Toy Story


A year and a half ago, while cleaning out Mom’s house so she could sell it, I removed the last of my keepsakes from her attic. Of course, I’d intended to pick them up a few decades earlier, but life got busy, and Mom didn’t seem to mind. Several of us family members benefited from her free storage facility. Among the musty, dusty boxes that smelled like antiquity was one of my first toys: a little blue basket with a puppy inside it. Well, it used to look like a puppy; by the time I rescued it, it resembled something out of a horror movie, with half of its facial hair torn off and sockets where its eyes had once been. I wonder what happened to its face, I thought. Quickly, I shook my head to whisk away fears of some humongous rodent living in the attic, eating fake dog hair and eyeballs. In my mind, I pictured that pup as it once was. When I was a small child, I’d repeatedly turn the key that wound up the toy; the dog would rise up, peek over the basket, and bark. 

In the 70's, we often visited Six Flags AstroWorld in Houston. In the gift shops, they sold animals made of plastic ruffles. Think of balloon animals, but instead of twisted balloons, they were made of thin fringe from plastic strips, as if someone had cut up colorful garbage bags. The strips were connected to wire, which was molded to look like different animals, and big plastic eyes were attached to their heads. I had a poodle, but my favorite ruffled animal was a boa. I wore it around the house, with its head peeking around my shoulder and its forked tongue hanging out. I kept that snake until it had shed most of its skin, but the dilapidated poodle was still in Mom’s attic.

Next, I found my three-foot-tall monkey on roller skates; he looked like George Burns, minus the glasses, and always made me smile. I would hold his hand and make him roll beside me as I walked. I also owned a Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone that moved its eyes when I pulled it along by a string, and a toy cash register, used in lemonade stands to give me and my friends a more professional look.

When I was seven years old, one of my favorite Christmas gifts was a doll called Shopping Sheryl. She came with a grocery cart, plastic canned goods with real brand labels on them, plastic food, milk cartons, shelving, and a counter with an attachable cash register. The doll picked up products with the magnet in her hand; when I squeezed her sides, she dropped items into her basket or onto the checkout counter. Rolling items across the counter brought a beeping sound, like the scanner at a real grocery store. Today, I’d rank Shopping Sheryl right up there with a doll that does laundry or a Mom Doll that fills out 150 school registration forms for each Student Doll in her family. What’s fun about that? When you do those tasks for real, there’s nothing attractive about the pretend version. I pose as Shopping Sheryl every week, but I don't wear her permanently painted on smile every time I walk into a store.

I took my old treasures into Mom’s kitchen, one by one, to show Flash. It was my first round of Show and Tell as an adult.

“Oh my gosh. Flash, come look at this.”

He accommodated, stopping his work in the other room to see what I was so excited about.

I held up the doggie in the basket first.

“This was one of my first toys,” I explained.

“Ewww. Kind of creepy.”

“It was beautiful in its day. Isn’t it cool? The dog went up and down and barked.”

Shaking the image of Zombie Dog out of his head, he walked away.

“Wait,” I hollered, dragging Monkey on Skates with me.

Flash turned and looked, again not fully appreciating my joy.

“A monkey on skates. That’s weird,” the King of Buzzkill commented.

I thought I’d skip the Shopping Sheryl exhibit; boys are so weird. They like slingshots and mud and frogs.

After climbing back into the attic, I found pieces of a circus playset. The animals and clown were wooden with some kind of adhered art on them rather than paint. They had plastic flat feet that fit in the slots of the large, yellow floor of the circus, so they could stand upright. Ladders also fit in the floor, so the clown, with plastic hooked hands, could climb the ladders.

I’d kept many of my toys, thinking some of them would be monetarily valuable later. But most of them didn’t fare well in that 150-degree attic during the summers. I’d also held onto them for my future children. But by the time my stepchildren, Mario and Zelda, came into my life, they were too old for many of my keepsakes.

Four years after Flash and I married, Cowboy was born. We had the usual newborn toys, rattles, play mats, etc. He enjoyed those in his first year. Being typical parents who acted as though no other baby had ever existed, we bought toys we thought he’d like as he grew older. For his first birthday, we had a come-and-go party, and more toys came.

Then life changed. When autism came at 15 months of age, Cowboy’s toys sat unused. For years. Cowboy, as are many children with autism, was the owner of hundreds of toys that would remain in pristine condition until the day they were donated to someone who could play with them. But we never quit trying.

