Brand building through storytelling

Looking for Mousie

Lost: gray felt mouse with pink whiskers, hand-sewn. Hole in left cheek from all-night hugs by sleeping four-year-old boy. Dressed in faded red cotton pajamas and matching nightcap. Last seen in subway car eastbound from St. George station, one mid-winter Friday morning in 1975.

His name was Mousie, my son Ben’s inseparable sidekick. That morning he dangled from Ben’s mittened hand as we set out on an impromptu adventure: first the dinosaur gallery at the museum, then cheeseburgers and fries. I was feeling too reckless and mellow to enforce my ban on junk foods, much less go to work (I had phoned in sick).

On the subway downtown we played rhyming games while Mousie nestled in the crook of Ben’s arm. I didn’t say, “Sit still” or “Keep it down.” I didn’t say, “Hold onto Mousie.” As we bounded off the train and the doors snapped shut behind us, Ben began to shriek. I thought I knew my child’s cry but this was a new one, charged with primal desperation. I looked at his hands and they were empty, clenched into shaking fists. Mousie was gone, hurtling off down the subway tunnel.

How could I have let this happen? I knelt to pull Ben close. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll find him.” As a parent, I would see to that. My child’s heart was broken and my task was to mend it.

Ben and I never got to the museum that day. Instead we went at dusk to the museum of distraction and regret that is otherwise known as the lost and found. A sleepy-eyed attendant stood guard over salt-stained umbrellas and forlorn single gloves.

I called out to him, wild with hope. “Have you seen a stuffed mouse? My little boy misses him terribly.” No sign of any mouse. Not that day, not ever. I tried again. “Please, take another look. He had a hole in his cheek with some stuffing coming out.”

The attendant leaned on the counter and sighed. He gave me a pitying look, as if he thought the lost item was my mind. “Sounds like your kid’s mouse was in pretty rough shape. Wish I could help but I gotta be honest. Something as beat-up as that, most likely it got thrown in the trash.”

Who could do such a thing to Ben’s irreplaceable friend? Surely someone had rescued Mousie, seeing the wear love had left on his tattered face. The next day and the day after that, I went back alone to the lost and found. I kept going back until the attendant rolled his eyes at the sight of me.

By this time Ben had transferred his affections to a terrycloth bear and a a cross-eyed owl made of sensible English tweed. The interlopers had none of Mousie’s raffish charm, but I had to give Ben credit: at four, he knew enough to move on. At 26, I didn’t. I still wanted to bring Mousie home, with an inarticulate longing that puzzled and shamed me. I thought the loss of Mousie would devastate Ben, when in fact the sense of loss was my own.

Looking down the black subway tunnel that day, I remembered all the childhood moments when I had felt abandoned. They rushed at me, a blinding storm of emotion. Standing on the unmarked boundary between my son’s feelings and my own, I unwittingly strode across, full of zeal to set things right.

Although I didn’t know it, I had reached a turning point in my life as a parent. Until that day, I thought I knew what it meant to prepare my child for adulthood. I would teach him to do the right thing: to say thank you for every kindness, to be gentle with smaller kids, to share his prized Lego trucks.

Meanwhile I’d been neglecting a harder lesson, one I hadn’t yet mastered myself. Life is full of losses and Ben would have to learn to face them. Friends move away, kittens are struck by speeding cars, treasures are lost for good in a moment’s inattention.

These first disappointments give way to others: the crush on someone who doesn’t even notice you, the coach who cuts you from the team. Every loss tears a hole in the world, and no amount of parental effort can stitch it up. You mourn and you let go. You discover new ties and new treasures. And in the process you discover that hard, sad things don’t have to crush your spirit. Life goes on.

There’s no time like childhood to learn the art of losing, but I was a late starter. My parents did everything they could to protect their two girls from the smallest disappointment. As a psychologist might put it, they had “boundary issues.” They’d stay up until midnight supervising my project on the pyramids, fearful that I couldn’t get an A without their help.

When my beloved gray tabby, Chris, was hit by a car, they quickly replaced him with another gray tabby, also called Chris. One day a six-year-old rascal had the gall to run away with my sister’s new crocheted hat. My mother marched down to the schoolyard where the crime had occurred, grabbed the offender’s hat and proceeded to jump up and down on it.

The harder my parents labored to give us the illusion of invulnerability, the more vulnerable I felt. My little-girl troubles must be dangerously grave, I thought, to consume the energies of two highly competent adults. Even worse, any failure or sorrow of mine would tell my parents they hadn’t tried hard enough.

