I have heard my daughter describe herself as “mother to a thousand stuffed animals.” Since she was a toddler, the “stuffies” that come into her life have names, homes, and imaginative stories that give them substance beyond plush and stuffing. And, it isn’t all rabbits and bears that have residence in her world…armadillos, squirrels, chipmunks, ladybugs, hedgehogs and other assorted species are all welcome in the fold. Her collection emerges from gifts, travel souvenirs, and cast-offs from others that she lovingly takes in. Each new arrival is treated with extra love and affection, introduced to the others, and given a home among its furry friends. It has been adorable to watch this little child provide tender, loving care to her forest of creatures.
And then, there are the times when a stuffy gets lost.
When she was younger, this was a tragedy of epic proportions. Whole afternoons were spent searching under beds, inside pillowcases, or in corners of playrooms for the missing friend. Bedtimes could be seriously interrupted when the favored stuffed animal was not present for bedtime snuggles. My parenting (and patience) has often been tested by the interruption of bedtime, get-ready-for-school routine, or dinner-time by the absence of a stuffed animal that has seemingly wandered away. I have wondered over the years if I need to intervene and provide some reality therapy amid this imaginary life. Sometimes I have been snappy and short-tempered with her imaginative play. But, ultimately, interrupting the beauty of this brief time in our lives known as childhood is not my style, so I generally go along with it.
And then, there was Chippy.
Chippy, the stuffed chipmunk, came to live in our house off season. It was Easter and bunnies frolicked on store shelves everywhere. But, next to the bunnies on a cast off clearance rack was an autumnal leftover, a cute chipmunk with stripes and a fluffy tail. The love was instant in my then five year old as we walked past the store shelves; the clearance price-tag was also right on. And so, Chippy joined the happy herd of stuffed critters inhabiting my daughter’s bedroom.
Chippy had a place of honor that spring and summer. Chippy went on family vacations and car rides, toured Western New York and the mid-west United States as we visited family, and began to appear less fluffy (and more “real” like the Velveteen Rabbit) as the summer wore on. Chippy’s last known adventure was a day trip to the Blue Ridge mountains to picnic and sketch on Labor Day weekend. And then, Chippy disappeared.
If I were to calculate the number of hours I spent looking for Chippy or consoling my nearly inconsolable child, I would probably have earned a month’s salary as “lost animal detective.” But alas, Chippy turned up in none of the usual places or locations. And sadly, we came to the conclusion that Chippy was lost. Or at least, I came to that conclusion. But “lost” was not a happy state of being. My child even added Chippy to her nightly “prayers and wishes” for a safe return home, seeing “lost” as a temporary state rather than a final destination.
So, what is a parent to do? I considered purchasing an identical new stuffed chipmunk, but that would have been both obvious and inauthentic. I tried to encourage her to love on her other animals…which she did…but she also told me no one could replace Chippy. I cannot argue with that…having loved, and lost, I know that new loves can be joyful but they never replace the precious one that was lost. I let her cry and let her make prayers and wishes. And when there was time, we would still look, just in case. But, I was admittedly picturing Chippy accidentally lingering on some picnic spot in the Blue Ridge mountains, likely never to be seen again.
And so, time passed and Chippy was lost, but still not forgotten. Winter break came, and I was helping my daughter clean her room and find places for the newest holiday arrivals of gifts and stuffed animals. I climbed onto her rarely used top bunk, pulling off the sheets so they could be washed and freshened up. Out popped a pink satin purse I hadn’t seen in a long time. It had a big flap over the top, and I lifted it to see what was inside as I called to my daughter who climbed up with me to see what lost treasure had been unearthed.
There, inside the pink satin purse, was Chippy. Chippy had a pile of sticks and acorns gathered on our Labor Day mountain trek, and peeked out of the purse at my daughter who exclaimed, “Chippy! You weren’t lost after all…you were just hibernating!” She grabbed her stuffed animal and snuggled it like a new treasure, asking all about whether there had been enough acorns, and what Chipmunks dream about during hibernation. It was a joyful reunion with a precious treasure.
Why does this story linger with me? First of all, it is a maternal treasure that will always remind me of the spirited nature of my daughter at a young age, no matter where her journey of life takes her. I also think this story hits me at a heart level, because it has a spiritual parallel of my own journey. There are so very many times when I have felt lost, or I was sure that a person or a situation or a hope or a dream was lost. Forever. Sure of it. But, there are also times when I have been found, or my memories have been stirred, or my hopes and dreams have been transformed but rediscovered. Perhaps this human state of longing is not being “lost,” even though that is how it can feel. Instead, the divine is working through us and the circumstances we are in, transforming and sustaining us. We are not lost; we are just hibernating. The reunion is so beautiful, and so filled with loving grace that it transforms us in that moment into something even more wonderful than we once were.
How Chippy came to hibernate remains a mystery. My daughter claims no memory of how chipmunk, sticks, acorn and purse all came together to live tucked between mattress and wall. I can say that five years later, this little stuffed animal still holds a place of honor in her room, and she still tells stories about Chippy’s hibernation and how he was found.
Who am I to second guess? I have often been searching, and I also have felt lost. God knew exactly where to find me while I was hibernating, and what sustenance was needed on my journey. And, in the transformative moments of being found, I also experience the mystery, joy, and transformation of divine grace that was taking place all along. For that, I am grateful beyond words.
[Posted as a personal response to Week 10 of the Who is My Neighbor social media blog series which I curate at St. Thomas Episcopal Church]