In December 1992, I was given a very special task: I got to help Mom wrap a Christmas present for my older sister, Jenny.
In July of that year, Disney released the VHS cassette of “101 Dalmatians.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Disney classic was to be one of our Christmas gifts. Because of the movie’s release, stores were full of plush Dalmatian toys that holiday season, and Mom commissioned me to help wrap one such toy puppy for Jenny.
There are few details I remember about wrapping that present. I can’t tell you the color or pattern of the Christmas gift wrap. I don’t remember if I filled out the gift tag or if Mom wrote “To Jenny.” I don’t even recall if the gift was meant to be from me (I suppose it was, since I was let in on the secret).
Two details, however, stand out now that 26 years stand between then and now:
- I was absolutely green-eyed with jealousy, because I wanted that Dalmatian.
- I was too young to realize that Mom’s general method of gift-buying was if one daughter got a toy, the other daughters got a similar one.
My green eyes faded back to their usual blue on Christmas morning when I unwrapped my own stuffed Dalmatian. And with a five-year-old’s usual brand of creativity, I christened him Spot. (This was a step above my stuffed hippo named Mr. Hippo, and my carnival goldfish named Fish.)
Spot was THE toy of my childhood. He was the velveteen rabbit to my Boy. (And, quite inspired by that book, I wholeheartedly believed that if I loved him enough, he would turn Real, with a capital R.)
And oh, how Spot was loved. From my fifth Christmas onward, we were inseparable. Not a night passed that Spot wasn’t cradled in my arm, his head tucked under my chin. If I awoke in the middle of the night and he had fallen from the bed, I panicked until he was recovered. (I remember one particular tearful night when Spot got kicked down to the end of the bed beneath my covers, and I assumed he had fallen on the floor. I was in hysterics and had the bedroom light blazing, searching under my bed and Jenny’s and generally tearing the room apart until Mom woke up and came to the rescue.)
Stuffed animals: Defenders of dreamers, protectors of sleepers
He was my companion — and, often, my guard dog. His tail got stretched to twice its length from my habit of swinging him like a mace to bop my sisters any time they picked on or displeased me. His plastic nose detached after one too many whacks, which led to another batch of hysterics until Mom sewed the hole on his face and drew a new nose with permanent black marker.
And, as every child with a stuffed animal knows, Spot protected me at night from the monsters in the shadows. As long as your arms are under the blankets and your stuffed animal is in bed, you’re safe.
There was almost never a night without him. He came on every vacation — and bless Mom for double, triple, and quadruple checking he was safely stowed in the car before we drove home. When college rolled around, he came with me. (There was one agonizing week without him … Mom suggested I leave him home because my floormates might tease my graying, ratty, bald-at-the-seams childhood toy. On move-in day, nearly everyone in my dorm could be seen carrying their loved-to-tatters childhood companions; my parents delivered Spot the next weekend.)
Even when my husband and I first lived together, Spot was in the crook of my arm those first few nights. Nineteen years of falling asleep with Spot was a tough habit to break, but finally he got retired to a shelf for his own protection.
Adults and Their Toys
Spot still lives on a shelf today, where every so often I pick him, squeeze my fingers into his once-soft, now-coarse fur, and let myself soak in the nostalgia.
Not everyone is so nostalgic about their childhood toys, though. Last week I read Christopher Milne’s memoir “The Enchanted Places: A Memoir of the Real Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh,” when I came upon this passage:
So, if I am asked, ‘Aren’t you sad that the animals [his childhood stuffed toys] are not in their glass case with you today?’ I must answer ‘Not really,’ and hope that this doesn’t seem too unkind. I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago. I don’t want a house to be a museum. When I grew out of my old First Eleven blazer, it was thrown away, not lovingly preserved to remind me of the proud day I won it with a score of 13 not out. Every child has his Pooh, but one would think it odd if every man still kept his Pooh to remind him of his childhood.
Christopher Robin Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh toys on display at New York Public Library.
