Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who was that elephant I saw you with?

(Photo from

In a conversation with my son this morning, he wondered if children today are given the time, freedom, and encouragement to use their imaginations, to create something from nothing. The elephant toy, an earlier handcraft from the on-line shop of an artist I was unable to identify, symbolizes the personality which the hand can create from any material. Once the creature finds its child, the tales, the myths begin.

Stuffed animals of my acquaintance, from my growing up or my son's, had richer lives than anyone seen on the social pages, if such things still exist. They had backstories, relatives, businesses, musical abilities, idiosyncrasies, feuds, aversions, skills, aspirations and senses of humor. In a recent email thread among a women's art group, many told of designing their dream houses/apartments as girls, cutting pictures from magazines, building the roofless homes and making all the furniture from cardboard, keeping elaborate notes of JUST how it would all be.

I like a toy with a clouded past, one whose every thought has not been explored for me in animation. I like them to arrive as ciphers, of whom I can ask, "Who might you be?" A child knows who he is meeting; if that child part endures in us, we can still play. We can name things, find their hidden magic, fabricate and embellish, dream. A world built of imagination is not time ill spent. It is the realm of the visionary. Without those who can see beyond we would mope through our days devoid of flourish or zing.

The animated characters that inhabit the toy store aisles grew from a spark, a speck in someone's mind. I choose to believe that children will always be children, that imagination will always triumph. Weapons were not toys I wanted my son to play with but I knew I'd lost the battle when he bit his grilled cheese sandwich into the shape of a gun and started making "pow, pow" sounds.

In the past couple years, after drawing a line of rubber stamp creatures, I got to name them and give them histories. One I enlarged into a stuffed toy, a modern Marco Polo, as it turns out. His magazine debut added to his mystique with new travels, posing for a photographer, being among others of his kind. Maybe I need to add a new line to my no longer active resume: toy biographer. I could tell you stories.


Pamela Johnson Parker said...

My son bit his toast into the shape of a gun, too. I lost the battle there, as well.

This was a beautiful post and reminded me of something. I went to a yard sale where a mother was selling the bear that her estranged daughter had slept with till she was 14 and left to live with her father. She asked EIGHT CENTS. I bought the bear. He's beautiful, well loved, and still plays Brahms' Lullaby. I will be his caretaker till his person comes for him. (I've tried several times to contact her but she's never returned my calls or e-mails, either).

It's one of my saddest junking stories. I can see that sienna-furred bear now, next to the only doll I ever loved when I was small, which my husband bought for me after he learned that my mom had purged all my sister's and my toys when we were deemed too big for them. (I think that's why I'm such a hoarder, but that's a different post).

The tales these objects tell...about us as well as themselves.

Sultan said...

"In a conversation with my son this morning, he wondered if children today are given the time, freedom, and encouragement to use their imaginations, to create something from nothing." This is kind of a persistent meme. Older people have been saying similar things about the new generation for ... generations. Expressions of imagination change but not the desire nor the facility for such expression.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Our now retired "hippie" friends tell of wanting to raise their daughter in a gender-neutral environment so she would not be exposed to societal pressures and avoid male-dominated career choices.

So they bought her Tonka trucks and building sets instead of dolls. What did she want to do most of all? Put on a frilly dress and "twirl".

Footnote: for several years she was on the Seattle Seahawks Cheerleader squad. No longer a cheerleader, she owns her own business.

Artist and Geek said...

Marylinn-Thank you for this refreshing post, which brought about childhood nostalgia. Making things, building castles, forts and pirate ships with bedsheets. Your perceptive son is on to something...

The other day I visited a "science" toy store (predictable, I know), looking for gifts. To generalize, most toys have become increasingly less imaginative and more homogenized. The craft section is becoming smaller and smaller every year.

Where are the children? Stuck in front of video games where they no longer make toy guns out of sandwiches, but "point, shoot and collect ammo".

Knowledgeable parents have figured out that the "toys" of imagination can still be found in arts and craft stores. That's where I also found the children.

Radish King said...

I love this post. My favorite toys as a child were a bucket (to carry water to and from the stream) and a Mason jar with a lid with holes punched in it with which I collected lady bugs and bees then let them go. I went about this business steadily for four years as far as I can remember.

I still like buckets.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Pamela - Thank you. I'm glad there were reminders here for you. Our sons (did yours ever wear a cape?) were similarly inclined, weren't they?

