When I was a baby–perhaps for on the occasion of my first or second birthday, no one remembers anymore– my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, gave me this stuffed bear, which she had made herself. Now, almost 50 years later, I am faced with the task of sending Blue Bear off to the landfill.
My relationship with Blue Bear is an odd one. He was never one of my favorite stuffed animals, and yet I have kept him with me all these years, while the others have fallen by the wayside. He was never particularly soft or cuddly–though age has softened him, as it does all of us– and he did not meet my arcane childhood standards of cuteness. I had my favorites; he was not one of them. I never even gave him a proper name. But he formed the reliable back center of my stuffed animal arrangements, and also made a pretty good pillow for reading.
What my young self did know, however, was that he was handmade expressly for me and that was nothing short of miraculous. I did not come from a crafty family. The kind of emotional weight that I’ve attributed to the gift accounts for his longevity. I’ve dragged him along with me for all these years. Mostly he has spent his time on a closet shelf, ignored but kept, because great-grandma made him so how could I throw him out?
My great-grandmother’s name was Caroline Folkestad, née Thomson. She was born in 1884 in Denmark. I don’t know when she came to the U.S. I don’t know how she met my great-grandfather, Halvard. He was born in Norway in the same year. Did they meet over there and come to the U.S. together, or did they meet in Wisconsin, where they spent most of their life? Or did they even settle in Wisconsin at first? Our family is not big on genealogy or family stories, so I don’t know.
I do know Halvard was a Methodist minister, and so Caroline was a minister’s wife, and that gives me some sense of how she spent her time when she was not crafting bears. Did she make many bears over the years as gifts for friends, family, parishioners–or was Blue Bear sort of a one off?
She was 84 or so when she made that bear, and that is impressive in itself. It was the late 1960’s, and the materials she chose to construct him are representative of the period. His polyester fur, originally brilliant aqua blue, like a swimming pool on a sunny day, and his bronze-tone plastic button eyes are glimpses into the color palette of my childhood. In addition, he used to have bright red felt or something similar lining his ears, but that was chewed off by unknown agents long ago. Yet I still remember the brilliant contrast between the red ears and the aqua blue fur.
While Blue Bear was a fixture in my bedroom growing up, I barely remember great-grandmother Caroline. Certainly I was too young to remember her giving me the bear. She lived in Wisconsin, and we lived in Colorado, and visits were infrequent. Caroline’s son, my mother’s father, died of cancer when I was only three. So I’m sure she and Halvard came to Denver for the funeral, but I don’t remember that. But that adds one more thing to the very short list of things I know about her: minister’s wife, born in Denmark, made bears, buried son.
My single memory of her comes from a later visit to Wisconsin. I may have been five or so. I have just a few memories of that trip, disjointed and frozen in amber.
1) I had a Little Dot comic book (presumably purchased to keep me quiet on the trip) which just fascinated me.
2) I had to sleep on a couch under the gaze of a stuffed moose head, which was absolutely terrifying. Clutching the Little Dot book helped the terrors to some extent.
3) I remember meeting my great-grandparents at what I assume was their front door. I remember that I stood the height of my great-grandmother’s very ample bosom (she being short and I being tall) which was encased in a curious old fashioned dress with many tiny buttons running down the front. Her arms were soft and pillowy and her hands and arms were covered in spots. I’d never seen age spots before. She had a kindly face, but it was covered with so many wrinkles! Halvard was much the same, fascinatingly wrinkly and spotty, but more lean. He had a gap in his teeth which made him whistle on “s” sounds, like parodies of old men in old-fashioned comedies: “Ssssssscuse me, ssssssonny.”
My parents were very young when they had me. My grandma Folkestad, my mother’s mother, I realize now to my horror, was not much older at that time than I am now. So this was my first encounter with real elders.
I don’t believe I ever saw them again. Caroline died in 1974, a couple of years after our visit, and Halvard followed her in 1977, and all I have of her are my genes, those memory fragments and the bear. I don’t even remember her voice.
Which leads me to musing on what we leave behind, on the ephemeral nature of memory and experience. Some families are big on family lore and stories and those get passed down and repeated over the generations. As I’ve said, my family is not like that, on either side. But I don’t think my family is atypical in our a-historical ways.
Perhaps part of it is the immigrant mindset. The generation who came from the Old World (in my case, Ireland and Scandinavia) seem to have been eager to leave their past behind. Their kids, the second generation, cried “Westward, Ho!” and cut whatever tenuous roots their parents had planted in the Midwest. They had their eye on the future. So I can’t be surprised that we have no tradition of family lore or ways of honoring our ancestors.
I wonder what knowledge of an individual life endures more than two generations out. We pass out of memory so quickly, yet day to day, we live under the comfortable illusion that we’re immortal, and because of this we obsess on all these little conflicts and worries and daydreams which will be forgotten sooner than even we are.
And then, there is the bear.
Blue Bear is hand stitched, so for all I know, he is the last remaining scrap of Caroline’s handiwork, the last evidence of her intentions and skills and creativity (other than myself, I suppose–but you know what I mean.)
Still, fifty years is a long time, even for polyester fun fur, so Blue Bear is disintegrating. In the end, I suppose, time decides things for us this way. But I made things worse by washing him. His head and one arm came loose, revealing that he’d been stuffed with strange scraps and lumps of polyester wadding of different colors. His body material is so fragile at this point I can’t even consider trying to Frankenstein him back together.
KonMari would say it is time to let him go. She would send him to the landfill without compunction. I wince at sending him there, both out of sentimentality and because, being made at the forefront of the polyester revolution, he will never return to the earth. For that same reason, I cannot bury him or burn him. I seriously would give him a “viking funeral” if I could– but LA’s air is bad enough already without me burning plastics in the backyard.
Oh, if only he’d been made of wool! It would be so easy, then. But none of my childhood toys were made of wool. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any toy I owned which was made of natural materials. Somehow Blue Bear, as a 100% polyester toy, represents my abundantly plastic childhood.
I’m not sure when the world became so very plastic– perhaps the 50’s? Wherever it started, it certainly accelerated through my lifetime. The majority of my childhood was spent immersed in plastic. I ate off of plastic plates set on vinyl tablecloths, slept under poly quilts and 50/50 blend sheets. I think back on my groovy synthetic clothing, my bean bag, my Biggie comb, my Breyer Horses and my Barbies. It’s all buried somewhere now, part of the immortal treasures of the 2oth century, my own King Tut’s Tomb.
My great-grandmother Caroline, on the other hand, was born into a world which did not know polyester or plastic. In fact, rayon and polyester don’t appear on the scene until the 194o’s, so she was over 50 when she first encountered fibers based on petrochemicals. Yet at the end of her life, she stitched a toy for her great granddaughter out of entirely out of these novel, man-made materials. At that time, those bright colors and new textures represented modernity, a break with the past, the thrill of the future. It probably all seemed very hopeful.
And so anyway, I’m trying to figure out what to do with this bear.