So I chose what seemed to be the prudent course. When I was teased on the playground, when I didn’t get invited to the biggest birthday party in grade four, when my best friend whispered in a corner with the new girl (who was painfully pretty) instead of me, I decided not to care. I did care, of course. And pretending not to just compounded the loneliness of being left behind.

Maynard RonaBen 1972When I became a mother at 22, I vowed to avoid my parents’ error. Determined to preserve the boundaries between Ben and me, I cultivated an air of detachment. Instead of scurrying to kiss every skinned knee or bump on the head, I used to say, “You’ll be fine in a minute.” Sometimes I would add for good measure, “Next time, better watch where you’re going.” I told myself I was steeling my child against future injuries, not all of them physical, while affirming his resilience and resourcefulness.

But I had my secret doubts. I didn’t always feel resilient or resourceful myself. My constant challenge as a parent was acting like my notion of a trustworthy grownup, assured and purposeful, while still being buffeted by emotions left over from childhood.

This would not surprise Maurice Sendak, whose picture books enthralled Ben night after night. An interviewer once asked Sendak why he draws such put-upon, defenseless children. Explained the great author-illustrator, “Being defenseless is a primary element of childhood. And often, I am trying to draw the way children feel… It’s the way I know I felt as a child.”

SendakAccess to one’s child self can be a great gift. For Sendak, it inspired books like Where the Wild Things Are, in which a little boy resolves his anger at being sent to bed without supper by cavorting with a band of endearingly threatening monsters.

For me in my son’s early years, childhood memories led to moments of disarming empathy. With his passion for noisy vehicles and utter disdain for fairy tales about golden-haired princesses, Ben often struck me as an alien creature, more his father’s child than mine. But when he stooped to inspect a dead crow on the sidewalk, I didn’t try to hurry him along. I let him poke the gleaming feathers with a stick, as I once did after the family cat left a mangled crow on my parents’ doorstep.

I remembered the shivery pleasure, both horrific and exalting, of touching the great mystery called death, which transfixed me all the more because my parents didn’t want to discuss it. Someday they would die and leave me alone. And they couldn’t tell me when. At seven or so, I could already tell that schoolyard betrayals and dead pets were only dress rehearsals for the greatest, most wrenching loss of all. The loss that tugged at me again as the subway train took Mousie away.

Disproportionate as my reaction was that winter morning, I can’t say I regret it. If Mousie had hung around our house to be outgrown and forgotten, I might have stuffed him into a garbage bag with the merest flicker of wistfulness. You’re not needed anymore, I’d have thought. My little boy is growing up.

VelveteenrabbitIn Mousie’s prime, I often read Ben a book, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, that pivoted on just a moment of poignant farewell to the talismans of childhood. I remember how my son’s eyes used to widen when the bedraggled rabbit, once the newest and best loved toy on the shelf, gets tossed with the trash. He has loved deeply but everything ends, even love. Instead of retreating into anger and self-pity, he becomes a real rabbit, set free by his generous heart and a willingness to lay it on the line.

As Margery Williams writes, “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Loss makes a hero of the rabbit.

I feel much the same way about Mousie. By disappearing, he taught me what it meant to let my child face his sorrow. In doing so, I’d have to face my own. But that was okay. In fact it was my opportunity to relive the sad tale of my own childhood losses and create a more hopeful ending. After Mousie, I felt no more urges to buffer my child from pain.

At about 12, Ben came home weeping for the first time in years: someone had stolen his bike while he admired the puppies in a pet shop. Yes, he had locked it. No fair! I ached for him, recalling how he’d saved his paper-route money to buy that bike and customize it, one part at a time.

My husband and I couldn’t possibly replace it, and we didn’t try. We did kick start a bike fund for him, and we cheered him on his way when, some months later, he finally had wheels.

At 35, Ben remembers all the bikes of his youth. A bike was freedom and speed; the right model could dazzle the most jaded classmate. He has no recollection of Mousie, whose soft, floppy presence gave him comfort in the dark. So it’s up to me to honour his lost companion, whom some would call a toy and I’d call practically a member of the family. Good-bye, old friend. Rest in peace. To me you will always be Real.

Postscript: If you’ve done some exploring on this site, you may have noticed my love of reading. I’m always finding connections between what happens in daily life and what goes on between the covers of books. While I worked on “Looking for Mousie,” I was thinking of one of my favourite poems, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Click here to read it.

First published in Today’s Parent, July 2007. Copyright by Rona Maynard.

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.