The once-cherished toy for eight cents, it would have to be one of the saddest yard sale stories, though as I think of the circumstances that can prompt such events, I have to acknowledge there must be more sad stories than happy ones among those tables. How right that he found his way to you. I wonder if his owner will every respond. I can imagine a stubbornness that forbids any sort of going back, no matter how much the heart may have changed.

Finding a doll to replace the best-loved one, to restore some of the balance, makes me think of Walt Whitman, saying, "Nothing is ever really lost..."

Marylinn Kelly said...

Laoch - I know parents were in despair with the advent of the comic book, certain it would ruin their children's lives. And we will probably keep saying similar things. But I absolutely agree...children and imagination will always find a way. I feel it is a basic human need.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Robert - One of the beauties of imagination is to take something defined and seemingly absolute and turn it into what we want it to be. When one is called to twirl, nothing else will do. And I see my environment, and my gifts, as much greater determinants of career choice than the toys I was given, glad my Snow White ringer washing machine did not foretell my future. I am happy the young twirler has been able to enjoy a well-rounded life.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Artist and Geek - Thank you, and for reminding me, especially as our weather becomes rainy and cool, of the sheet and card table tents and the clubhouse made of boxes from a new washer and dryer...rooms, we had rooms.

Thanks to my artist mother, my whole life has been one with access to craft supplies...often junk that could be adapted. I think of pieces she made with tin cans or seed pods collected around the neighborhood. She built dioramas in hollowed-out egg shells. In a family album there is a photo of me, at 2 or 3, in my grandmother's shawl with a cardboard sword, wearing a pirate hat folded from a newspaper.

In my usual vein of trusting in the good outcome, I trust the children will be inspired by their games to create or expand upon some of the imaginary worlds or simply grow bored with having so much that is programmed for them. A book is still the best ticket to adventure I know. Or maybe it would be paper and pencil. What the heck, I'll take both.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Rebecca - Thank you. Oh, a bucket, my kingdom for a bucket...the pouring, the scooping, the carrying. Even from my suburban roots, I know the appeal. The bugs and bees, to watch and free. My brother, not knowing it could harm them, collected pill bugs (sow bugs?) and carried them in his pockets.

For a time my favorite toy was a tricycle I'd "earned" by not eating candy for a year. I never rode it but turned it over to use as a sewing machine, surely an invention ahead of its time.

The great joy of things which hold and transport. xo

Artist and Geek said...

Marylinn-thank you for keeping the theme of good childhood memories, "we had rooms" :)
Dioramas, I forgot about those. I made spooky ones in shoe boxes. Eggshells? I wish you had pictures to share.
A sewing machine out of a tricycle? Do tell.

I re-engineered functional technology, much to my parent's dismay. Also had very short-lived career as a puppet maker.

Books, I devoured them and I'm glad to see that markers, crayons, paints and paper are as ubiquitous as they have always been.

The responsibility lies with parents to bring interesting things into the home and not stick little ones in front of the TV with a DVD.

Toilet paper rolls, I doubt those will ever go out of crafting style.

Think I'll go make something out of nothing.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Anonymous said...

What a great cv builder.

i would love to read all their stories.

I really hope you write them.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Artist and Geek - And thank you, some of what you mentioned caused me to think...I have a Sherlock Holmes hand puppet which I could photograph if I propped him atop a toilet paper roll. Brilliant. There may have been photos once upon a time of the eggshell scenes, but no longer. But shoebox dioramas, more bucolic, probably Girl Scout projects, always a favorite. Scary would have been even better. I think we still treasure now what we did when much younger...what could ever take their places? I love the smell of crayons in the morning.

Happy creating, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Denise - Thank you...if their stories are written, not just sketched out, I promise they will reach you.

susan t. landry said...

wonderful post. made me nostalgic for my son's toys, his teddy; he had soft versions of bert & ernie that he was made for; and nostalgic, too, of course for the little boy that lugged them around....
thank you.
happy T-day!

Marylinn Kelly said...

Susan - Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to you. The memories of their child selves...a bear named Beeber who survived until he was just an empty husk and a bitten-off nose that, thank goodness, didn't get aspirated...and small hands that would wrap around a Luke Skywalker or Han Solo action figure at the swap meet. Nostalgia seems to have swept in on our chilly winds.