A small child walks past me in the library on her way to storytime with her mother. She clings to her favorite lovey. I know it’s her favorite by the odd muted color, the way one corner is thinner than the rest, and how the opposite corner drags along the floor.
Seeing the unconditional love makes me feel guilty. My daughter had a lovey like that, and I took it from her. I think I wanted to freeze time, to place the part of her that outgrows small soft things in a time capsule–and so I framed it.
Now it looks sad and misshapen, permanently posed awkwardly behind the glass of an expensive white shadow box frame. I went to a professional for it. He helped me select the pink polkadotted matte background. He promised to treat the lovey kindly and preserve it with care.
I told myself that when my daughter was older, she’d be glad I did it, and maybe she will be yet. But she was furious with me at first.
She called her lovey Baby and it was her most treasured object. Just before she was born, I bought her three organic cotton dolls–100% Egyptian cotton, no Azo colorants, flame retardants, formaldehyde, fragrance PVC or lead. One was green, one blue, and one pink: I wasn’t going to decide her tastes for her, wasn’t going to define what attracted her curiosity based on gender. The dolls were nondescript, about four inches head to toe, with a ghostlike shape and tiny stitched eyes and mouth, but no other features. I can’t explain why I even liked them, aside from being worried about everything that might come into contact with my newborn first child.
I slept with the dolls in my bra for a week after she was born. I wasn’t able to breastfeed and was desperate to provide my motherly smell in some way. Once I was sure I’d marked them, I presented the dolls to her.
Of course, as a newborn she didn’t immediately reach for one, but not long after she started to cuddle them. She gravitated first toward the blue one. At four months, when she began teething, she favored the pink one–so I bought five more, along with one that had vegetables printed on it. Veggie Man, we affectionately called him.
The dolls were designed for teething and had soft nubby hands. As part of her sleep routine, my daughter would chew a doll and twirl it by its long, gnome-like hat. She wouldn’t go to bed without it. If she was sad or sick, you could be sure to find it firmly gripped in her plump fingers. If she was happy, she’d rub it against her cheek.
When one pink doll became worn and tattered with time, filthy but too fragile to wash, I would replace it. At first my daughter didn’t notice, but by the time she had finished preschool, she refused to accept new Babies and instead dug up the remaining two originals. She re-embraced blue Baby and began chewing it full of holes of love. She twirled it above her head while falling asleep at night, winding the doll around her finger until it could spin no more and then winding it back again before gnashing it to sleep.
I tried to remember when I stopped sleeping with stuffed animals. I know that third grade is when having one started to be not-so-cool. But apparently that didn’t deter me: in seventh grade I went to a slumber party soon after my grandmother died and brought along the last stuffed animal she’d given me. The girls stole it, hid it from me in the freezer, teased me terribly until I locked myself in the bathroom and cried over my grandmother’s passing. They finally gave it back in the morning.
My mother is an artist and painted a portrait of Baby on a 4’x3’ canvas. She stapled a spare Baby onto the corner and gave the whole thing to my nearly 3-year old daughter as a Hanukkah gift. My daughter cried, rejected the picture, and demanded Baby be taken off the canvas. She didn’t like my mother’s depiction of her lovey: it was too big. It’s been in her closet since, employed as fort-making material now and again.
That makes two Babies hidden in her closet. First my mother’s, and then four years later, mine. I suppose I should let her outgrow her small soft things in her own time, and not fret over preserving them so she can reminisce to her kids when she’s older… because, really, who does that? And in the age of digital images, she’ll have plenty of evidence of what she loved.
Maybe my impulses are less practical. Maybe I’m afraid of her outgrowing me. She’s almost nine years old now. Puberty will arrive shortly, and the smiles and games we enjoy may be replaced with eye rolls and requests for more privacy. Her soft lovey will be substituted with a phone. I should enjoy her babyhood–or should I say Babyhood?–while I can.
I sometimes think about freeing Baby. Removing the glass, unsticking the glue, and letting my daughter have it for however long she chooses still to love it. After all, love shouldn’t be a memory; it should be lived.