Toy Story

A mom becomes deeply attached to her son's stuffed tiger.


Joyce Millman
June 25, 1997 12:37PM (UTC)

i'll never forget the first time I saw Daniel. Actually, it was the
second time -- the first time I saw him, he barely registered: I just
stuffed him in a desk drawer and went back to work. But four years later,
as I was packing up to leave my job, I found him again, under a pile of
press releases, magazines and snacks. And I immediately fell for his somber
little face. Luckily, I was a mother by then, so I had a use for him. I
took him home, never imagining that a small stuffed tiger would someday
reduce a rational, even cynical, woman to a delusional, paranoid,
sentimental fool. But, then, I was woefully naive about motherhood, too.

Let me tell you about Daniel. He's rusty brown with black stripes. He
has a streak of what used to be white beginning just under his tiny peach
nose and running down his belly, where a tag reads "Yomiko," whatever that
means. He was some sort of special edition Russ plush animal and he was
sent to me by a local TV station as an enticement to review its show about
Marine World/Africa USA. (This is the type of graft TV critics get -- toys
and the occasional chunk of chocolate.) Sitting on his haunches, Daniel is
seven inches tall -- the perfect size for snuggling at bedtime, carrying
along on trips (he's flown cross-country twice) and sitting not too
obtrusively on the table in restaurants.

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My 5-year-old son, Mark, sleeps with Daniel, watches videos with
him, makes little hats and rocket ships and race cars for him and tells me
that he talks to him in his head when he's at school. Daniel's clear
plastic whiskers are bent at weird angles. He has a smudge of black
(marking pen, maybe) near his mouth, which itself is just three little
stitches of thread in an inverted Y. He's threadbare in spots; more than
once, I've had to sew up the hole in the back of his neck. And he's
downright dirty, because I don't know if his tail will hold up through the
spin cycle. Daniel is every inch a child's favorite toy, and he is damn
cute.

I guess what gets me the most about him, though, is the expression on
his face -- he looks very, very serious. He's wide-eyed and his head is
slightly cocked, as if he's permanently waiting for something to be
explained. He reminds me and Mark of Daniel Striped Tiger from "Mister
Rogers' Neighborhood" -- hence the name. And the voice. Which is my voice.

Not long after Daniel came home, Mark asked me to make him talk and I
launched into the Daniel Striped Tiger voice, soft and scratchy and
worried. Gradually, Daniel developed a personality of his own; younger than
Mark (because that's the way Mark wanted it), he'd ask questions that Mark
already knew the answer to, or mix up words and meanings so that Mark could
get all superior and correct him. You know how it turned out, don't you?
I'm being asked to make Daniel talk all the time now, and the truly
insane part is that, mostly, I do. He is, after all, my son. Mark, I mean.
Well, Daniel too -- somewhere in there, Mark decided that he was Daniel's
father and I was Daniel's mother and Mark's father was Daniel's
grandfather. I know this all sounds very "Chinatown," but part of being a
kid is having imaginary friends, we figured, so who's it gonna hurt?

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Well, me, apparently. I realized that I had become deeply and
ridiculously attached to Daniel in the winter of '96, when a wild storm
knocked out power to Mark's preschool for four days. The school was closed
and the terrible thing was, Daniel was inside -- I had forgotten to check
Mark's backpack for his stuff. Mark was a mess at bedtime, marginally
consoled by our reassurances that we could go to school early the next
morning and find Daniel. But there was no school the next morning, or the
next. On the third day of Daniel's absence, Mark sniffed, "I know he's not
hungry because I packed him a good lunch," and I felt my throat close up,
just close right up.

I had my own worries, too. I worried that Daniel wasn't at
school, that maybe some kid took him home -- we'd had a narrowly thwarted
Daniel abduction before. What if some inattentive parents didn't have a
clue that Daniel wasn't their kid's toy but mine? I wrote a
plaintive yet stern note ("Lost: Small stuffed tiger. Needed for bedtime!
Please check your child's cubby and return ASAP!") that I planned to tack
up on the bulletin board, but I didn't need to -- when school finally
opened again, there he was, on the floor of the playroom where Mark had
left him. My son didn't shed tears of joy, but I did. How could I have
become so dependent on a dusty little thing, I wondered. But deep
down, I knew: The thing wasn't just a thing.

A few weeks ago, I was looking at some photos from a trip we took last
summer. And there, in nearly every photo -- like that enigmatic black
statue all over the cover of Led Zeppelin's "Presence" -- was Daniel. Mark
and Daniel on the Cape Cod railroad. Mark and Daniel at Grandma's. Mark
holding Daniel aloft in extended family portraits. Daniel is even in the
picture when Mark's behind the camera -- he's sitting on my lap or
perching on the shoulder of an aunt. And that's how it is in our family:
Daniel is almost always where Mark is.

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Sometimes, when Mark is at school or out playing with his dad, I'll come
across Daniel lying forgotten on the living room floor, or squished into a
crack between the sofa cushions or sitting at the kitchen table, and I'm
always startled by his silence. I never make him talk without Mark around
-- it just wouldn't be fun and, besides, it might even be considered the
teensiest bit psycho. But I often hear Mark making Daniel talk when he's
playing alone in his room. He can make Daniel come alive all by himself. I
can't. When I stumble over Daniel during the school day, the little tiger
just stares at me -- neither one of us, I think, is quite all there without
our little animator. Those are the times when I see Daniel for the shabby
baby toy he is and I know his days are numbered. And it hits me hard, the
dread of how awful Daniel's silence is going to feel when my child no
longer needs him.


Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman


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