I used to collect realistic looking stuffed animals, the kind you buy at specialty toy stores, who aren’t always soft enough to cuddle and whose fur is thick and hard to clean. Up until sometime in middle school, I slept with one of them every night anyway, on a rotating schedule so that none of them would get jealous. We talked telepathically as I fell asleep. They kept me company and kept the dark safe from witches. When I went to college, they went into plastic bags and didn’t come out again until twelve years later, after my mom died.
As I was sorting through the old house before the estate sale, I decided to look at my stuffed animals one last time. Not to bring them with me. My mom’s car would already be overfull, and I was trying to be sober about what I had room for. Except for a couple boxes of sentimental items, I didn’t want to take anything that would be just as useless to me in California as it had been sitting in Detroit. Pare down ruthlessly. But there’d been wildfires in Santa Barbara the week before I left, and sorting through all the childhood and family stuff felt like fleeing a fire in slow motion: pack up what you have room for and leave the rest of your home to burn.
Once the stuffed animals were out of the bag, they took up the entire bed and looked immensely pleased with themselves, probably because I’d let them all onto on the bottom bunk for once. Crap, I thought. If I get rid of them now, no one is ever going to believe what a great stuffed animal collection I had. Still, I couldn’t think what I could do with them in Santa Barbara. Seasonal decorations? They were getting too mangy. Children’s toys? Too hard to wash.
Then the stuffed animals told me they wanted to go on a road trip. Double crap, no way I was letting that happen. I knew they had me anyway when I found myself thinking through the mix CDs I’d made for the trip and worrying that some of them would be a little too self-indulgent and emo for the animals’ tastes. “Fine,” I told them, “but you’re not coming in the house when we get there.”
There’s something crazy and exhilarating about filling up your car with stuffed animals, just to get rid of them on the other side of the country, as if you had all the space in the world. It’s like going outside in the snow without worrying about a coat. Plus suddenly I was imagining my trip through the illustrations in a children’s book. I wanted to be able to tell my unborn daughter how my stuffed animals and I went on a road trip after her grandma died, and that’s how we got her the dollhouse her grandpa made and her great great grandma’s high chair, that’s how we got the blocks, the Brio train set, the dress-up scarves, and the playmobil, that’s how we got our household gods all back to California. It’s incomprehensible that you can just pack up things like that in a car as if they were anything else. The story only starts to make sense once you put stuffed animals in the picture, staring out the car windows and nestled into the children’s furniture. Besides, I was secretly delighted that the animals were still talking to me and still wanted to come along, even after all those years stuffed in bags.
So I packed up Mom’s car, made sure that as many animals as possible would have good views, and away we went. The women making change at toll plazas and some of the people I parked next to smiled and asked where I was going. Hell, I smiled every time I got back to the car and saw the stuffed animals looking out at me.
When I got back to Santa Barbara, I still wasn’t letting them out of the Camry, though. So the stuffed animals started going everywhere with me. They drove down the coast with us when we went to say goodbye to Ted’s grandma for the last time, and they watched while I replaced Mom’s Michigan plates with California ones. Ted started playing with them, originally to cheer me up and then because it was fun, and he had fewer inhibitions about it than I did.
As I watched other people interact with my animals, it started to seem like they’d grown up some during those years in the plastic bags–especially the squirrel, who used to be very shy and slow to trust anyone, now gets excited when he smells mini-golf and bounces around to Rage Against the Machine. When the squirrel’s in the front seat, he always requests some kind of hard rock. My husband clarified that the squirrel’s wishes were not a proxy for his own, but we keep putting on rock anyway. Apparently the squirrel’s preferences matter. The stuffed animals also came to witch camp with me and decorated the porch around my cabin. Another witch who had a collection of stuffed rats and one stuffed rabbit came by to see if her bunny could stay a couple nights with mine, since he never got to enjoy company of his own kind at home. No one had ever called my bunny sexy before.
As I got into the achy part of pregnancy, I discovered that some of the smaller animals do excellent work as pillows between my knees, much easier to roll over with than when I’m using a full-size pillow.
So I let the animals into the house in mid-July and now I’m back to sleeping with them almost every night. I rarely talk to them now as I’m drifting off, but I think they spend most of the night whispering to my daughter. I suspect something like that was their plan all along, because my stuffed animals are still smarter than me.