I felt a certain measure of embarrassment when I read those words, because I knew upstairs I had my own Pooh as my totem of childhood. Whereas Christopher Milne (the son of A.A. Milne, upon whom Christopher Robin is based in the Winnie-the-Pooh books) detached from his childhood toys and donated them to New York Public Library, I quite happily kept mine. If he were alive today to meet me, it’s probable he would think me odd.
A Reddit thread about what adults did with their childhood toys has a range of answers. Some adults expressed little to no attachment to pieces of childhood. Others donated or sold the majority of old belongings, keeping just one or two particularly meaningful items. Among the 41 responses:
- I didn’t have many significant toys, but when I went away to college the process of getting rid of them was set rolling. The stuff I didn’t really care about was donated at that time. Later, when my mum was trying to sell her house, I had to make the harder decisions. I kept the stuff that was really special (like my baby blanket/stuffed animals). […]
- I was actually really lucky. My parents sold everything of mine that I couldn’t carry with me when I moved out so I didn’t have this problem [of deciding what to do with toys] at all.
- The childhood mementos I still have are in a box in a safe dry place. I’d probably never let a kid near them. I don’t want to think of those lovely things with bite marks, scuffs, missing parts, sticky matted fur, etc. Maybe if I hold on to them long enough, they’ll become worth something and I can sell them to an adult who can see the value in them.
- I have a lot of old toys lying around my parents’ house too, and they may be selling it sometime in the next couple of years now that my brother and I have moved out, so I have to get rid of most of them. I have been selling quite a few on eBay. […]
- Most of my toys have gone to second hand shops. The sentimental ones I keep on a shelf in my room and a few went to my young cousins and nieces.
- I still have the ones that were meaningful to me. My family and I donated everything else as I outgrew them. Nobody’s going to want the ones I still have now. (Seriously, I’m sure the kids will be killing each other over a grungy 30 year old stuffed horse)
- Most of my stuff got sold off in garage sales as I got too old for them. The only things that are left now are stuffed animals. As my niece gets a little older I’m going to let her have her pick of them and then donate the rest. I’m keeping the ones that are the most important to me and I’ll probably never get rid of those.
- I lugged my toys around for years. It wasn’t until I was in my last place that I finally said – I gotta get rid of these! […]
- I wasn’t much of a fan of toys even as a kid. I’d get a few, maybe play with them a bit, then hand them down to my siblings or give them to thrift shops. If I really liked them, I just set them on my desk or dresser or something as decoration. I certainly don’t lug them along into my adult life. Really, I got rid of most everything I had when I joined the Army at 18. Now my only “toys” are an old stuffed bear a police officer gave me when I was 11 after taking pictures of my then-recent bullet wound (long story) which I keep in the corner of my room, and a few Mass Effect figurines (which are not for playing with) that decorate my desk and shelves. If you like your toys, keep them. If you don’t have space for them, box them up and store them. There’s no reason to have to give them away if that’s not what you want to do.
While not all of the responders above enthusiastically hold onto childhood mementos, most display some level of sentimentality over at least one or two possessions from youth. Christopher Milne would have plenty of others besides me to consider odd for keeping mementos of childhood.
A Chicago Tribune report reassured me and somewhat reinforced my sentimentality for Spot. Psychologist and author David Palmiter said of sentimental childhood objects: “There isn’t really a mandate to give it up. It will naturally become less important or used when they no longer need it.”
Although I no longer need Spot to fall asleep or to keep teasing sisters at bay, on a deeper level, I believe I’ll always need him. And though his role has changed, I don’t consider him less important. Spot is a link to childhood, which is a time of life I hope never to lose touch with. Reason and logic and practicality have their place in adulthood, but so does a childlike lens of viewing the world. There is a magic, a hope, a sense of endless possibility and wonder in childhood to which I hug as tightly as I ever hugged Spot.
There comes a comfort in the knowledge that a corner of a shelf — a spot in my house — is reserved for a tangible piece of childhood.