March 7, 2018

i totally bought it

It was twenty-five dollars, an unthinkable sum for a newlywed couple who had, just the previous week, picked up cans on the side of the road and turned them in to the recycling company for enough cash to buy a tank of gas and a fast food meal.  We both worked full-time, but in an economically depressed area with low wages, and student loan payments were coming due.  We enjoyed a steady diet of Banquet pot pies and Totino's pizzas.

The umbrella in the art museum gift shop was the color of yellow-orange bright summer sunshine on top, with a puffy-cloud blue sky printed on the interior.  I was enamored.  Twenty-five dollars meant it stayed there and we left with two postcards and a brochure.  To this day, when I need to purchase an umbrella, money is no object, yet I flash briefly back to the sky-on-sky over-sized umbrella in the bin at the museum, and vaguely wish for it.

Why do some never-seized things stick in our memories?  We purchase so many objects that turn out to be mistakes of wasted money.  We choose not to purchase things that we cannot afford or that are smartly avoided.  I still feel the lack of that umbrella, though, and of other non-possessions that must have held some emotional component ....

... the Keds that became popular in 1988, the ones that had black-on-white drawing all over them that you could color with permanent markers and make your own.  The popular kids had them.  I wanted to put on my own pair and bask in the deceptive sense of fitting in.  My mother was far too sensible to permit the indulgence, and I know her decision was the right one.  She saw a price tag of twenty dollars for a pair of shoes identical to the ones that were five dollars at Family Dollar, save for a little blue label in the back.  I still think of the shoes.

... the Cabbage Patch doll I didn't get for Christmas when I was eight.  Money was tight and the little blue label in this case was the demand for the dolls and the exorbitant prices stores were charging for them because of it.  She did what she could.  She went to the craft store and bought a doll head (writing that just creeped me out ... a disembodied doll head ... no, twelve doll heads sitting stacked on the shelf at the store, vacant stares ... Jesus shoe-polishing Christ, I need to move on) and a template, some cloth and a bag of Poly-Fill stuffing.  She secretly sewed and crafted a generic, homemade Cabbage Patch doll for me.  It almost looked like a real one, but it didn't have that wonderful smell that probably came from highly toxic chemicals.  It didn't come in the big yellow box with the official adoption certificate with a blank for whatever name you chose for your doll.  She had on a red dress.  My mother must have slaved over the doll, after I had gone to bed each night, for at least a month.  There was detail there.

I woke at 3:12 a.m. Christmas morning and crept into the darkened living room.  I saw the doll sitting propped up among the gifts.  The red dress looked black in the dark.  I picked it up and lay on the sofa, cuddling it and crying, until my tears were spent.  I put it back under the tree as well as I could to cover the tracks of my materialistic espionage, and the next morning, I emerged from my room and acted surprised and delighted, and named her Penny, and did not cry again.

My neighbor across the street got four real ones -- two regular ones, a Preemie and a Koosa.  My mother explained that she was spoiled and I was a better person because I had less.  I still fight against this belief.

... a simple fucking six-ounce sirloin.  The church youth group stopped at a Western Steer Steakhouse en route to a ski lodge, causing the hearts of the serving and kitchen staff to swell with anticipation (not the good kind).  I was eleven, and I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, because it was the right thing to do, and that thing was the "chopped steak".  I was mocked when they brought out the gravy-covered hamburger patty.  Everyone else ate at restaurants enough to know better.  My family did not.  I ate my ignorance with a baked potato and yeast rolls and downcast eyes.

They're all wounds that could have been avoided, or status that could have been attained, or trinkets that would have artificially made me feel that I had value.  All remembered.  Tattooed.  But none of that matters.  No parent has a crystal ball showing the intricacies of a child's mind.  No parent can ever know, in the moment, that a particular thing counts this time, is different from other whimsies.

I think that's why I bought him the seal puppet.

My kid was seven and the three of us were out on a last-minute Christmas shopping expedition at Barnes & Noble, on the crowd-pressing evening of December 23.  We grabbed what we needed and made our way from the back of the store toward the long check-out line, and on the way, passed by a stand of Folkmanis puppets.  A mood took us and we played with most of them, spent a few minutes as a family being silly.  And the kid saw the gray harbor seal puppet, and a change came over his face, a light in his eyes, and he desired that puppet with a terrible desire.  He looked at it, and it looked back at him, and love was born.

The kid had a Seal Thing.  He had begun collecting stuffed seals and he read non-fiction books about pinnipeds.  He drew pictures of them at school and talked about them incessantly, in the well-lopsided, obsessed way of the gifted child.

P.J. and I were The Parents in this moment.  We knew the date; we knew how many gifts awaited him under the tree; we knew our duty to curb his over-exposure to commercialism, to the want of a thing just because he liked it and his incurable impatience.  The right thing to do, according to page 273 of the Invisible Parenting Manual That Never Arrived, was to say "no" to this and make him move along.  Instructions continued on fictitious page 274:  He'll forget about it.  It will pass.  Say no and let him cry and it will do him good in the long run.  Do the hard thing.

We did.  If I recall correctly, we had to physically pull him away from the puppet stand.  There wasn't drama ... just ... sorrow.  Which we interpreted as drama.

That evening, after an inconsolable child had cried himself to sleep, I shared my nagging doubts with P.J., completely devoid of a leg to stand on or any rational argument to complement my gut.  Of course we did the right thing.  Didn't we?  It followed all the rules.  I was just reconsidering because I loved him and felt bad that he felt bad.  The temptation was totally understandable.  We did the right thing.  We did.

But something wouldn't stop tugging.  In the face of all parental wisdom, I knew that we needed to go back and get that seal puppet.  I knew that this was one of the things that would stay with him forever, the never-got-to-have-it seal.  I knew that it would not further his developmentally normal child's thirst for everything he saw in stores, nor would it curb it.  I knew, without possibly being able to know, that we had erred.

The next day, I took the kid out to lunch , and then returned to the book store.  It was Christmas Eve, and I bought him the puppet.  And I did what page 275 says to never, ever do:  I apologized to him, for not validating his feelings, for hearing his lawyer-argument-bolstered pleas for toys on a thousand other occasions and having every reason to believe this instance was no different, in spite of what my heart said.

We looked each other in the eye and I think he got it.  I know I did.  We both cried a little bit.

Sealy came to visit Micah at my
office.  I have a seal, too.  And I
took a picture for the kid.  Shut up.
Folkmanis puppets are expensive as shit, and also worth it.

His name is Sealy.  His gray fur is flattened and rough, no longer soft and lush.  I have had to add stuffing three times and patch him with stitches here and there, now and then, needle and thread.  He has a snarky personality and can make some extremely funny seal faces.  He has seen much of the world, has been laundered, has been stowed away in a school bag countless times, has traveled twice through the postal system when lost and found, and has kept the company of a slumbering little boy on many a night, held tightly under one arm.

I love Sealy as much as the kid does, though he doesn't know it.  Sealy reminds me of the time I accidentally did something right.

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