Last Easter, both of my daughters received colorful plush puppies from one of my relatives. My elder girl added the stuffed animal to her extensive collection of “buddies” and happily included the pink, purple, and green canine into a rotation of friends who get carried around or piled into the bedtime heap. My younger daughter latched onto her variegated pup with fanatical enthusiasm; “Dog Dog” quickly earned pride of place and roams the house with a mangy (but very soft) green and white blanket. The little one will not sleep without Dog Dog and “binket,” but once in her possession, she’s happy to curl up on the hardwood floors (with puppy as pillow) and pass out. You can imagine the difference a year makes between these two stuffed animals, where my older child’s toy still looks fresh and kempt, and Dog Dog is faded, matted, and bears a slightly funky aroma.
It almost feels like these transitional objects serve as a sort of reverse Dorian Gray, where the stuffed friends bear the emotional battering not to maintain eternal youth or immortality, but to aid us on the road to maturity.Yet Dog Dog looks downright pristine compared to the subjects of Mark Nixon’s photography text Much Loved. Nixon says he was inspired by his son’s love for a plush Peter Rabbit and his own childhood affection for a Panda bear. When he advertised the project, he “expected it to be mostly children, but it soon became apparent that the idea appealed very much to adults, and that many of them were still very attached to their teddies.” I can only imagine what kind of shape Dog Dog will be in if she survives to the age some of Nixon’s subjects have achieved. Though many have been mended and refurbished on multiple occasions, the animals throughout show their age, and, as Nixon’s title asserts, their lovability.
A short narrative accompanies each image, and the authors explain the significance of the stuffed animals to their personal histories or their loved ones’ memories. In many instances, there are dramatic descriptions of bears being lost and found all over the world. So far, Dog Dog has only been left behind once at Nanny and Poppy’s house, and Poppy immediately drove the half mile distance to save my husband and me a lot of trauma at bedtime that night. Perhaps I look on Nixon’s work and my daughter’s attachment to Dog Dog so fondly because of my own experience with Bunny, a puppet with a pink plaid blanket body; her blanket was lined with pink satin that I’d worn a whole through by rubbing its silkiness between my fingers.
Imagine my surprise to find multiple versions of my beloved Bunny for sale as a vintage item on ebay. When I was a child, my mother purchased a second Bunny as backup—anticipating my childhood flightiness and inevitable desperation if I lost that raggedy rabbit. I accepted the new Bunny as a second-rate imposter, suitable only for comfortable situations that didn’t require the careful handling only my own worn and well-loved cottontail could provide. My mother, ever sentimental and mindful of our childhood things, salvaged Bunny for me (both of them actually), and we were cheerfully reunited a few years ago. Original Bunny is mine (though, unlike many of Nixon’s participants, she doesn’t share my bed anymore), and I let my girls play with Bunny B. But really, she’s no Dog Dog.
It almost feels like these transitional objects serve as a sort of reverse Dorian Gray, where the stuffed friends bear the emotional battering not to maintain eternal youth or immortality, but to aid us on the road to maturity. In a world that can feel lonely and dark for even the most privileged and cared-for children, buddies like Dog Dog and Bunny smooth out the rough edges of growing up by providing comfort, security, and constancy. They take a beating, yes, and look all the worse for wear, but underneath their depleted fur coats, they are warriors. They see us and cuddle us at our most vulnerable, and they never complain as we too lose our hair or our original shape or the full functioning of our limbs. Part of me likes to think that Dog Dog and Bunny see us the way God does, but I think the reverse is actually true: it’s we who look tattered and worn in the presence of the divine—yet we remain well-loved.