to peek in their sheet-covered box and caress them.

Children do grow up, but I never did abandon my love of stuffed creatures. As I grew older and earned my own money, it was my opinion that if I earned it, I could buy anything I liked, and my allergy could go hang. So gradually the stuffed animals returned. The first purchase was ostensibly a decoration for my bed: a big stuffed St. Bernard with a cork casket around his neck, named Neil after the dipsomanic dog in Topper. Even Mother relented after a while and occasionally bought me a critter: Danny, the little white hound with brown ears who was named after Danny Kaye, and Michael, my boon companion on car trips to the present, a winsome little fox named after Michael Keating of Blake's 7.

I finally got my stuffed collies, too, including one released when The New Lassie series was premiered, another when the 1994 Lassie film came to theatres. Getting married simply found me a husband who supported my habit: for Christmas of 1994, he bought me the stuffed version of my favorite character from The Lion King, not Simba, Nala! We bought Bandit the budgie about the same time and Bandit quite shamelessly fell in love with her, perching on her head and feeding seed to her ear! So I'm not the the only stuffed animal fan in the house, you see.

Genial stuffed faces peer from all quarters in the house now: Wishbone sits on the hearth of the fireplace, Kevin and Scott, a fox and a wolf respectively, perch on the back of a little-used chair in the den, Ronny the lamb sits in the headboard of the bed, Figaro and Dodger sit on the dresser, and a collection of Beanie Babies I never intended to have dangle on a specially-made Beanie display pole we bought at a craft show. Periodically they all have to be vacuumed, but it's all part and parcel of the mania.

After all, it's nice to be surrounded by friends...

 

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