Thirty years ago I had a telephone stalker who used to call when I arrived back from work. He knew exactly what I had done that day, where I had lunch and would comment on what I was wearing. I was living in a small cottage on someone’s property in Jo’burg, and, frankly, the calls freaked me out a bit. My pal Jack, a strong, husky, no-bullshit fellow with a temper, was with me one day when the phone rang. He took the receiver from me and made it clear to the watcher what the consequences would be should he ever call again.
The next day Jack showed up with Jellybean. He’d picked her up in a service station somewhere. I’d been reading “Even Cowgirls get the Blues” and he thought the stuffed cowgirl resembled the feisty heroine. And would remind me to give the caller hell, should he dare to dial again.
Jelly travelled with me around the world, sitting guard on my beside table next to the phone: until one awful day I left her in a hotel in Oslo. My colleague Ingvar went through the hotel’s dirty laundry, literally, to find her. And from then on she has stayed at home in my dresser.
Jasper has Rabby: companion, compadre and knower of all secrets. When my nephew was ill, when his parents split up, in the aftermath of a home invasion, through a move away from father and grandparents, during a year at a despised school: Rabby has been the constant. Soft, smelly and falling apart – but always there for a sensitive boy.
Camparigirl has her beloved Pippo.
I remember walking into our flat one Friday night to find it icy cold and pitch dark. My friend was sobbing her broken heart out and Pippo was drenched in tears. I listened, made her a piece of toast and a cup of tea (all we had in the house in those days) and tucked her into bed – promising that everything would look better in the morning. She started to doze off and then sat up suddenly: “where’s he, where’s he?” she said. “Oh Wah, I don’t know, it’s over, let it go for tonight.” She stared at me: “No,man. Not him … Pippo.”
I retrieved her bear from the radiator where I had draped him to dry and handed him over. The healing had begun.
The three of us are not alone in our love for our toys. Irish photographer Mark Nixon was inspired to create his sweet book “Much Loved” by watching his son Calum interact with his toy rabbit: “I was struck by how attached he was to his Peter Rabbit, the way he squeezed it with delight when he was excited, the way he buried his nose in it while sucking his thumb, and how he just had to sleep with Peter every night. I vaguely remembered having similar childhood feelings about my own Panda.
After tracking his Panda down, Mark put the call out for people to bring their toys into his studio: the more unloved, unwashed, and bedraggled the better. He wasn’t prepared for the response: Nixon’s studio was suddenly inundated with grown-ups bringing him the treasured, threadbare toys they had kept secretly squirreled away for years.
What surprised him was the depth of feeling most adults still had for the toys of their childhood. “While they were waiting, people would tell me stories about their teddies: how a toy had almost been lost was a common theme. Some would speak emotionally about what their stuffed animals meant to them,” says Nixon. “These stories became integral to my photographs. It is the memories of their owners that bring these toys to life.”
Some of the stories were amusing: a radio broadcaster who brought his teddy into Nixon’s studio joked the bear was the third person in his marriage. Others were bittersweet: an elderly woman in her 60s said that she planned to be buried with her toy so that they could continue their journey together. Even U2 front man Bono provided a teddy bear for Nixon: “It had belonged to a friend of his, Greg Carroll, who died in a motor accident in the 1980s. At Greg’s funeral a mate of his gave Bono a memento: Greg’s one-eared teddy bear. U2’s song “One Tree Hill” is dedicated to Greg.”
Nixon believes that the affection most of us have for our childhood stuffed animals is a deeply rooted psychological phenomenon. “There’s something really primal about a cuddly toy,” he says. “Stuffed animals are transitional objects to most of us; a first possession that weans us from the dependence upon our mothers, but from which we ourselves can never entirely weaned.”
Psychologists say that a child experiences real grief when they are forcibly separated from a beloved toy. The grief is as deep and powerful as anything they may feel for a real human. And, if that grief is not processed, it can become fear and depression.
I would hate that to happen to ‘my boy’, so Jasper and I have an arrangement: should the day ever come when he is forced to give up his friend, Rabby will move in with me. He will be wrapped in a blanket of Jasper’s choosing and put somewhere safe and comfortable, where he will hang out with Jellybean. Jasper can then look in on him from time to time to check how he is.
After all – a life of selfless service deserves a safe and comfortable retirement.
Excerpt from Much Loved
By Mark Nixon
Published by Abrams Images