Trundling along through old age this winter, I was pleased to discover that Diana Athill wrote her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, at the age of 89 and then lived on to the great age of 102!. My favorite part of her book is where she notes that children prefer to read and fantasize about animals, which seem to echo their own feelings even better than other children. She cites Tigger, for example, who persists in being “exuberantly bouncy” to the point of annoyance; or Piglet (with whom I always identify) as “an anxious, timid little person, capable of being brave if he absolutely has to be, but only at great cost to himself.”
When I got to the very last chapter of my very last academic book, at a time when I was clicking my heels at my impending escape from the toxic groves of academe, I extended my learned comparison of American/British/Canadian/Native Peoples poems about goddesses, just for fun, to the topic of Bears. While Native Peoples liked to claim a Bear who married a Princess as the ancestor who taught them all their wisdom, white Canadians saw bears as archetypes of nature’s terrifying power, Americans took them as objects of the hunt, but the British dressed bears up in little jackets and dresses or dressed to the nines in tweeds and vests, smoking their pipes before a roaring fire.
Although I am way to the left of liberal and pretty free with my opinions on Facebook, I have never received any hostile feedback. And so I am comfortable creating posts and seeing what my friends are up to. Somewhere along the line, I seem to have acquired C.R. (Christopher Robin) Milne as a “friend,” and I enjoy his thoughtful posts along with his quotes from his father’s writings. I don’t have a human avatar but sometimes express my feelings with a picture of an appropriately dressed mouse. Here I am, courageously setting forth on new adventures, intrepid in demeanor though really quite nervous underneath:
Why, for heaven’s sake, a mouse? Mice go way back in my life story, to its very beginning: my mother used to tell me that a darling little mouse poked its head out of her bedroom wastepaper basket to herald the onset of her labor. Always small for my age and young for my class, my nickname at school was “Mighty Mouse,” a sobriquet I did my very best to live up to.
As a child, I was skeptical about” growing up” if that meant ever becoming an adult. It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die young – I was simply incredulous about turning into alien beings like the “role models” my principal thought it very important for us to meet so that we could consider what it would to be like them “when we grew up.”.
I was especially certain that I was not going to grow up to be Eleanor Roosevelt, who took us seriously and talked very kindly, but who loomed like a vastly tall lighthouse, her torso rising up and up to a balcony of horizontal bosom (I think this had something to do with the undergarments they wore in those days) jutting out over our heads.
That was a time when I climbed every tree like a monkey, tore around the playground like a puppy, and squirmed into cleverly concealed hiding places like a mouse – animal identities with which I was far more comfortable than anything the adult world had to offer. I simply refused to believe that I would ever become one.
Now that I have nobody but myself to please, I have been revisiting my animal comfort zone. Some years ago, I took to knitting mice. My all-time favorite was Stuart L. Mouse, named for a New Yorker like me, and here we are dressed up as each other:
A while later, I created Stella Mouse, whose outfit in my knitting book called for a tweedy skirt and cashmere-style sweater and was labelled “Vassar Mouse.” I gave her to my friend Brenda, but Stuart had fallen in love with Stella so I let him move to her house, where the two of them got up to no good and produced little mouselings all over the place. When Brenda died, one of her grandchildren spirited Stuart and Stella away to Washington State, where I hope they are living happily ever after and not thrown to the back of somebody’s closet.
In the wintertime, to let my friends know I am going into hibernation for a while, I might post a cozy little scene like this:
When summer comes at last and I invite them to the river for fun and frolics, I might, put this on the invitation:
You might wonder if I am descending into some kind of regressive senescence, but what I think is really going on is that, after a long life seeing to the needs of my career, my students, the community, and my family, I am creating a space of comfort to include a few things I missed out on by having to grow up much too soon, one of which was playing with stuffed animals. I didn’t have my first relationship with such a being until I was twelve years old, and at that age I was ashamed that it might be seen as “babyish” to be spending so much time playing with “Scampy,” a three-inch tall (not very fuzzy) bear figurine that wasn’t technically a stuffed animal at all.
So, it’s not regression as much as compensation that makes me fasten a seat belt around a Mickey Mouse on the passenger seat of my car, read poems out loud to a stuffed lamb in a bow-tie, and picture myself on Facebook as a trepid/intrepid mouse taking off on yet another terrifying adventure – I am making up for lost time!