Monday, February 17, 2014

Your Favorite Stuffed Animal

Dear Ellie,

When I was little, my favorite stuffed animal was a tiny green alligator named Al.  I was given a lot of stuffed animals over the years, so I’m not entirely sure why I chose him.  He wasn’t very big, so I couldn’t really snuggle with him.  He also had spikes on his back which… well, doesn’t that just defeat the purpose of a plush animal to begin with?  I still loved him the most, though.  It may have had something to do with the fact that his eyes were pointing slightly askew.  It seemed to me that those two eyes, slightly askew, were a manufacturing defect which Al, and only Al, had.  It made him look as though he were in the middle of rolling his eyes sarcastically.  For those two reasons, I kept loving him well into my teenage years. 

“Really, Al?” I would ask him after being ridiculed by a classmate earlier that day.  “Do you also think that that was the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard someone say?”  Then I’d look at his face and his expression would let me know that my opinions were in good company.

I suspect that just about every child has a favorite stuffed animal, whether they want to admit it or not.  Most are probably animals of the more furry variety.  Teddy bears, dogs, cats.  But what about yours, Ellie?  Well, I’ve been putting some thought to that and I think the most appropriate stuffed animal for you would be… a six-foot-long, green, moray eel named “Oliver.” 

By the time you read this letter, perhaps this won’t be a surprise.  Maybe you’ve been snuggling with Oliver the Eel for years now and, as you are heading off to college, a serpentine, plush tail is dangling out between the zippers of your suitcase. 

There is a history behind Oliver the Eel, part of which you’ve probably heard by now.  You’ve probably heard about how Oliver the Giant, Green Eel was once the pet of your Uncle and I.  How he was an odd eel because he was friendly and cuddly and liked to be pet.  About how he died young on the same day that your mother and I were certain that we’d lost you the first time, during a miscarriage scare.  How your mother and I joked that Oliver died protecting you and became your animal, spirit guardian.  Right now there is a picture of Oliver on your isolette, his head poking out from behind wires and tubes as though he were checking in on you.

Maybe, as you look back at your childhood, your memories are filled with not just Oliver the stuffed animal, but Oliver Myths that your parents told you.  And Oliver Sightings, as we explore the ocean with masks, fins, and snorkels.  Maybe we’ve told you that Oliver patrols the pool at night, while you are fast asleep, then disappears into the pool grates by day to sleep.  Maybe he’ll be like Santa Claus, but rather than delivering presents when you aren’t looking, he’ll be your animal guardian all through your formative years.  Maybe you’ll imagine him poking out his head from bookshelves or AC vents to check on you the same way that moray eels poke their heads out of crevices in the ocean. 

You’ll know that Oliver the Spirit Eel isn’t actually real, but it will be fun to believe in him, like Santa Claus.  And if Oliver the Spirit Eel is ever far from your consciousness for too long, you’ll have Oliver the Stuffed Animal to remind you.

So that’s the part of Oliver’s history that you are familiar with.  But there’s another part.  Oliver the Eel is just one of many ways I want to make your childhood quirky.  Not so quirky that you are weird in the eyes of your childhood peers, but just quirky enough.  I remember growing up and seeing so many kids that struggled to identify themselves.  I never felt that way, myself.  My life was different enough, distinct enough, that I never simply blended in with everybody else (and consequently, didn’t feel as though I had to engage in self-destructive behaviors to prove anything).  I was just quirky enough to feel sorry for the villains in movies.  And to relish arguments about philosophy.   And to adore a spikey stuffed alligator who rolled his eyes and was one of a kind.   

I want you to have that firm perspective of who you are, too.  I want you to look at your life, at all moments, and be able to say, “I am distinct.  I am Eleanor Smith.  I know who I am.”  And I hope that you’ll have Oliver the Eel along with you when you do.      

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