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What Makes Toys Meaningful

A facelift for my daughter’s doll and a viral video about a toy monkey teach lessons about redemption

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Maxie with Isabel Montina, before the facelift. (Jonathan Steuer)

Not long ago, a video of a little boy reunited with his long lost toy monkey, Ah-Ah, went viral, garnering over 1.5 million views. Ah-Ah, who’d been Liam’s beloved companion since infancy, went missing on a camping trip in 2009. Three years later, Liam’s mom found what she thought was a similar monkey on eBay and bought it; it turned out to be the monkey. Liam’s reaction was potent. Now 7 or 8, Liam is clearly old enough not to need the stuffed animal anymore, but when he sees Ah-Ah, he bursts into tears, and sobs, “I forgot what he looked like!” Watch the video. If it does not reduce you to a teary-eyed puddle, I don’t want to know you.

In the video, we see old photos of a pristine Ah-Ah with a very little Liam, as well as shots of present-day Ah-Ah. Liam’s mother points out the monkey’s singed fur, the mulch embedded in Ah-Ah’s paws, and the jagged tag that Liam cut as a toddler. To Liam, even half a lifetime later, Ah-Ah was immediately recognizable.

How can you not think of Margery Williams’ classic lines from The Velveteen Rabbit: “And about his little soft nose and his round black eyes there was something familiar, so that the Boy thought to himself: ‘Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!’ But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.” Those words cause us parents a little ache. Kids see The Velveteen Rabbit as a story about love and magic—the bunny becomes real!—but grown-ups know it’s about love and loss, how the world of fantasy and innocence and make-believe fade away, but love endures. (We hope.) Most kids aren’t as sentimental as we parents are; like the Boy, they look forward. The Liam video is potent because this kid can still look back. He and his mom are together in the wonder of finding Ah-Ah again. He hasn’t left his childhood—or her—behind. Parent and child are both aware of the wonder and mystery of being lost and being found and growing up.

KJ Dell’Antonia at the New York Times Motherlode blog wrote her own lower-lip-tremble-inducing response to the video: “My babies are at home with me, growing up, but still sleeping in beds surrounded with stuffed animals that are more nuisance to me than nostalgia,” she wrote. “My mom’s baby—the one she taught to believe in her stuffed animals, the one she gave a stuffed bear to one year, saying, ‘He told me he needed to come home to live with you’—is, of course, me, and that bear is long gone, as, in a sense, is the child who cried into him when she needed him, and slept with him every night.”

I’m not saying the shekhina is an eBay-er, but I am saying that the return of Ah-Ah is proof that mystical things happen

In its unity and completeness, the Ah-Ah tale is a lovely story of redemption. In The Spiritual Life of Children, Robert Coles interviewed children of many different backgrounds and learned that kids, even secular ones, seek meaning and faith. And this particular narrative works for our own tradition, says my own mom, a Renowned Jewish Educator: “This story reminds me of why exile was so shattering for the Jewish people,” she told me. “Pre-Diaspora, God or the shekhinah was there to protect. And suddenly it felt as though God was absent.” Is it such a stretch to think of the shekhinah, God’s feminine presence, as a motherly change agent? I’m not saying the shekhinah is an eBay-er, but I am saying that the return of Ah-Ah is proof that mystical things happen, through a combination of human (in this case, maternal) agency and forces we don’t understand. Ultimately, there is reunion. On a small scale, the blue monkey comes back. On a more metaphysical scale, we try to have faith in a Messianic era of harmony. Stories like this help us believe.

Which brings me to—forgive me for bringing up a holiday so soon after we’ve endured a seemingly endless string of holidays—a Hanukkah story: the tale of Isabel Montina, Maxie’s special lovey. This isn’t precisely a story of reunion, but one of restoration.

First, a little (not-so) secret: I am a control freak. I’ve read parenting books. I know how to head off disaster. Which is why I oh-so-cleverly bought duplicates of all objects I thought my children would bond with, just to avoid an Ah-Ah situation. (Ha-Ha.) Parenting Lesson #1: You can’t prepare for everything, and you can’t shield your child from all pain. When Maxie was 2, she fell in love with a random Garnet Hill doll, a Hanukkah gift from aforementioned Grandma. At first it had an old-fashioned painted-on face, a soft fabric body, and fuzzy green overalls. But Maxie took it everywhere and slept with it every night. For four years. She loved it so much and so well that it began to disintegrate.

The face started to fade, then peel off. We tried holding its chin and forehead together with Band-Aids, but new facial holes kept appearing. Eventually, its head was a grayish-white skull-like expanse with bits and strings of tan panty-hose-esque mesh pulling across it here and there. I wish I had a picture of Isabel Montina (always “Isabel Montina,” never just “Isabel”—Maxie could never explain the name, though she called her Baby just as often) at her worst. You’ll have to take my word for it: By last Hanukkah, just after Maxie’s seventh birthday, Isabel Montina’s face was truly monstrous. Maxie’s big sister Josie was scared of her.

