When I was six-years-old, four six-inch tall stuffed toys arrived with a bubbling hot, deep-dish pie from the new Pizza Hut that opened within walking distance of our house in New Jersey.
“They were just $1.99 with a medium pie,” said my mother, and I grabbed all four, before reaching for an onion- and pepper-topped slice. These were brightly colored Disney toys – with tags that marked them “Made Especially for Pizza Hut” – golden Pooh, pink Piglet, steel-gray Eeyore, orange Tigger. I held them, two by two, in my small greasy hands, while I picked off the toppings and then the cheese. I dropped red tomato sauce into my lap and onto Piglet’s left ear. Crumbs landed inside Pooh’s red t-shirt.
I was so excited to have new toys and I was sure that my old toys would be ecstatic to have new companions. I cleaned a space on my desk for my four new friends. Beside them, I placed a plush-covered mechanical beagle and a porcelain doll. I climbed into my pink gingham canopy bed and shut my eyes tight. Like most children, I thought that my dolls and teddy bears came alive after I went to sleep.
I didn’t read the original
The night that my teacher gave me the book, I put Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger on my pillow and read to them: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-The-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders….” I didn’t want to put the book down and, when my mother took it out of my hands at bedtime, I woke up early and finished it while eating my breakfast.
In the modified Disney versions I had been reading, Christopher Robin and his friends didn’t get into the escapades I was reading about in Milne's stories. Now when my Pooh and Piglet played together at night, they recreated their adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods in my own house: Pooh got into a tight place as he attempted to exit Rabbit's house; Eeyore lost his tail and Pooh found it; Piglet met a Heffalump.
In the “real” Winnie-the-Pooh, Ernest H. Shepard’s black and white “decorations” showed a shirtless Pooh, so I snuck into my mother’s bedroom, took her sewing scissors, and eagerly cut off the apple-red shirt that my Pooh wore. At 10, I surely knew that my toys were inanimate objects, but just as my classmates continued to believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy while on the cusp of puberty, I clung to my bookish fantasies.
My classroom’s copy of "Winnie-the-Pooh" – its cover a faded orange, several of the pages torn, and some pencil marks around the poems – became mine for the rest of the school year. I renewed it every week for months, carefully printing my name on the index card in the back. On the last day of the school year, I reluctantly gave the book back to my teacher. I owned few books: my immigrant parents could not afford many. I wanted a copy of my own.
That summer, we went to India and I carried Pooh and his friends in my backpack with me. My mother made me leave them there at my grandmother’s house, so I could play with them “when we resettled in India” (which we still haven’t done). I was devastated. My toys would be so far away! Would they miss me? I wondered. When we came back to New Jersey that August, the beagle and the doll looked lonely, so I put a few other toys near them – a purple and white teddy bear that played "Auld Lang Syne" when you squeezed its tummy and a blue-eyed baby doll tucked inside a multicolored quilt.
As I grew up, I learned more about my childhood friends. I read more about Milne, his son Christopher Robin, and Christopher Robin’s real stuffed toys that inspired the books’ cast of characters. I visited them, one high school summer, at The New York Public Library – Winnie-the-Pooh, solemn, without a honey pot; Piglet with his face slightly smashed in (“where a dog had bitten him," according to Christopher Milne); Tigger, sober and sedentary; Kanga, without Roo (who was apparently lost somewhere in Sussex); and Eeyore, the way I imagined he might be, quiet and pensive, looking at his front hoof. I finally bought a paperback
This summer, I pulled that boxed set off my shelf, as I spent the season in my parents’ house in New Jersey with my four-year-old daughter. Each night, she and I snuggled under the covers and read a chapter of "Winnie-the-Pooh" and, then, "The House at Pooh Corner."
The interesting capitalization tripped me up at first as I read aloud, but by the time I was on page four, I was back in love with the simple, natural, and affectionate bear, as was my daughter. I realized I must have set all of Pooh’s Poetry and Hums to made-up music as a child because they came rushing back to me as I read on.
The first movie my gentle and sensitive child ever sat through was
“I know that story, Mama!” she said, as she drifted off to sleep.
“Sort of,” I said. “But this version is better.”
For those few weeks, we talked about Pooh over bowls of oatmeal in the morning, and whistled “Sing ho! for Piglet (PIGLET) ho!” during bath time. I told her that Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends recently went back on display at NYPL after more than a year of repairs, and that my Disney Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore still reside in my grandmother’s steel cupboard along with the frilly frocks, Enid Blyton books, and colored pencils of my childhood.
When I was 10 years old, I never understood why Eeyore becomes so annoyed with Piglet when they come across a letter “A" made out of three sticks arranged on the ground: "Not O, A," said Eeyore severely. "Can't you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?" And I didn’t know what Christopher Robin meant when he said, “I’m not going to do Nothing anymore… They don’t let you.”
But now I understand. While reading these beloved books to my daughter, I gathered what I missed – that here was a story of a peaceful animal kingdom ruled by a single benevolent being, an Eden interrupted by a Tree of Knowledge.
My child is not far off from starting kindergarten, and she’s already learning how to “not do Nothing anymore” in preschool. Soon, she will no longer refer to her stuffed toys as her “friends,” as she does now, and I once did. One of the joys of raising a very young child, for me, lies in indulging her and my pleasure of make-believe.
My observations are hardly profound. Generations of parents before me have come to understand that the proverbial days are long, but the years are short. Still, I can’t help but feel that catch in my throat, especially as she begins to become curious and asks about weightier subjects, like the vastness of the universe as she looks into her telescope or about her paternal grandfather’s Parkinson’s Disease as she plays hide-and-seek with him.
I have no desire to hide her away in Paradise, for I believe that every caregiver’s task is to prepare at child to fly. And so it is, once again, Milne’s words that bring me comfort: "But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”