June 12, 2007

I loved...

When I was a child, I loved my animals.

Baby dolls were boring. Cabbage Patch Kids freaked me out. I only played Barbies under extreme duress from my friends.

I shared my bedroom with approximately two dozen stuffed animals. If I try hard, I can form hazy pictures of a few of them. A droopy-faced puppy with exaggerated sad eyes. A pink, heart-adorned bear who was a Valentine's Day gift. A lime-scented parrot from the Strawberry Shortcake collection. A panda of sorts.

There were all the others, and then there was Russ.

A gift from my godmother Ada, Russ entered my life on my sixth birthday. He was a handsome stuffed lion, with velvety fur that changed from gold to rich brown, depending on which way you stroked him. He had a thick, brushable mane and a tuft of the same fur at the tip of his tail. His legs were soft but not bendable, always in the same position, as if he were sitting on a flat rock and casually looking over his savannah kingdom.

My mother was stunned by his beauty. A toy this nice may have cost as much as $60, she told me, instructing me to take good care of him.

She had nothing to worry about; I took meticulous care of my animals. I was a sensitive child, convinced that my toys could feel pain, discomfort, boredom, and loneliness. My heart ached when my mother would clean my room and throw the animals haphazardly in the closet. How could she show such blatant disregard for their feelings?

Thankfully, the animals had no problem accepting Russ as their undisputed king and leader. At night, they would surround my bed and keep watch for intruders, while Russ took the place of honor beside me. He simultaneously played the roles of army commander, chief protector, and secondary pillow.

During the day, my animals were a cast of actors, playing out their roles in my stories. Inspired by children's books, Mutual of Omaha specials, and my own imagination, I spent hours weaving narratives in my bedroom. Usually, the stories involved animals in peril, trapped in caves (i.e. under a bedspread) or caught by hungry predators, until someone else swooped in from high atop a mountain (i.e. dresser) to save the day. As far as I can remember, they always had happy endings.

As I grew older, I told more stories using pencil and paper, and fewer using stuffed animals and furniture.

When my mother proposed packing up the stuffed animals and storing them in the basement, I was too old to disagree. Nonetheless, I snuck downstairs and tore a hole in the bag she placed them in, to reassure myself that they could still breathe.

Russ didn't go downstairs with the others. He stayed beside me, except when we traveled. Russ went to French camp at Lac du Bois. He went to the International Music Camp on the Canadian border. He went to Europe at least twice. Once, he was briefly abandoned in a hotel room in South Dakota, but thankfully my father took a U-turn on the freeway and saved the day.
Even though I took good care of him, after a while, Russ didn't look like a lion who cost $60. His brushable hair was matted, and his fur no longer changed color if you petted him against the grain. If I turned him over and looked at the underside of his leg, there was still a spot where the fur looked almost like new, but I took care not to touch that spot and lose it forever.

I was never allowed to have a cat or a dog, and I transferred to Russ all the emotions I imagined a girl might have for her beloved pet. When I read heartwrenching dog stories like Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, I squeezed Russ as I sobbed. I intentionally avoided discussing The Velveteen Rabbit in public, because it forced me to contemplate his mortality and reduced me to a blubbering mess. Deep down, I knew that the rabbit only became real in a metaphorical sense, and the implications terrified me.

When I left home for college, it was a difficult decision to leave Russ behind. I wanted to seem mature and sophisticated, and a tattered lion probably wouldn't help my case. I left him in my parents' care and ventured off, moving first to Minnesota, and then to Nevada, without him. He continued to guard my old bedroom, and I stepped back into his kingdom every time I returned to Fargo for a visit.

My father's illness, his death, and my mother's move to the senior citizens' condo, all happened in rapid succession. Sometime while I was living my life in Nevada, my childhood room disappeared into the ether.

I've been afraid to ask my mother what happened to Russ during the move. I tell myself that she recognized his value and stored him along with other treasures from the house, waiting to be rediscovered on another day.

I just hope she remembered to cut him some breathing holes.

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