A Toy’s Story

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“We’ve done our duty.  Andy’s grown up.” –Army Man, Toy Story 3

Last week I went and watched the newest (final?) installment of the Toy Story world.  I knew going into the film that it was an emotional story for me.  Andy, like any real boy, grows up and leaves home.  He heads off to college and leaves behind the toys that defined him, the story of his childhood.  I looked back through photos that I took of my room before I cleaned it out after graduation.  I looked at my collections, my awards and pictures that plastered the walls.  My dolls, my toys, my books and movies–it was the product of fourteen years of life.  I decorated rooms in college and now have my own apartment, but nothing has ever been as truly, deeply, boldly me as that room I grew up in. 

I was choked up within a matter of minutes watching that movie.  It pulled at  my heart throughout the story.  I later read a “confession” in Entertainment Weekly by a man who had seen the film.  It was about his own emotional outburst, and those that men confessed to him they cried while watching it.  Something about the movie is so painful, so beautiful, so personal to adults.  Yes, there are moments that children are enjoying, but Pixar knew that they were targeting every person who had ever packed up toys, ever decided to grow up, ever had to become an adult.  It asks the question of what a toy really is.  Is it something that you enjoy and then put away until it’s needed again?  Does it wait for the next generation to find joy in it?  Or is it never really happy unless it’s being loved and played with  by a child?

I know that all of this is silly to question, because toys are pieces of wood and cloth and plastic.  They do not feel or think.  They just are.  But this is the whole magic of the movies.  Everyone who has ever carried a toy everywhere, who has had ongoing games and stories they imagine, knows that a toy is much more than what it’s composed of.  I think of my Polly Pockets (the real ones, the tiny ones I couldn’t play with if my brother was awake) and Barbies and Precious Places and American Girl dolls all packed away.  The Littlest Pet Shop (again, the real ones, not the creepy new generation) and Beanie Babies and Legos that fill buckets in the garage make me feel guilty.  Should we give them away?  Should they be somewhere where children will love them as much as we did?  Is it selfish to keep them for the children I want someday?  Is a toy something that we can rightfully hold onto?  The army men left because their job was done: they saw Andy through his childhood.  After that, they had no more use.  Is there truth in this?  Or do we really never outgrow our need for the toys that accompanied us through the years?

“‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’

“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'”  –Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

I grew up in America.  I had parents who loved me and my brothers, who provided for us and wanted to make us happy, give us a childhood of joy.  Part of this meant that we never wanted for much.  We had clean clothes, plenty of food, shelter and attention.  And we had toys.  We had too many toys.  Many of them I would never recognize if I saw them in a thrift store, but there are many others who I can feel in my hands, who I can smell and hear and never forget.  I remember the cardboard Grocery Store my parents assembled for me.  They painstakingly kept boxes from food and resealed them so I had REAL food for the shelves.  I can remember the way my mom’s doll house she handed down to me smelled, even after I started using it more to throw clothes on top of than to play with.  I can hear the swish of the water and plastic that swirled in my little pot, made to look like soup cooking.  Nothing on earth sounds like the clatter of hundreds of Legos falling out onto the floor. 

We were raised to appreciate our toys.  We were relatively good to them.  We didn’t draw on them or leave them outside.  We loved our toys.  My brothers both had a propensity for choosing the ugliest, hardest, sharpest toys to take to bed with them every night.  We kept the accessories and pieces and took care of what we loved.  My dolls all had names.  My mom made beds with blankets and mattresses for them. 

“‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?'”

Another part of Toy Story’s universality is the tragedy of it.  Again, the unnecessary guilt sets in.  We all have favorite toys.  We would be excited by new ones, revel in the adventure of playing new games, but they would mostly fall by the wayside.  I feel sad for those toys, who were wonderful and gifts and special, but not special enough.  They were fun, but not lasting.  There were so many that eventually broke, or were lost, or handed down to other children.  As irrationally sorry as I feel for these toys, I feel an awe for the ones that stayed around.  When my grandma continues to give my little brother Legos for Christmas, a little part of me stings with jealousy.  Where’s my new doll dress?  Don’t I get a new stuffed animal?  There’s a piece of me that wants to know that others recognize that child that’s still inside me, that I still love my toys, that I’m not the only one who has no idea when I got old enough to live on my own or hold a job or make restaurant reservations.

“‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.'”

On my bed right now, next to my pillow, is the Pound Puppy I got for my fourth birthday.  She is now old enough to buy alcohol.  She has been everywhere with me.  She has gone to the hospital with me when I was scared.  She left for school with me when I was terrified.  She has been dragged all over our home, shoved in suitcases, gone on sleepovers, and seen two decades of my life come and go.  When I read this passage from The Velveteen Rabbit my throat tightened.  My dad told me that the last time he saw Nicky he got choked up.  She doesn’t look like she did coming out of that box.  She looks old.  She has almost no fur left, few of the strings that separate her “toes” and much of the paint on her big eyes is scratched.  Her nose and bow are faded.  She is dirty and stained, looking more like she’s gray on accident.  She has soaked up tears and secrets.  She has no stuffing left in her neck, the perfect place for a child to carry a toy.  She is soft and floppy in all the right places for her to fold in half and fit perfectly in the crook of my arm as I sleep.

“‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.”

I know one day Nicky will have to go away.  My parents have talked about having her cleaned and preserved, like they would in a museum.  One day I will have someone else to occupy my bed, and her place will be taken.  One day she will simply not be able to withstand the demands a girl puts on her.  I dread that day and prefer to think that if she’s made it this far, she’ll make it forever.  At a time when my family is far away, she is closer than anyone else.  When I’m alone and realizing that friends are not as true as I thought, she is steadfast.  When I feel like things are out of control and chaotic, she brings me back to the simple.  When all the fears and anxieties and dreams and wishes that I build up in my head get too big, she can bring me back to the small, to the little me that made her leashes and buried my face in her tummy.  She is more real than almost anything in my life, more than cloth and stuffing and thread.

‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.'”

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