From infancy, they have been a large part of my life. They comforted me when I was sad. I could tell them anything. They have gone everywhere with me. I can let off steam around them, sit on them, ignore them and let them gather dust, but they have never complained. Never spoken at all. After all, stuffed animals rarely do.
I have always had stuffed animals. And there have always been more than could comfortably fit in bed with me at once. When I was seven my family was preparing to move to Japan as short-term missionaries. The last night, I piled them all in next to me, and my father joked that they just might fall over and smother me. I didn't care.
Baby, my oldest animal, was given to my parents for me even before I was born. Hand-sewn out of pink gingham, the 21" elephant has been in my room since then. Cuddles, a bean-filled puppy with a crocheted sweater and blanket, has been around almost as long. Both Silas the snake and Whaley predate my memory.
Others I not only remember, I connect with events and people in my life. Those large rabbits were given to my brother and I the Easter I was 8; that teddy bear holding the bag of sugar was won by my mother at an amusement park later that year; the little bunny in the large mug was given to me by one of my father's English students the next year when we moved back to the States, and now wears a tee-shirt with the name of a cabin for which I was a counselor two years ago.
Moonbeam (a rabbit) I bought at a garage sale while staying overnight with one of my friends in fifth grade. For years he went to sleepovers with me, because he was just the right size. At the time that I bought him, however, he was just an impulse buy. Baby got a lot more of my attention those days, as I poured out my pre-teen heart to him in between sobs of how misunderstood I was or complaints about unfair school assignments. His large, floppy ears made perfect handkerchiefs on which to wipe my eyes, and his stuffed head muffled the sound of my crying.
As I progressed through middle school and started re-arranging my room, I decided that the toy box was not worth the surface space that it provided. It was only half-full, anyway. But if I emptied it out, what would happen to the toys that remained? I climbed in and started digging through. The dress-up clothes could go to goodwill, and the truck could earn a little money at the community garage sale in the summer. But what about my stuffed animals? They all had significance! There was no choice to but whittle them down. I would not get rid of all of them, of course. There was a mesh hammock over my bed that could hold ten or twenty. Still, that was close to half of the number that I had. The process of going through the pile was a test of my desire to grow up and my ability to make choices.
I continued to collect stuffed animals over the years. Good thing I'd left some extra room in the hammock. I bought the softest (and cheapest) teddy bear I'd ever found at a memorable outreach one February. One of my favorite gifts from my 16th birthday was Elephant (pronounced with a long "a"). And for my eighteenth birthday, I specifically asked my brother for one of the new Veggie Tales beanie toys (he got me Junior Asparagus).
The all-night graduation celebration was one of the most enjoyable nights of my life. The parents rented out FunScape, a local movie complex with a bang. There was putt-putt golf, bumper cars, laser-tag, flight simulators, and the largest play-place I've ever had the pleasure of being in. There was food everywhere, we all got about 50 free tokens for the arcade, and I "caught" the spinning light and won the jackpot three times. What brings this all back? Not the sight of a McDonalds, a trip to the theatre, or even the rolling duffel bag I won as a door prize, but the two small stuffed animals I bought with the tickets I won in the arcade. In the same way, the memory of the tickets to Busch Gardens that were given to me for graduation is linked with Pugsly, the small stuffed dog my friend Jeni won there and gave to me. Jeni herself is brought to mind by Vanilla, a speckled bear named after the scent of perfume he was holding when I unwrapped him.
I have never been anywhere long without a stuffed animal. Some of my stuffed animals are world travelers, having visited various countries in Asia and South America with me. When I first moved to Texas last August to start my internship with Teen Mania, I had in my arms a pillow with a stowaway. Baby stuck his head out in time for the farewell photo at the airport. Once I got settled in, Pugsly, Vanilla, and Junior appeared on my desk at work. Bob and Larry resided on the next aisle over. Even back in high school, a new addition to the family would occasionally observe classes from the corner of my desk or from my lap.
When I had been in Texas for a month, my friend Tom send me a care package with a small stuffed cow in it. In the dorm, Samuel (pronounced Sam-moo-el) would sometimes moo in my roommate's faces. One day I came home to find him kidnapped! Happily, he was just hiding in my closet. But he remained a legend in our room, and I considered him one of the best things sent to me all year.
Stuffed animals have practical uses, too. When I was younger, PJ's pouch held clothes for a sleepover, and his stomach served as a pillow. Now, when away from home my glasses hang perfectly in the sleeping bag of a cat my brother gave me years ago. I still can't sleep well without a stuffed animal in my arms, and when I have back problems they provide the best support. When we have guests with young children, my stuffed friends often make the best ambassadors.
Recently, one of my favorite companions' seams started to loosen. I brought Baby to my mom, and she gave him the once-over. She knew me too well to point out that his wiggle-eyes haven't wiggled since I chewed on them as a toddler, or that his colors were faded and spotted with stains, or even that his ears were starting to fray. She simply sewed him up, and I put him back on my pillow, where he silently sits, knowing more about me than many people, his big floppy ears and soft body waiting until I need him again.