Puff is part teddy bear, with a hint of dog, or maybe mouse. He's a soft, smooth confection, all white and yellow with moonshaped pink ears and embroidered baby blues. Made of parachute-type material, with a whisper of a rattle inside, he was part of a Fisher-Price line a lifetime ago, known as Puffalumps.
The moment I spotted him, in a remainders bin at Toys R Us, I knew exactly what would happen next. I would bring him home, introduce him to my infant son, and it would be love at first sight. I did, and it was. When I handed Puff to Evan, he buried his face in that of his new friend, stroked the plush nose, which just begged for stroking, and sighed.
That sigh became part of our days, and then our years. Naptime was a two-step: put thumb in mouth, press Puff against face, sigh, then sleep. Waking up was a different dance with the same partner: blink in the light, reach for friend, run fading material through fingers, sigh, then smile. Deflated in patches, worn in others, but still rattling, Puff came everywhere with us for awhile. He was my boy's security, yes, but also mine. With Puff along I could make anything better. I could soothe hurt, deflect a tantrum, turn someplace unfamiliar into someplace safe. I would hand my boy his anchor -- our anchor -- and we would both sigh.
We lost him once. We had spent the night in a hotel, and when it was time to leave, Puff was nowhere to be found. The car ride home was awful. Bedtime was worse. It was Evan's first real lesson in loss, and my first real taste of helplessness. The next morning we learned that a hotel housekeeper to whom I am forever grateful found Puff tangled in sheets that I could have sworn I'd searched, and before long he was back. The reunion was joyous, yes, but there were hints of something else as well. Evan held Puff tighter after that, familiar love mixed with new fear. Something precious can be lost, he had learned, and the knowledge itself was the loss of something precious.
I found another one, on eBay, where desperate mothers go to replace love. (Really, there is a Lost Loves Toy Chest on the site.) I meant to keep the newcomer hidden, a backup just in case, but one day Evan spotted it where I'd thought it was safely out of view. He looked from the beloved in his arms to the one of the highest closet shelf, then back again. "Look, Mommy, there is two Puff-es," he said, and clutched them both to his face as I handed him the twin. First there was joy, but soon he realized he could tell them apart by how worn their noses were. Other realizations followed. One day, as the start of kindergarten neared, I told him what a "big boy" he was becoming. He answered solemnly: "I don't want to be big. When I grow up, then Puff won't be Puff anymore. Puff will just be a toy."
Far away, in Omaha, the love of Liam's life was Ah-ah, a sapphire blue monkey, a gift from his grandparents when he was a year old. Three summers ago, just before Liam was to start kindergarten, his family went camping, and somehow Ah-ah was lost in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I know about this because Liam's father recently posted a story about Ah-ah on YouTube (see below). "My wife called every placed [sic] we stopped at, frantically looking for that little blue monkey," he says in the video. "He was gone forever."
But not forgotten, particularly not by Liam's mother. A week before the video was shot, she was on eBay, buying a viola for her daughter and "something told her to do a quick search for 'blue monkey,'" her husband explains. I recognize that "something." Her little girl is growing up, playing the viola, and big steps like that are losses, too, awash in memories. So she typed in her request and up came a picture. I assume you have figured out the rest, because why else would this video have gone viral? Ah-ah was in Florida -- the very same monkey down to the jagged cut where Liam had taken the scissors to his lovey saying "I don't want Ah-ah to have a tag." There was still mulch in his feet from where Liam had dragged him around the campsite three years earlier.
The reunion brings tears. Mine were for Liam, yes, but mostly for his mom. For the time spent wanting to fix it, and not being able to. For the realization that when they get big, toys will just be toys, and parents will just be people who love you and wish they could keep you safe.
Puff lives on a shelf in my closet now, next to Koko, who my grandmother brought for me when I was 2, and whose fuzzy koala head is threadbare between the ears, because that is where I placed my chin every night. Cookie Monster is there, too. I bought him for my younger son, hoping to recreate the magic, but though he is made of the same parachute material as Puff, he never had quite the same hold. Maybe because we started with two, born of my fear of loss. Maybe because early on his big brother's friends told him that "stuffed toys are for babies" and after that I started finding Cookie exiled under the bed.
Both my big boys are in college now, and I am watching from afar. When I dropped them off, when I've gotten phone calls about triumph and struggle, when I've watched them walk further down a road where I can't follow, I have had the urge to offer up a Puff, a Cookie, an Ah-ah. Instead I rub my fingertips against imagined cloth. And I sigh.
Photo Call: In honor of blue monkeys, puffalumps and loveys everywhere, we're making a slideshow. If you have a photo of your child's treasured toy and would like to be included, please send a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org.