When Cowboy was three, I excitedly got out the old wooden alphabet blocks that Doc and I had played with as kids. Cowboy held them. He looked at them. But, because he didn’t initiate play yet, there was no stacking them, even after I showed him how. So, I would stack them up, and Cowboy would knock them down. He took great joy in knocking anything down back then. When he was a little older, Mom and I showed him how to bounce on my large plastic horse on springs that lived in Mom’s garage. We bounced him while he rode. Much of life consisted of teaching Cowboy how to do things that come naturally for most children.

When he was six and half years old, we began medical interventions for Cowboy, which included vitamins and various supplements. A few months later, we added glutathione lotion to his repertoire. Of all the supplements we’ve administered, that one brought the quickest results. Two days later, I walked through the living room as Cowboy sat on the floor with a toy truck. Normally, Cowboy would spin the wheels of trucks and cars while flapping his hands and squealing. But this time was different. I stopped in my tracks when I saw him rolling the truck across the floor, as was intended.

“Flash! Come quick! He’s playing, he’s playing!” It was the moment we’d prayed for. Nothing else in the world mattered. Our son was driving his truck.

Several months later, it was Christmas. My grown niece, Bevo, handed a gift to Cowboy to open; we always took turns, going from youngest to oldest, so we could fully enjoy watching each person open their gifts. We waited for Cowboy to rip open the paper, glance at the present, and toss it to the side, ready for the next one.

Instead, he unwrapped it, and then examined the gift while holding it in his hands. He looked up at Bevo, gazing into her eyes, and smiled with glee. He was grateful. For any parent who has ever spent immeasurable hours training their children to look grateful for gifts, rather than giving the appalling disappointed pout, this is a priceless moment. For us, even more so.

As we sat there with our mouths gaping, Mom exclaimed, “He acted appropriately. He knew it was from Bevo, and let her know he liked it.” Cowboy’s reaction was the best Christmas gift that year.

As Cowboy grew older, more toys were played with, usually with our prompting, but many still remained untouched. He enjoyed animated animals that moved and sang; he found them humorous, which they were meant to be. He tried a few yo-yos along the way, to no avail. But I can’t yo-yo well either. He used to like displaying plastic farm animals; he didn’t play with them, but he liked looking at them.

But mostly, Cowboy has been interested in the outdoors and “toys” of a different nature. He loves water balloon fights, basketball, baseball, pool toys, rockets, disc golf, soccer, rock walls, putt-putt golf, go-carts, and zip lines. A young man now, he’s past the days of coloring books, although he enjoys art and still draws. Blowing bubbles are passé; he’s got a hot tub instead. And many of his hardly-ever-touched possessions still go to needy children. Every year or two, he donates at least 45 stuffed animals. Oh, he still loves to purchase them and receive them as gifts, but he doesn't play with them; he’s a collector. For any occasion, he’ll tell us in sign language, or by typing on his iPad, that he wants a stuffed bear or an elephant or a penguin. When he unwraps them, he’s delighted, and squeezes them to see how soft they are. Then he takes them into his room and adds them to the pile on his top bunk. After many months of his not showing them any attention, I say, “Hey Cowboy, do you want to give away some of your stuffed animals to kids who don’t have much?”

“Yes,” he always says. We spend the next hour and a half playing “Keep or Give Away.” It feels like a game show. He approves or gives a thumbs down to each object. We go through other types of toys also, although those have dwindled through the years.

But his generosity stops at squishies. Any time I’ve asked if he wants to give away any of his squishy animals, stress balls, or stretchy creatures to those less fortunate, I get a resounding “No,” or he simply closes the three drawers where they’re stored, letting me know those are hands-off items, literally. Squishies are his most prized collectibles. We started buying them eons ago, to help Cowboy with any tactile issues he was having. Although he’s no longer obsessed with buying them, he’s keeping them right where they are.

“Cowboy, are you sure?” I always ask during our Annual Clean-Out. His answer remains the same.

But I understand. Squishies are to him what videos are to me. And I have a lot more movies than he has squishes, so I can’t judge. I don’t watch all of them anymore; I collect them. And my Barbie dolls and their handmade doll clothes, my most prized childhood possessions, are still stored safely in my attic. Just in case, you know, I need a little play therapy. But don’t tell Flash; he wouldn’t understand, although he still owns every Hess toy truck, car, plane, helicopter, and space shuttle ever given to him. And they are proudly displayed on his desk at home.

Every once in a while, Flash will tell me, “We need to get rid of some of these DVDs we don’t watch. And these VHS tapes – why do we have these?”

With the same determination that Cowboy shows, I silently close the six drawers of the entertainment center, letting Flash know to keep his grubby paws off my treasure. And Flash can’t argue with me; he owns 60 discs for disc golf. But he doesn’t use all of them, you understand. He collects them.