Leaving a Little Lamb Behind

`IT'S amazing he still works," my 18-year-old daughter said, standing on a stepladder as a few notes creaked out of Little Lamb. She was taking him down from the top shelf of her closet, as we culled playthings of earlier days. A beloved toy that was once fluffy and yellow was now threadbare, in shades of mottled gray mixed with dirty cream.

Allissa wound the chrome ring on her stuffed animal's left side, and out came a halting rendition of "Mary Had A Little Lamb," from a creature as stiff and slow as a rusted flour sifter.

His face was sad and sunken; his black-marble eyes bulging. We listened in silence as his head moved awkwardly to the music. It pained me to remember when his fleece had seen better days. The years are kinder to children than they are to their toys.

Allissa and Little Lamb entered the world simultaneously. She came home in a pink-receiving blanket after three days at the hospital where she was born. While in the hallway, he nestled in tissue paper, inside a white box, under stiff ribbon. Among an avalanche of gifts - miniature clothing, baby gear, and silver spoons - Little Lamb was the only toy.

But when I saw him, I knew for the first time that I was a mother. Pregnancy had failed to convince me. The passing of time and my stomach stretching over nine months didn't hold imminent promise. An occasional flutter, culminating in labor, were still obscure clues.

When labor gave way to seven pounds of life bursting from inside me, it seemed unexpected. Holding my daughter, so delicate and new, terrified me. But the nurses took charge those first few days. And I glimpsed at a tiny stranger between feedings.

Why was she red-faced and so often screaming? Heading home carrying a pink bundle felt more like the memory of a distant dream than starting down the road of mother and daughter.

No, motherhood became a reality when Little Lamb entered our lives. He verified that a baby was in the house, because only people with babies surround themselves with stuffed animals playing lullabies.

I kept him on the night table next to my bed. He was perky and held his head high; I turned his chrome ring and watched his downy body bob and sway to the music. He was a pleasant reminder of wonderful changes.

After several days, I moved Little Lamb to Allissa's crib, where he remained untouched for months by a baby too young for playing.

But when I'd wind him up and she heard his first few notes, she always smiled. Eventually she reached for him. Sometimes she'd cuddle and caress, rubbing his softness to her cheek.

But she would also grab him with glee and squeeze hard. She sucked his fur and chewed his tail. His ears were pulled; his eyes invaded by curious fingers. She'd stand by the rail of her crib and drop him on the floor. Several times Little Lamb was doused with apple juice, leaving him forever matted.

He endured all these atrocities and more. Allissa dragged him everywhere. She went to sleep each night, listening to his lullaby as he lay under her arm.

Eventually other toys arrived, offering fresh adventures. Painted blocks and hobby horses. Dolls that talked, and supermarket carts bearing plastic vegetables, meat, and eggs.

Yet Little Lamb remained her favorite. At first emerging friendships could not surpass him. Even nursery school did not entirely divert Allissa's attention from her stuffed companion.

But in the ensuing years, toddlerhood gave way to roller skates, television, school, best friends, movies, camp, slumber parties, and adolescence. Little Lamb got lost in life's shuffle.

He was left to gather dust and turn gray in his twilight years ... until we came across him in his lonely vigil on the top shelf of Allissa's closet.

Amid a pile of discarded games and books, Allissa held her old friend. She looked him over carefully, running her finger tips across his face and along his back.

"He's part of my life," she said. "I can't get rid of him."

I picked him up, flooded with memories of gentle times now far out of reach: lace bonnets, nursery rhymes, and rocking-chair nights. I remembered my grandmother's words the day Allissa was born. "The time between now and when she leaves for college will feel as if you walked through a doorway," grandmother said.

She was right.

The little girl of yesterday had grown up; her childhood gone by. And a stage of my life had passed with it. But, like my daughter, I wasn't ready to let go.

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