What does a grown man do with his childhood stuffed toy?
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Puppy Dog is back, a threadbare bag of worn fur, listless paws, nubby tail, a single bell sewn into its floppy left ear.
When I was a child, Puppy Dog went everywhere with me, squeezed close to my chest during the day, wrapped in my arms at night. Truth be told, he could easily be mistaken for a lamb; with his long ears raised he sometimes resembled a rabbit.
But he was a dog, dammit. A puppy dog. My puppy dog.
When I was four, early in America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, when riots seized the country, a year after President Kennedy was assassinated, the most traumatic event to befall me was laundry day for Puppy Dog. Prying the stinky, soft animal from my warm, live hands, my mother would gently place him alone in the washing machine, while trying to block out my screaming.
Two hours later, after my stuttered weeping had settled into a series of bleats and whimpers and I’d finally fallen asleep, the spin cycle would have finished and Puppy Dog could be extracted from the machine, wet but clean. I’d awaken, bleary-eyed, and have to be restrained from grasping the soaked mutt so he could be dried on a wooden rack. But by early evening I’d have him back in my grateful arms, still a little damp, agreeably soft and smelling of chemical flowers.
Things were looking up. Puppy Dog! The Beatles had released A Hard Day’s Night, The Dick Van Dyke Show was still running, and Mary Poppins was on a screen near us. All was groovy with my world.
But three years later, having moved to London (Sgt. Pepper, Carnaby Street, You Only Live Twice), I’d outgrown Puppy Dog. “Mommy” would be henceforth known as “Mom,” and I was in an English day school where if my friends had soft animals at home, I was none the wiser.
What happened to Puppy Dog? Was he tossed in a box? Thrown in a trunk? Somehow he followed me, like an heirloom I never quite knew what to do with, an emissary from my youth, newly jobless. He meant nothing to me now; the spell has been broken, the magic worn off along with his fur. He was a beloved toy only in ironic quotes: “Puppy Dog.”
Somehow he followed me to New York, through college and the single life, tailing me perhaps the way Woody stalked Andy in Toy Story (i.e., by computer animation?). Sometimes he ended up on my bed.
“What’s that?” a girlfriend might ask, eyeing the floppy animal on my pillow.
“That was my Puppy Dog.”
“Oh, how cute!”
But that’s all he was now: a squint into my innocent childhood, a potential chick magnet, a wingman.
A wing dog.
But it was a half-hearted relationship, Puppy Dog and I.
When my cousin was in third grade his dad marched into his room, gathered up all his soft toys, dumped them in a big bag, and took them away. My cousin never knew what happened to them, but he survived the cull. Years later people sometimes gave him soft toys as good-natured, slightly jokey gifts. He kept them.
King Charles reportedly still keeps his teddy bear close to him and often travels with it. The only person allowed to mend the royal toy cub when he suffers mishaps is his childhood nanny, Mabel Anderson, who apparently still remains close to the palace (and is apparently still alive).
I’ve never judged the plush-toy choices of other people, no matter what their ages, but I always found Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian lugging about his teddy bear at Oxford a bit affected — though not as bad as the college men who apparently copy this foppish mannerism in real life, reenacting a fictional eccentricity.
Not everyone is so conscientious about their stuffed toy. In E.H. Shepard’s drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin is seen carelessly dragging the bear down the stairs by a listless arm (bump-bump-bump).
The late Queen Elizabeth in childhood was more enamored of toy horses and had several of them on wheels. But shortly before she died she had a televised tea with Paddington bear, as they shared their hiding places for their respective marmalade sandwiches (sales of marmalade reportedly went up in the wake of the broadcast). After her death, over a thousand Paddington bears were left in homage to her around Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, subsequently donated to children’s charities.
But what do I do with my mangy mutt, my embattled pooch? I’ve felt no compulsion to take him with me anywhere. When I rediscovered him in a box in my mother’s storage space after I got married and had kids, I vaguely thought one of them might adopt him, and I’d be absolved of the responsibility of his upkeep. But they have their own toys, and my 13-year-old son still keeps a menagerie of animals piled at the foot of his bed, including two foxes, a water rat (Ratty from The Wind in the Willows), an astronaut dog (Laika), a reindeer, two owls, and several bears, including Polar Bear, as well as Carluccio and Uncle Bear. I recently asked him which one was his favorite. He singled out Aldeburgh, an old-school teddy.
My daughter has a smaller collection, but favors two soft animals (second only to our actual, live cats): Big Bunny and Pink Bunny. It’s fair to say one or the other of these soft rabbits has been around the world, taken to the English countryside, to Paris, Boston, Amsterdam, Tuscany, the south of France. They even went to Australia together once (in business class!). Her animals have traveled more extensively than I did at their age (or Puppy Dog ever did), clearly worldly bunnies giving succor to the trials of childhood, and adding only the skimpiest carbon pawprint. (We’ve knocked back our travels in any case.)
So what of Puppy Dog? My wife retrieved him from a shelf in my office and brought him up to our room. He lays on my side of the bed, a stranger to me, looking up with his dead, sewn eyes. Reproachfully? No, he doesn’t express his feelings; that’s the point: I can’t feel his emotional presence. You could toss him in the washing machine and I’d get through the ordeal pretty easily. He doesn’t even haunt me in my dreams like a canine Chucky, stalking me with a knife; he just lays there benignly, confounding me with the fact of his existence. How could something as insignificant as this floppy-eared cloth bag have caused such passion and trauma all those years ago? Am I so disconnected from my childhood?
A dog needs a job, and Puppy Dog is no longer my wingman or emotional support animal. I briefly thought of giving him away to a needy child, or maybe to that same charity that took in all those Paddingtons left for Queen Elizabeth. I was about to toss him into a box.
But then I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t let Puppy Dog go. That was a sign that I was waiting for something, or someone, and I finally realized who it was: a grandchild who might eschew my children’s fabric bears and bunnies and would be waiting for the right stuffed friend. I could even picture this future toddler hugging my threadbare pup — and when he’d be taken from this tyke and placed in whatever future contraption constitutes a washing machine, I could imagine this child weeping and screaming in abject misery, producing a deafening shriek of bafflement and trauma: “Puppy Dog!”
And it made me smile.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.