This is a beautifully written piece that describes something that happens or is feared of happening in most families.
When Nick Coleman’s daughter decided to get rid of her cuddly toys, he was outraged – how could she?
My daughter is nearly 12. This month she graduated to secondary school and resolved to put childish things behind her. To that end, she lined up her entire menagerie of soft toys on the sofa, five deep, to make a considered, contemplative decision about which of them was going to get the chop.
There were bears, geese, rabbits, dogs, hedgehogs, pigs, elephants, a penguin, two tigers and a single doll, a scraggy female item named, for some reason, Bob. Many of these were hand-me-downs from the extended family; a few were her own from the off. The toys had all featured in her life at one time or another. Large ones, small ones. Sucked ones, chewed ones. Loved ones, unloved ones. Nameless ones.
Not included in that last category were Pengy, Ellie, Joe, Schmo, Candle, Sweepy, Big Hilda, The Bear in the Big Blue House, Oie, Dal, Tina’s Pussy, Stinky, Piggy …
These creatures all had names. They were the alpha toys. Taken individually, they were never an “it”, a mere cipher of cuddlesome teddyishness; these guys were always a he or a she – an individual not a fuzzball. You could even make out in some of them – especially the foul-smelling but charismatic Stinky – the faintest outline of a personality. Well, a presence.
And now they were huddling together on the sofa, face forward, as upright as can be managed on the tilting upholstery, like the proud, uncowering victims of a firing squad.
I walked into the living room to see all this just as my daughter, who sat facing them, removed a cupping hand from her chin. She looked solemn.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“I’m just deciding which ones to ‘let go’,” she replied, supplying the quote marks with her fingers, and went back to her thinking. I felt a wave of revulsion come up from my feet. For a moment I felt almost physically sick. “You can’t do that!” I said, and then thought, why the hell not? They’re hers.
“Why not?” she said. “They’re mine. And besides, I’ve looked after them all these years. I can do what I want with them.”
I had no answer to that. But it didn’t stop me from feeling uneasy. Worse than uneasy. If I tell you that the tickle of nausea persisted for some hours afterwards, you may struggle to believe me – you’ll have to take it on trust. But it really did. It hung in me like smoke.
I, of course, told myself at the time that it was because there was something foul about the scene unfolding in my living room; something toxifying in this soft-world parody of the worst, most irredeemable yet persistent aspect of human nature: the unending horror of judgment and mass execution. Ugh. My beautiful daughter. She knows not what she does. And so on.
I also told myself that it was because I was upset at the spectacle of my daughter cutting herself away so ruthlessly from her infancy. My beloved baby daughter: the Ginger Ninja, the Beezer, the Woodle. Surely those bears mean more to her than that, I thought. Surely this moment of pained self-consciousness will pass …
But I knew that I was not facing up to the whole truth.
I have always maintained a tepid masculine indifference towards soft toys. I can see their value: their actual physical relevance to children as well as their importance to them as symbols of comfort in a comfortless world. I can even understand the value of them as socialising tools, for engendering compassion in the self-centred, blood-red minds of tiny humans etc etc. Yeah, they’re useful, cuddly toys, but let’s maintain perspective.
Spare me the weirdos who can’t outgrow their attachment to them; and spare me the fetishising lunacy that compels adults to find a way to communicate with their children through the agency of soft mouths. “But Teddy wants to go to bed now/eat his peas/do a poo” and so on. Ugh.
After all, I had managed fine throughout my own infancy without an entourage of bears. I believe I had only two, one of which wasn’t a bear. I inherited Ted-Fred from my mother, a one-eyed and wholly uncuddly pre-war sack of mange (the bear, not my mum), and I had briefly loved Albert, a brown knitted dog, although I have very little memory of him. He was gone by the time I was three, presumably sucked into nothingness. And that was it for me. No more cuddles. (Ted-Fred still exists, I’m glad to say – somewhere, but not here.)
But do not imagine that you can detect a note of self-pity in this. There is none. I do not yearn for lost soft toys nor sense a shortfall in my cuddle history. There is no one-armed, patched and restuffed Rosebud burning in the fires of memory.
I do, however, have two sisters, one of whom had a gang of bears. A real gang. She was partial to koalas and had several. They spoke with what she fondly presumed was an Australian accent and each had finely delineated and wholly consistent personalities. There was the irascible, domineering Adelaide and her useless, whining, weak-minded cousin, Sydney, who was Adelaide’s private doormat and was about as un-Australian as a male koala can get. The definitive blithering idiot. There were others too, but Sydney and Adelaide commanded the discursive high ground and took shit from no one. They were frequently the dominant personalities in the family, by which I mean the human family. I know this because I used to have conversations with them.
My sister is in fact – and always has been – a kind, modest, thoughtful creature, albeit one of iron will. She is now a very fine schoolteacher of high principle and great accomplishment. But as a small child she was a walking anthropology experiment.
Sydney, Addy, Tambo, Alice Springs et al were joined c1970 (when my sis would have been about eight) by Piggy, a vile orange and pink teddybear with a hideous squished face, no visible character, charm or presence, and highly dubious health and safety credentials. He smelled revolting. This unsavoury object was a prize won at the village fete and, from the moment of its arrival, was despised. We all despised “him”.
“Urgh, Piggy!” we used to say to each other, pointing at his horrible face. “Get him away from me!”
And other phrases stick in my mind too, like thorns.
“Can someone get this monstrosity out of my kitchen?”
“Does anyone, anywhere want Piggy?”
The whole object of Piggy was for him to be despised, reviled, rejected. He was the runt. The scapegoat (I have vague memories of the weakminded Sydney blaming Piggy for everything). He was in fact The Piggy, the Goldingesque primal nightmare through which the tribal mind finds a way to visit its cruelty, well, tribally. I shudder to think that my otherwise kindly, unsnobbish, fundamentally decent family might harbour such emotions about pink and orange nylon. But there it is. We did. We loathed Piggy.
But we couldn’t get rid of him.
However, my sister did finally manage to unload Piggy on to my daughter some years ago, when she was a baby. My daughter hated him on sight but pretended not to. And so Piggy has since spent the last decade or so stuffed underneath her bed or behind her wardrobe or in a bag too small for his sausagey limbs – until this very moment, some 42 years after his first entry into our family fold, where he sits none too proudly and slightly grimy on the front edge of the sofa, surrounded and buttressed by the other toys, centre-right of the phalanx of the imminently dead. Dead-eyed.
I address my daughter, firmly. I do not want her to think that she has to be swayed by my gruesome middle-aged sentimentalism. At the same time, I want her to stay resolutely in touch with her humanity, even as her finger twitches and curls around her metaphorical trigger.
“So,” I say, hiding my anxiety. “Have you come to any firm conclusions?”
“Well,” she says, decisively, “obviously Piggy has to go …”