The best toys are like unicorns. They include enough horse to seem real, but enough horn to become magical.
Amber & Andy Ankowski, “Anatomy of the Perfect Toy”, PBS Parents, May 25, 2016
The abandoned doll in the yard next door is a forlorn sight. Lost toys take on a peculiar pathos similar to ghostly schools during lockdown. This child’s moppet has obviously been left during the lockdown after a fleeting weekend visit with the divorced father who lives there, custodial visits now being allowed during South Africa’s national quarantine. There is something incredibly sad about discarded playthings, perhaps because they signal the absence of their owners.
The little girls who spent the weekend have gone home with their mother and the garden is quiet again, their giggling games a fond memory only. I wonder whether the girls have missed and cried over the little baby doll. I wonder whether she has a name.
Favourite toys always have names. My first doll was called Hygienic, I kid you not – well that’s what it said on the label, so that’s what I called her. She had a hard, plastic head with garish red hair (worse than mine) and a soft body, presumably so as not to hurt the toddler playing with her, so she looked a little odd without her clothes – I had enough naked dolls to run a brothel if I’d known what that was.
I also had a variety of other dolls – remember Tiny Dots? Then there were those ugly Cabbage Patch creatures. I remember playing for hours at the apartment block made out of my chest of drawers where the Barbies lived too. Now I recoil at the thought of the social grooming about body-types they were promoting, but then they were the cool people who populated a Manhattan sort of life I thought was oh so glamorous in my emptied out sock drawer. There were also those odd ones, not unlike a baldish Chucky, that looked like they were straight out of Steven Spielberg central casting, but with the hair a mere contour in the plastic. They were called Cindy and Wendy and cried out alarmingly when tipped upside down (let that be a warning to future mother tempted to do that). I think Cindy could walk too, in a sort of mechanical way – I am surprised we didn’t have nightmares about them.
But my all-time favourite was a teddy bear called Spareman (He was the only boy-doll you see so he felt ‘spare.’) My childhood logic was a little odd, but I suppose ‘Gigolo’ never occurred to my young mind, even though he dated all the other ‘ladies’ and was the groom at every large doll wedding – the ladies were all dressed for those of course – some rather sumptuously if my sister, Brigid, and her harem of coiffured belles played too, although I was never sure if she would get cross with me and take her side of the family indoors. My grandmother who was an artist, made Spareman for me: he was just large enough to fit in the crook of my five-year-old arm and sported a jaunty, painted-on face and a powder blue shirt – no pants now that I think of it, after the brown felt ones he came with disintegrated, so he was definitely a trifle loose on the morals side too.
I took him everywhere and couldn’t (wouldn’t?) sleep without him. I remember one occasion when my mother was driving us cross-country in her little blue Austin Morris to visit family in Ixopo, a small town on the Umkhomazi River in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands. We had travelled some 200 kilometres when it was discovered that Spareman was living McCauley Calkin’s nightmare, home alone. My mother turned around and went back for him. That is love – my mother was a saint! I would never have done that for any of my youngsters.
I lost him forever in America when we moved back to South Africa. He was packed away in a box meant to be forwarded to me with all my treasured possessions; sadly never sent. I hope someone is loving him – but he probably found true love finally with a dumpsite dolly.
It’s heartening though to see how children’s toys are kept for future generations. We found Andrew’s mother’s teddy in her things and it sits on a shelf alongside Mika’s old bear and a gift bear from Sterns which came with a watch and bracelet given to me by staff when I left my last school. Stern Bear glares at Andrew and reminds him that diamonds are a girl’s best toy now. Mind you, they are perched up there like the proverbial three monkeys – cue horror music…
Liam had several toys, all called Max, which made things easy to remember: Max the Wolf, Max the Teddy Bear, Max the Monkey and Max the Lion. I think Winston the Labrador ate a few Maxes. I hope Bandile next door finds his daughter’s doll before she is ravaged by his savage Jack Russel.
I was not impressed when someone gave my girls Bratz Dolls for Christmas once, both because I hated the concept of encouraging brattishness – they needed no encouragement in that department; but mainly because of that spelling! To this day I am not sure whether Mika has been forgiven for tossing one of the three delinquent dollies into the next door neighbour’s garden, but I never moaned at him – I was glad. The girls seldom lacked for baby dolls because Liam was always happy to hop into the dolls’ pram and be petted.
Sean and his best friend Matthew apparently blew up a couple of Action Men – a fact I am glad I did not know about because I would have been furious about the danger of messing around with fireworks, but I suppose the fact that my cousin and I once used a doll as a swingball would make me a bit hypocritical about their destructive streaks.
Michael had a collection of remote controlled cars which were best put to use during nap time when they served as spies, transporting messages between bedrooms. Again, not something I knew about until they were teenagers and confessed to their wicked childhood nap avoidance.
But their best games were those adventure games that Sean (interestingly now making money from screenwriting) scripted and directed with elaborate plots and parts which evolved as the characters joined in.
And there was the ubiquitous Lego, a nightmare to clean up even with the cute Lego vacuum device, but worth hours of enjoyment. When we first moved back to South Africa and Liam was tiny, while he was asleep, I would sometimes try to grab some shut-eye quickly and still be around the children. So I would lie down on the couch while the children built cities and roads out of Lego on the floor. They remember me grumbling if they made too much noise, but certainly loved the games, even if they were frustrated that their mother needed to doze. Shannon remembers feeling for my pulse to see whether I was still alive from time to time and lifting up my eyelids to check whether the kip had become permanent. Liam played with Lego for years and was adept at building fighter spacecrafts and manipulating them dexterously in aerial battles in solitary games, complete with sound effects, when his older siblings were at school.
I did not enjoy the era of tamagotchis, those digital pets that raised the alarm annoyingly if they needed feeding or walking. Fortunately batteries die. and so did those’pets.’
They still all love games of course, mostly online for the boys and the Friends board game was a recent Christmas request, not to mention the Game of Thrones epic, but those like Beer Pong and others have taken on a more salacious turn I am sad to say.
I miss watching their little bodies absorbed in their fantasy worlds, or building forts out of the tables. I think I have conveniently forgotten how much I had to referee things though and wondering whether Michael and Shannon might actually kill each other.
For now, I have packed things away in a cupboard, and measure the passing of time by the dust on them all…until the echo of children’s feet again sounds along the passage and the games begin again for the next generation…and I can play too.
“The simplest toy, one which even the youngest child can operate, is called a grandparent.”