We are going to a Christmas party in a few minutes, The host is one of those truly inspiring individuals who doesn’t just say he’s thankful; he does something about it, which is to collect toys for children during Christmas. I always bring stuffed animals, because I loved them when I was small and so did my son. Every year they get a little cheaper. The Chinese are geniuses at making plushy toys. I did a lot of research on stuffed animals when I was writing a book a couple of years ago. It isn’t a nice feeling knowing the toys that feel so nice in the hand have been created on assembly lines populated by Chinese children who are working to put food on the table and often live in labor camps.
And even if I could locate some hand-made expensive toys sewn here in America and soothe my own superego, everybody knows the kids don’t want the PC well made stuff; they want the popular world-wide schlock advertised on TV.
Which brings me to the subject of the only nice memory I have of my father, who died so many years ago I wouldn’t know who he was if we passed each other in parallel time machines. He inhabits my subconscious and appears in dreams mostly disguised as other people, ones who are going to rob me, kill me, or make me suffer long and hard for the sin of being who I am, which was a baby, a toddler and finally a child he just happened to hate.
But one day, he didn’t hate me. I didn’t know what I had done to earn his sudden approbation, but we were at the Louisiana State Fair, the whole family, and in my memory, it is just the two of us who have found ourselves at one of those booths where you shoot a fake gun and shoot some fake ducks and for your prize you get various sizes of fake dogs.
I wanted the big one who was a character in a cartoon on TV. I wanted it the way a starving person wants food: my life depended on it. And for some magical reason, my father was for once cooperating with my desires. I can see him with the gun over his shoulder, the cigarette dangling from his lips—he smoked four packs of unfiltered Chesterfields a day.
Shoot Daddy! He had told us so many times he had been a crack shot in the army, and now he was willing to prove it. And to me, which meant of course, that maybe he finally loved me the way he loved other people, my cousins, my brother, even my sister once in a while, his own brothers with a passionate love.
He put a few quarters down. He got four shots. He felled two ducks. He put some more quarters down. He felled no ducks. This went on for a long time. He was sweating, he was cursing. People didn’t say fuck in those days, that I remember; shit was a big one. So was goddammit. I was frightened because I had never asked anything of him before, and now I was asking for the thing in life I wanted the most: his love. Proof of his love via the stuffed dog.
I believe I even knew that the dog had nothing to do with me. That what was going on with my father and the gun and the fake ducks was his party, his story, and his thing entirely. But I was there. I was heaving as he was heaving. I recoiled when the gun recoiled. I would have smoked if he had let me. In fact, I started smoking not long after that when I was eleven, two years after he died. And the guy behind the counter kept egging daddy on. He shot one; he shot two. And then the miracle happened: he shot three down and he cried out in pleasure, and I jumped up and down. “Pick!” he said, and I pointed to the dog with the floppy ears that was brown, a stuffed basset hound I immediately called “Manfred” and hugged and held onto and the old man didn’t take it away, which I more than halfway expected. Neither did my brother or my sister. He was all mine. It was the happiest most immense event in my short and small life so far.
I slept with Manfred every night after that. I brought him when I spent the night with my friends. I kept him next to me the night my father didn’t come home from the hospital. Manfred was beside me the night before I went off to college and my mother wouldn’t let me take him with me because she said “everyone will think you are a baby.” Perhaps she was right. Perhaps she was wrong. When I was pregnant with my son and miserably large, it was Manfred I longed for.
I bit his eye out the night my father died. And after that he had one eye for the rest of his time on the planet. I don’t know what my mother did with Manfred. She was certainly cold-blooded enough to toss him in the trash.
My son had at least thirty stuffed animals. One by one, I’ve handed them to other children who have come to visit. Only Fee remains. Fee, his very favorite bear, who I wouldn’t part with for all the bears in China. He sits on the top shelf of my closet and sometimes I take him out and sit him on my lap. I only do this if my puppy Henry isn’t in the room because I would never give Fee to Henry. If I’m lucky enough to ever get a grandchild, I might not even give Fee away to him or her, that’s how much I love Fee.
If I were anywhere near Louisiana, I would drive to that graveyard, up the hill to the Jewish section. I’d march over to my mother’s grave, I’d say, “Manfred? What did you do with Manfred?”
Mary Marcus is the author of The New Me.