Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Natalie’s Guys

When I was a child in the single-digit ages, I had a small band of stuffed animals, from snakes to ubiquitous bears, dogs and other barnyard livestock, but I was most attached to a little family of stuffed animals I brought together from unknown origins. I have had them so long, that I couldn’t tell you the first time I got them or when exactly they became a “family.” To me, they’ve always been a family and I have always had them, since birth it seems (but the date on the bottom of one of them says 1976, when I was three).

Teddy is a small rough-around-the-edges bear approximately three or four inches tall, and Kitty was a similarly sized rounded cat with a small blue hat. It made perfect sense to me that if you crossed a bear with a cat you would have a koala for offspring, so Junior, a tiny spring-loaded-armed koala that was given away at gas stations to clip to your mirror was adopted as Teddy and Kitty’s kid. Added to the mix was a tiny plastic Boxer dog I got as a prize in Kindergarten (I forget why). Kitty and Teddy had Lincoln Log houses, vast fields of crops, two cars and a horse in the stables, not to mention, they endured countless adventures, from driving trips into the backyard to accompanying me on the family vacation each year. I deftly managed for them to avoid the horrors of being rolled up in the car window, half in and half out, while on the highway in the middle of nowhere. Sure, it was funny to Mom and Dad, but I made sure Teddy and family were well hidden when Dad looked for new prey. My brother Jason’s Wormy didn’t fare so well, and I remember him spending hundreds of miles stuck in the window. Ah the tortures parents subject their kids to (Will I do it to my kids? Probably. I mean, it is funny).

Stories about childhood stuffed animals and dolls don’t tend to have happy endings, as you might be expecting me to say that I’m not sure what happened to Teddy and his family or that I lost them over the years, moving from house to house in the last 15 years. But I am happy to report that Teddy, Kitty, Junior and the dog (which never had a name) are still watching over me to this day, as they occupy a space on top of my bookshelves in my office, always together.

So when Natalie almost lost one of her favorite “guys” in the airport on the way back East, it was a frantic moment, not only for Natalie, but for me, remembering how traumatic loss can be, especially if it is a favorite, especially if it is your first flight, especially if you’re expecting that “guy” to comfort you the whole ride.

Here’s the story, and let’s not place blame on anyone for the actual loss, with a one-year-old on an airplane, a lot of stuff is necessary. I think we brought more for the flight than we did for the week in Boston, as we had four carry-on bags that held everything from a DVD player to snacks, not to mention all of the regular things you carry on a plane, like a camera, et al.

Back before we boarded the plane, we had the usual two-hour wait time in the terminal, which at Long Beach’s Jet Blue is nothing more than a repurposed portable building and older-style round plastic chairs with scant padding and chrome metal armrests. We spent the time watching the planes taxi and take off, and I explained to Natalie what we were about to do, and to my surprise, she was quite excited. All the while, under her arm was a green Teletubby she named Bubby. Gnat and Bubby were inseparable. Aside from school, he went everywhere with her, to dinner, to sleep, to nap, to the couch, outside, you name it. “Where’s Bubby?” she would ask on the way to her room. “Get Bubby” “Bubby” “Bubby” “Bubby.”

He was the first “guy,” the first thing she really grew attached to.

Picture the two of us, Kara and I, with a stroller, a car seat, four bags, tickets, money, snacks, drinks, Natalie… and Bubby. Something was bound to get lost, as Natalie assumes that when she sets something down somewhere that it will be wherever she ends up, because it always was. Leave Bubby in the living room? Don’t worry, when you get to your bedroom, he’ll be there waiting for you. How? It’s a form of parental magic children don’t fully understand but rely on to keep their world safe and predictable. How come I fall asleep in the car and I wake up the next morning in my bed? Parental magic.

Our plane is boarding, travelers with children first (which is the one perk).

We roll the caravan out to the tarmac. Check the stroller and car seat at the stairs (at Long Beach, you board the plane outside, via stairs, which has a nice retro-traveling feel to it), climb the stairs… all the while, watching Gnat for any signs of a meltdown. I know, the engines are loud, but isn’t this fun? Get the bags in the overhead compartments, make sure what we need is easily and quickly accessible. How’s Gnat? I know this is all weird and scary, but isn’t this fun, what an adventure! Don’t worry, Bubby’s here with you. Bubby? Bubby!?!


Okay, don’t panic, kids can smell fear on a parent’s face, right? She knows he’s missing, and her face is slowly melting into one of worry, so quietly and quickly, go back to the terminal and find him. No doubt, he sitting on the chair, wondering when Natalie’s going to come back and get him. Don’t make a big deal of this and she won’t freak out. Uh-oh, she’s going to freak out!

The fight attendant at the back door of the plane, staunchly refused to allow me to leave the plane, and I said to her: “Everyone within 10 rows of my daughter will hate us if I don’t find her stuffed animal before we leave. This won’t end well for anyone, trust me.” She must have been a mother herself, because she immediately got on the radio, called the National Guard to scour the terminal for a “small, green, Teletubby, like the one on TV.”

I was relegated back to my seat, and a tense few minutes were to follow, all eyes glued to the tarmac and the terminal door. Meanwhile, people were continuing to board and loss was settling in with us. We would have to make due without him until we can find a replacement, rough him up a bit and pass him off as the original “Bubby.” He caught the next fight, was the story I was already concocting. Maybe Natalie would just forget about him… probably not, but I was hoping she would as part of the worst-case scenario.

Suddenly, the terminal door swung open and a uniformed terminal worker, radio dangling off of her shoulder, appeared, Bubby proudly in hand. Smiles and jubilation for all! Bubby was saved, the flight was perfect and when the wheels skidded down in Boston, Gnat yelled out a triumphant, can-we-do-it-again “yeah!” to the laughter of those around us.

Indeed, all was well.

Since Bubby, Natalie has amassed a herd of stuffed animals, affectionately called “My Guys.” She rounds them up for tea parties, groups them together by who is friends with whom, and gives them stroller rides to other parts of the house. Currently the bunny squadron of about 10 Easter rabbits are sequestered to my leather chair in our bedroom, and she is only able to sleep on about two-thirds of her bed because all of her “guys” have to share some of the pillow.

Though Bubby isn’t in the limelight as much as he used to be—as her preference over time has wandered to other animals like Little Buffalo (in the top middle of the first photo) and Pink Bear (not pictured because she is napping with him right now)—Bubby’s always there, always included in the mix, kind of the father of the “guys.”

Like my Teddy, I’m sure Bubby will always hold a very special and dear place in her heart as one of her first and fondest childhood memories. And just think, I almost lost him in an airport terminal. Wait, I said we weren’t going to blame anyone… well, you knew it was me from the start, didn’t you?

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