Our little stucco house in Orange County has been home to many loveys. All three of my kids had them. My last has had his the longest.
Our journey with extra family members began in about 1993, when my husband and I had Ricky and fallaciously considered ourselves a family of three. We signed three names on the birth announcements, took three deductions at tax time, hung three stockings by the chimney with care. And, when restaurant hostesses called our name to be seated, we were Sanchez, Party of Three.
It wasn’t much math to keep track of.
But a few months later, when Ricky was about to turn 1, things got … well … a little complicated. A package arrived from Grandma, brightly wrapped in red, blue and yellow tissue paper, oddly hinting at what was inside. I unwrapped the tissue slowly, in front of Ricky, and we both laughed when a small tuft of black hair popped out.
“It’s Ernie,” I said, surprised.
And right at that moment — inexplicably and without fanfare — we became, I realized later, a family of four.
Ernie and his little stuffed Sesame Street body were, after that, everywhere. Ricky would drag him around, from room to room, leaving him near my elbow, in my chair, on my driver’s seat. I’d fling back the covers to crawl into bed at night, and there he’d be — staring up at me with those ping-pong-ball eyes. I’d find him lying around on the couch all day — his little stuffed body reclining across a pillow, flung over an armrest, or draped over the ottoman like some long-term houseguest. It was no longer just the three of us on the Sunday drives. It was no longer just three of us at the dining table. And no longer did we take up only three cushions on the couch.
We were truly four.
Ernie accompanied us in the car, joined us for dinner, watched TV with us, traveled to Grandma’s house with us. Sometimes he spent the night at Grandma’s (mistakenly, of course), and we would have to come up with quick excuses about why he was not in bed with Ricky. (“Ernie’s in the bathroom,” my husband told a distraught Ricky one night as he tucked him in.)
More than once we made return treks to fast-food places, hardware stores, grocery stores to scour aisles where Ernie may have fallen, leaving Ricky in a panicked state of tears and dispair. We made several phone calls to restaurants (“Hi, did you happen to find a little Ernie doll under one of your tables?”) and follow-up late-night drives, in slippers, to meet the restaurant managers who would slip him back to us with understanding smiles. We even made the mistake of trying to replace Ernie with a new Ernie doll once when the toy had become a misshapen mess, but Ricky would have none of it. Late that night, we found the new doll lying the floor, tag still attached, while the battered, worn and loved Ernie had regained his coveted place under Ricky’s arm in the toddler bed.
Through all those years — the “Ernie years” I call them — I realized that I learned a lot from the little stuffed guy. I learned that a child’s heart is enormous, and has enough room for mommies and daddies and grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and still has room to miss an Ernie when he’s been in the washer all day or to care for him when he has fallen behind the dresser. I learned that a child’s heart has room to offer an Ernie his last two Fruit Loops (the most coveted of foods), or to share his milk. I learned that hugging someone makes the vacuum less scary and that caregiving is a concept that even a child can learn. And I learned that you can’t just “replace” a true love. That bright colors and fresh seams don’t stand a chance against the familiar smell, dents and threads of someone, or something, long-loved.
Over time, Ernie underwent several plastic surgeries — he had a few nose jobs to correct his own nose’s misshapenness. He had some tummy tucks when his stuffing began spilling out. (Mommy wanted to try this surgery.) He even had his painted-on “shoes” mended and his “pants” sewn shut when seams would burst after being through the washer and dryer at least a hundred times. (“Ernie is taking a bath,” my husband would explain to a worried Ricky.) In the end, poor Ernie was a mere faded replica of what he once had been — matted hair, rubbed-off eyeballs, and sadly warped nose. But he wore a certain badge of honor — it was a faded badge of being loved.
When Ricky was 3 years old, he began to need Ernie less and less. Instead of searching through the whole house for Ernie before joining us for a Sunday drive, Ricky would bring Legos. Instead of grabbing Ernie on his way out the door to preschool, Ricky would bring pinecones. And instead of falling asleep on the living room floor with Ernie tucked beneath his cheek, Ricky would sometimes substitute a stuffed lion, a stuffed bear, or a toy kangaroo. It really didn’t seem to matter anymore.
Then one hot August, when a new sister arrived on the scene, Ernie mysteriously disappeared. My husband and I were more distraught at his disappearance than Ricky. We combed the living room, checked under the seats of the car. We couldn’t even remember when we had last seen him. Did we take him to the restaurant last Thursday? Was he with us in the car last night? No one could recall. It was as if Ernie simply surveyed his surroundings, realized his job was done, packed his bags, and stepped out the door. And Ricky suddenly grew from the boy who needed the hugs to the boy who gave them, mostly to his new sister, Rene.
Rene received a Winnie the Pooh bear when she was about 6 months old from my friend Gina. It was wrapped in yellow tissue. Soon, we saw the familiar pattern — the dragging around by the arm, the constant accompaniment in the car, the continuous bedtime companion. Over the years, Pooh Bear underwent the same surgeries Ernie did: a nose job, a tummy tuck, a few “tag” replacements. He went through a billion wash cycles, fell in the pool a few times, and was rolled over by a bike once. But he was constantly by Rene’s side, giving her courage, giving her camaraderie, and making the vacuum less scary.
When Rene got close to 3 and we were awaiting the birth of a new brother, I began to keep my eye on a little plastic bauble box that looked just the right size to be Pooh Bear’s suitcase, should he suddenly need one. I was expecting any day to see that suitcase gone and Pooh Bear missing.
But Pooh Bear stayed, and Nathan was born, and Nathan had his own loveys: Baby and Buddy. (Check out The Story of Baby here. …)
Over these years, I’ve been blessed with the gift that these toys always bring: They helped my children learn empathy and care. They taught my children it’s good to brush the sand off a fallen comrade and it’s good to give him a hug afterward. They encouraged loyalty and commitment, and they taught my kids how to care for each other when the next sibling came along. And, most importantly, they showed my children that love given is love received.
I’ll still be keeping my eye on that suitcase, though. I’m certain Ernie is somewhere beckoning Pooh and Baby and Buddy to join him in Aruba or something.
Their job is done. … And well done it was.