Teddy bears hold a special place in my heart. I still have my first bear, now quite blind and scruffy in his old age. But he’s a kind, wise grandfatherly bear who presides over my large assortment of stuffed animals. My youngest sister has an even larger collection. We both have a tendency to give them names, invent human characteristics for them, and make up stories about them. When we go on a trip, the first thing that comes out of our suitcases is a little stowaway who perches on the pillow, looks around with interest, and says, “Hello, this looks like a fun place. What are we going to see here?” (Yes, our husbands think we’re slightly nuts.) I used to think that this affection for stuffed animals was unique to my sister and me, but last year I went to see my elderly aunt, and I gave her a stuffed cat for a present. She was so pleased. Aunt M proceeded to name him, make his head bob up and down, and tell us he was happy to be in his new home. I had to chuckle: this tendency definitely runs in the family.
When my oldest son was little, my sister sent him his first stuffed bear. Ellery had soft brown fur, bright eyes, a black nose, and a red heart on his chest. Sammy and Ellery became inseparable companions. Ellery had a place at the table and cuddled up with him at night. When they went out to play, Sammy tucked the bear into the front of his jacket and made sure Ellery’s head poked up above the zipper so he could see. They did everything together. When it was potty training time, Ellery had his own little toilet and got candy too. When my sister came down to visit, she asked Sammy if she could see his bear. He proudly brought out his favorite friend. She was shocked. I think she expected him to still be plush and bright. Instead, Ellery’s fur was thin and mashed down. The threads that formed his nose had come loose, and his bright red heart was faded. But still, there was a sparkle in his eyes. Like the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit, Ellery was Real.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit)
My son is grown now, with a son of his own. Little Sammy’s stuffed bear sits beside him, waiting for a story. And so the game is carried on, and will be as long as imagination and love have a place in our lives.