I purchased my “bear” from Vermont Teddy Bear late this winter for a special someone’s 100th birthday. I chose an elephant actually… a very soft, cuddly, plush elephant.
I picked an elephant rather than a bear for my Grandmother Carolyn because of a story that my sister Laura had shared with me. So I have to give her the assist on a great gift idea. Earlier in the winter as we discussed Holiday gifts for family, we had been hard pressed to come up with anything very suitable for our grandmother. She had aged enough physically at 99 to take little joy in most but the simplest of pleasures: reading, a good meal, watching Alabama football. She already had everything she needed.
She had been residing in an assisted living center, White Hall, in Dothan, Alabama, for the last 15 years after the death of her husband. She had actually blossomed despite significant loss and displacement. She had painted, played cards, gone on weekly outings with other residents and with family members also. Even now, her mind was still surprisingly sharp. She hardly ever lost her train of thought, unlike many half her age or less. She was very fortunate to enjoy relative freedom of mobility and comfort, and she inspired me by her example of finding the best in each day.
As the story went, my great grandmother, Clarissa Fail Bates, had asked her daughter Carolyn when she was 5ish if she were to have a pet, what would it be? A kitty cat, a little puppy, maybe a pony? Little Carolyn had replied that if she could have whatever pet she wished, then she would prefer an elephant. The audacity of the wish, the innocence of her expectation, and the sheer spirit of her response sum up much about the person I had only known really from her 50’s onward. The playfulness, power of imagination, ease of departure from expectation she exhibited as a small child remained manifest in her throughout even these later years. They are traits I’d like to emulate myself.
So, for some 95 years, she had not been granted this childhood wish, elephants being very difficult to come by and of course quite challenging to care for. Yet, she remembered it still, even as she approached her centennial. Moreover, her fondness for Alabama Crimson Tide football had reinforced this love of elephants for some 75 years. Big Al, a human-sized plush elephant, was mascot for the team. I thought of how wonderful it would be if I were to be able to remind her that someone was listening to her childhood wish, to connect that wish to our shared memories together. I wanted to make this wish come true for her, even if only figuratively. Not a real elephant, no, but a stuffed one, far cleaner and more manageable at this stage of her life.
And so I went shopping online and found the most visually appealing and softest stuffed elephant I could find. As I perused many shapes, sizes and textures of elephant for sale, this particular elephant seemed like the right size, pile and puff for my grandmother; it is the one I would have chosen for myself as well. The Vermont Elephant was clearly the most suited to the prolonged stroking and hugging to which it would hopefully be subjected. I ordered it as I arrived in Dothan prior to her birthday celebration later in the week.
The purchase brought to mind grandiose notions I had entertained as a younger man about lavishing presents upon my grandparents in their old age as they did for me when I was a child. And though physical injury and subsequent poverty have mocked my well intentioned plans thus far, I could at least let my grandmother know that I was really thinking of her, of a side of her that perhaps others had neglected…of that child with the mischievous grin and legs draped over her own shoulders in laughter on the front lawn. The kid inside that no one sees anymore when you’re 100 years old. I could honor that wish and the spirit that stoked it with a suitable memento. I hoped that this elephant would be it.
And it was. My grandmother was ecstatic when she received it just days before her birthday. She called me twice, I believe, to tell me how much she liked it. She showed it to everyone, and I mean everyone, at White Hall. They told me so when I visited her even before the gala. That elephant was all she wanted to talk about. And this fact made me ecstatic. On the day that White Hall celebrated her birthday, she brought it to the party and put it with all of her cards and gifts. We took pictures with her, Ella her name in those first few moments. This changed by the end of the day and with the input of various family members who had not attended Auburn University. Ella, soon to be Little Al, was nearly as much the hit of the day as my grandmother cracking wise on the local TV stations about her secrets of longevity. Witnessing her joy in my gift was one of the finest gifts I’ve enjoyed giving and receiving.
It made me feel a little more complete as a person to be able to give my grandmother something that made her so happy when she had shared so much throughout her life with me, kept me going at some tough periods in my life. Though I had intended to spoil both of my now deceased grandmothers with wealth acquired through my own cleverness as a Princeton grad, I find myself even now still needing every bit of support I can gather to recover from a substantial shoulder reconstruction undoubtedly linked to the long term spinal dysfunction and pain that have stalled my life on many fronts. And through the last 20 years, my Grandmother had come through at the Holidays so that I would actually be able to enjoy a Holiday…and without ever any inference of obligation. There was lot of emotional weight packed in this little stuffed animal for me.
Well, my gift has been returned far sooner than I would have preferred. I wish it were not mine again so soon. Just weeks after her birthday, my grandmother passed away. The excitement must have been too much. Even though I had just traveled to Alabama from Oregon, I returned again across the country at my grandmother’s behest to honor her memory and reclaim my “teddy.” After the funeral and the wake, Little Al was waiting for me in her old room at White Hall as we began to single out items of sentimental value and clear her belongings. I thought of how I had just been sitting here with her so happy just days ago, and how I never would again sit with her. And it was hard. I would much rather my grandmother were still here to enjoy Little Al with me, to show it off a few more times.
But I was honestly consoled by having this lovely little stuffed animal to remind me of those last pleasant times together and of a person whom I loved dearly. Every time I stroke its fur, use it as a prop for my injured shoulder, think of my grandmother cheering on the Crimson Tide, I do indeed experience a comfort that conjures up the best parts of a favorite person of mine. May I carry them with me now and shed what light I can in her honor. So, thank you VTB, for one of the better memories of a lifetime and for a final link to a very important person in my life.
Yep, Lotta love in that Bear.