I still have the first teddy bear my parents ever gave me. His name is Corduroy. He’s the only tangible thing I’ve had for my entire life.
Corduroy used to have a lot of stuffed animal friends. They were my friends as well. I collected them. As an only child who went to school in an affluent neighborhood, but lived in a notorious one, I had limited play-date options. Because none of my classmates were inclined (or permitted) to venture into my borough, my stuffed animals were my most common companions—especially on weekends. When I was given a board game as a gift (a cruel present for an isolated only child), it was my stuffed animals that played them with me. (I won a lot.)
When the population of stuffed animals living on my bed threatened to displace me, an alternative location had to be found for them. When I (finally!) got moved to the bigger room I’d always wanted, my stuffed animals were moved to my crib (which had been converted into a day bed). There was Hug Me, a stuffed doll I named based on the words printed on her dress. She was soft, so I suspect “hug me” was meant to be an imperative or invitation, but I made it her name as well. And hug her I did—whenever I was sad. I believed she, more than any of my other stuffed friends, could empathize with my sorrow because she seemed to have a tear in the corner of her eye herself.
Most of my stuffed animals didn’t receive names. I had an elephant that I suppose should have been named Horton, though I never called him anything. He came with a copy of Horton Hatches the Egg, one of my favorite childhood books. I also had a giant koala bear that was about my height when I got him, but as I aged and grew he became less and less impressive in size. I had begged my mother for him, even though I knew he was expensive—something I didn’t often do. I could barely get my arms around him to carry him home. But by my teenage years, he seemed only moderately large.
I had a seal (or was it a sea lion?) from the New York Aquarium, one of the places I most loved to go (in addition to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Bronx Zoo, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum). One of my favorite things to do at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was feed the ducks—especially in the colder months when most people forgot about them. I paid special attention to the females. My mother liked to remind me that once, when I noticed a boy duck bullying a girl duck for a cracker, I made it a point to see that she got her fair share—and threw some harsh words in his direction.
I had a rabbit who I remember hiding under the dining room table with when my mother was having one of her manic episodes. My other nameless stuffed animals included a bear in a ballerina’s outfit that I got when I thought ballet was a realistic career path. Then puberty hit and my thickened thighs (joining forces with my already flat feet) made sure I walked away from that dream.
I had a red lobster whose stomach unzipped to house a family of baby lobsters. She was bought for me during my one and only trip to Disney World. While on that trip I also got a set of Mickey Mouse ears that I soon lost and a fruit punch that came in a commemorative glass. I didn’t finish that fruit punch because, having left it unattended for a short span of time, I resumed drinking it only to find a dead spider suspended in the liquid. Horrified and disgusted, I ran to show my mother that there was a spider in my punch. She promptly pointed out that there was, in fact, only half a spider in my punch, and wondered aloud (with a sly grin) where the other half could possibly be—and how did my tummy feel. I didn’t appreciate it at the moment (I was too busy anxiously trying to feel half a spider in my stomach), but now I’m fond of that example of my mother’s sense of humor.
Among my stuffed animal collection I also had a dog, a tiger, and the raccoon puppet that my parents sent to me one of the summers I spent in Grenada with my grandparents. It was one of the only toys I had that summer because my aunt (who had helped me pack) removed (unbeknownst to me) all of the toys I’d put in my suitcase and replaced them with more practical things—things that don’t help to temper a young child’s boredom or diminish her homesickness—things that aren’t conducive to play, imagination, or daydreams.
Corduroy received his name when I was in kindergarten. Don Freeman’s Corduroy was another of my favorite childhood books, and I decided to dress up as the girl in the story for Halloween. It seemed only logical to have a bear as part of my costume, and thus my first teddy bear (the only stuffed bear I owned then) got to play the part of Corduroy, and the name stuck to him.
My mother made Corduroy a pair of overalls for the occasion so that he’d look more like his literary counterpart. What I didn’t know at the time—and didn’t figure out on my own—was that my mother intentionally sewed one of Corduroy’s buttons on very loosely so that it would fall off.
The main plot of the book Corduroy is that a little girl sees him in a department store, wants to buy him, but her mother points out that he is missing a button, and they leave the store without him. Corduroy then goes on a quest to find a new button so that he’ll be more desirable. Spoiler alert: The girl returns, buys him, and loves him despite his missing button.
You would think that I, knowing the story so well, would see the appropriateness of my bear’s button falling off during the course of the day, but I didn’t. I worried about it instead. My mother, fighting back her laughter, had to explain it to me later when I came home deliriously distraught over the “disaster” of my bear’s wardrobe malfunction.
As I said earlier, I didn’t always grasp (or appreciate) it when I was younger, but now I love my mother’s sense of humor. It’s one of the things I miss most about her.