Thursday, December 3, 2009

Objects of Affection

Gilda was busy making Pillow for Finley last night.

Most every baby becomes attached to some object—a stuffed toy, a blanket, a piece of cloth. For our son Dan it turned out to be a stuffed gingham pillow in the shape of a lion’s face with a fringed white mane all around. A friend had given it to Dan along with a matching blanket. Gilda tethered the pillow to his crib so it wouldn’t topple over on him as a newborn. After he became mobile and the threat of being buried by it subsided, Gilda released the pillow from the side of the crib. A few days later she discovered him sleeping on top of the pillow. Since that day some 31 years ago, Dan and Pillow, as the object of his affection came to be called, have been inseparable, through summer camp, college dormitory, shared apartments and now his married family home. Dan could sit for hours stroking the mane across his cheek, watching TV, reading a book, listening to music, dreaming, or just simply vegging out.

When we realized his early devotion to Pillow, we projected out a real fear. What if Pillow were lost? Or just left behind at someone’s house? Dan would be inconsolable. So Gilda secretly made a second Pillow. Every few weeks or so we’d switch them out and wash the used one. In between assignments, the second Pillow would await its turn on a top shelf in Dan’s closet. Dan was none the wiser for our deception.

As I stood at the bathroom sink shaving one morning when Dan was about 3, I was startled into action. Gilda was yelling to quickly come downstairs. I had reached the landing at the top of the stairs when I saw Dan standing at the bottom, holding Pillow and his twin, one in each hand. He was screaming, “Two. Two.” His joy was unbounded. His pleasure doubled. He understood and accepted completely the duality of Pillow’s existence. He loved both Pillows, though he probably favored the original.

Now that he’s a father, Dan’s trying to replicate his attachment to Pillow, hoping that Finley will bond with Gilda’s new creation. We, mostly Gilda with her sewing, are willing accomplices. But the track record of transmitting a favored object from one generation to the next is spotty. At least in our family.

When my brother, sister and I grew up, we each in turn latched onto a stuffed animal we called Bow-Wow. In truth, Bow-Wow was a lamb. Blame my brother for the zoological confusion. He named Bow-Wow. Bow-Wow remained a member of my childhood associations even after he was disposed of by our mother.

When Gilda was pregnant with Dan, we visited Carmel, Calif. In one of the town’s curio shops I saw a stuffed lamb. It was much smaller than Bow-Wow, but the attraction was magnetic. Surely Dan would bond with my version of Bow-Wow. We forced him into newborn pictures, first with Dan, then with Ellie.

Nothing. Nada. No chemistry at all. Today, as he has for more than 25 years, Bow-Wow Jr. rests stoically on a shelf in Ellie’s room. After 31 years in our household, he still has his eyes and nose, sure signs of childhood neglect, or more precisely, displacement by objects of affection chosen not by parents but by innocent young lives not tied to preconceptions or family history.