Under the covers, his animals create a topography of hills and valleys; brown glass eyes peer up at me. Two years ago, Clayton slept in a narrow strip of bed, perilously close to the edge, until Don and I installed a “stuffed animal shelf” above his bed. Now it only the beloved bear squad that gets to sleep in bed every night, with the half a dozen others that get rotated in. Sometimes, however, the animals on the shelf take matters into their own paws and dive onto the bed even when it’s not their turn. They like it better, Clayton says.
We are at the cusp of something. In bed, Clayton’s body is impossibly long; his feet are as big as mine. And yet I am reminded of when Clayton was two and well-meaning friends would look at him and say, “You’re such a big boy now, Clayton!”
“No, I’m yittle!” he would protest. “I’m a yittle boy!”
When I dropped off a book at the library the other day, a poster caught my eye: “Stuffed Animal Sleepover at the Library.” Cool, I thought, immediately hooked. I bet my kids would love to sleep over at the library with a stuffed animal.
But I was wrong. The event was exactly what was advertised: the sleepover was for stuffed animals alone. Also, it was over; pictures of stuffed animals reading books and playing hide-and-go-seek were in a binder by the check-out.
That night, when I told Clayton about it, his eyes grew bright. I watched as he surveyed his host of stuffed animals. Who would like a library sleepover the most?
“We’ll do it next year,” I told him.
But as I kissed him good-night, my heart clenched. Next year. Was it possible? Would Clayton still want to take a stuffed animal to a sleepover next year?
I recently read Wonder by R.J. Palacio. The book is touching on so many levels, but what I liked best about it was that it didn’t shy away from the details of little boyhood. The main characters are all in fifth grade. They change classes and use lockers. They have crushes and “go out” with girls. And yet, August’s mom still lies down next to him at bedtime, and when he’s upset, he covers himself in a mountain of stuffed animals and waits for her to find him.
For me, so much of the poignancy of the book comes from how fragile and fleeting that boyhood seems. In Wonder, August’s coming of age is inseparable from his transition from the protective bubble of home school to the harsher realities of middle school. One wonders, for instance, if he begins to relinquish his attachment to his favorite stuffed animal simply because he is getting older, or because, now in school, he has internalized the judgement of his peers.
Clayton, too, is not immune to these concerns. Although he still plays with Calico Critters with enthusiasm— “I feel so happy when I play with them!” he told me last week— he will not claim them when others are around. Privately, however, he is unabashed in his loves: fairies and leprechauns, stuffed animals and Sofia the First. In our home, at least, he still gets to be a “yittle” boy.
I think of the Dar William’s song, When I Was A Boy, which resonated with me so much when I first heard it in the early nineties. The female character in the song balks at gender’s dictates and mourns her lost childhood, when she rode her bike topless and climbed anything she could. Now, it is the verse in which her male friend talks about his boyhood that brings tears to my eyes:
When I was a girl, my mom and I, we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked
And I could always cry, now even when I'm alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl, too.
Maybe it is the triumph of our times that skinned knees and climbing trees are no longer the markers of just boyhood. It is hard to imagine a girl today being judged harshly for playing sports or getting dirty. And yet the consequences of gender nonconformity are so much stricter for boys than for girls. Perhaps that is why the more feminine aspects of Clayton’s boyhood seem so imperiled by the passing of time. After all, Dee Dee and Sylvia will outgrow Sofia the First and Calico Critters, too. But somehow that certainty doesn’t wring my heart the way it does with Clayton.
When Don grows impatient with Clayton’s tears and sensitivity, and says he has got to toughen up, I want to take Clayton in my arms. It is far too easy to imagine a time when Clayton’s tears won’t come so easily, when his Calico Critters will move to a box in the attic, when I will no longer begin my afternoon workouts to the theme song from Sofia the First: “I was a girl in the village doing all right...”
So when Clayton asks if he’ll have to get rid of his stuffed animals soon, I am emphatic. I tell him no and never. I remind him I still have Cuddly Wuddly, that Uncle Stefan still has Mommy Monkey. But I know what he is getting at; I sense it, too. One day the dinosaur comforter that I pull around him every night will be gone, the bear squad regulated to the shelf above his bed. I can feel that time coming, and there is so little I can do.
I kiss Clayton good-night again and arrange his stuffed animals around him in the bed. This is all that I can do: cherish Clayton, treasure this time. You never know, maybe one of those bears will get to go on the stuffed animal sleepover next year. Still, when I turn off the light, my heart is so full, it hurts.