As the doll grew more and more Night of the Living Dead-like, I created a standing search for “Garnet Hill soft doll” on eBay. I was not as lucky as Liam’s mom; even after years of saved searches, I found nothing. Eventually, Josie began noodging for me to get Baby fixed as a Hanukkah present for Maxie. Maxie, a typical younger sister, began echoing her: “Can you fix Baby?” But that would have meant sending Baby away, and Maxie had never slept apart from Baby. I couldn’t imagine she really understood what it would be like to be without her Baby, and besides, what if fixing it made it worse, made it Not Baby? (Parenting Lesson #2: Who, exactly, was I really worried about here? Anyway.)

I did tons of research, because I do not have a soft doll to worry with my fingers, and this is how I self-soothe. Isabel Montina turned out to be a copy of a Waldorf doll, a hippie humanistic folkloric Steiner education tool with a squat figure-eight-shaped face, a neutral facial expression, and a body made of battened wool covered with cotton interlock stitched together according to traditional European techniques. I wound up having conversations with Waldorf mamas on the crafting site Etsy—I sought someone to create a new face and hands for Baby, but apparently fixing a Waldorf doll involves utterly taking it apart from the stuffing outward and putting it all back together (presumably while not watching TV and not vaccinating), and really, I’m supposed to do it, not pay someone else to. What I heard, though the moms did not say it, is that if I really loved Maxine, I would know how to sew and provide the proper educational and moral playthings because that is what motherhood is. Lesson #3: No, it isn’t. Motherhood is what you make it, not what you make. And Lesson #4: Good heavens, defensive much? None of these moms actually said this. I was projecting. Why was I so willing to buy into Mommy Wars bull-pucky?

I pushed my neurosis into the toy box and called the New York Doll Hospital, then a couple of freelance doll medics. We were talking a minimum of $300. The doll had probably cost $20. But Max (pushed by Josie, whom I’d idiotically managed to make even more frightened of freaky Baby by telling her the plot of the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone) just kept asking. Hanukkah 2011 was approaching. Finally I took a leap of faith.

On the second day of the holiday, when Maxie was in school, I handed Isabel Montina to Jimmy, the old tailor on the corner. (He’s the one who wouldn’t take any money from me when I asked him to shorten a vintage bassinet bumper when Josie was born. “It’s a baby gift,” he’d said.) Jimmy, whose name is surely not Jimmy, found a faded piece of beige fabric in his rag bag. He peeled off the stretchy bits of Baby’s old face and hands and sewed on a large fabric patch for her face and two small ones for her hands. I carefully drew the most basic, lousy smiley face on her with a Sharpie while he watched. I tried to keep my hands steady. The entire process took 15 minutes and cost $3. With her new minimalist, hand-drawn look, she didn’t look quite as freaky as the lopsided-monkey-Jesus from that recently restored Spanish fresco that’s been on the news lately, but neither did she harken back to her former self.

I gave the old, new Baby to Maxie for Hanukkah. I had no idea how she’d respond.

She was overjoyed. She did not sob like Liam. She just squealed and hugged Baby, and me, repeatedly. She still sleeps with the doll every night.

Laughing at myself a little, I shared with my mom my anxiety about fixing the doll. Maxie is an inherently upbeat kid—of course she’d see the real Baby shining through the new fabric. (In fact, as I was writing this story and looking at old pictures of Baby, with the girls peering over my shoulder, Josie pointed at one ancient photo and said, “Oh, look, Baby was perfect!” Maxie responded, “She’s perfect now. It’s just a different kind of perfect.”) There’s a little lesson to be found here, too. Mom pointed out that part of the narrative of exile is that God “hides God’s face”—God is nistar, hidden, can’t be found. Eschatology, the “end of days,” when the messianic era will come, is restoration. Again, toy is metaphor. The return of Ah-Ah and (in a smaller, more personal way) the reinvention of Isabel Montina are resonant because they hold the promise of bigger stories, stories that speak to adults—and our need to believe—as much as they do to children. Stories of redemption, reunion, and return are vital to us all.

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My daughter, now 14, has a 12″ Pat the Bunny bunny on her bookshelf. He is her third; she got the first one at 20 months old as a new-big-sister present from a neighbor. Luckily, Pat the Bunny is replaceable. Sort of. By the third purchase, Bunny had been changed and there was now crinkle paper in his long ears, making chewing on the ears not as pleasant. but there he sits on the bookshelf, with the Clique novels and Hunger Games trilogy.
What a lovely essay. And yes, I cried for Liam and Ah-Ah.

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What Makes Toys Meaningful

A facelift for my daughter’s doll and a viral video about a toy monkey teach lessons about redemption

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