Stories of Toys

Last weekend, we celebrated our youngest daughter’s birthday. I’m still slightly amazed at how old she is, but I think that’s a fairly universal experience among parents. When we asked what kind of party she wanted, she immediately decided that she wanted a Toy Story party. This wasn’t really a surprise given that it’s become her recent Disney + binge (don’t judge us…pandemic…). So, we ordered the supplies and scheduled a (very small and family-only, given the circumstances) birthday party. The party was delayed, though, because of New England weather that tends to mock such plans, and so we actually celebrated twice: the original date was just us, some cake and gifts from grandparents who were diligently on FaceTime to observe, and then the girls, of course, wanted to watch Toy Story. Because Forky was the subject of the day, they wanted to watch Toy Story 4, in which this character is introduced. So, we had some cake, and sat down to watch.

Permit me to pause here and describe what I know about Toy Story. I knew that it’s been around for a while, because I remember seeing the first move in theatres not long after I had finished undergrad. I didn’t appreciate how long ago until I looked this up and did the math. The original Toy Story was released nearly 25 years ago. So, first off, it’s enduring, and secondly….I’m old.

When my daughters began collecting toys from the movie, I knew there had been more than one, but figured it was one of those things in which Disney was just making more to continue to cash in on the first movie’s success. When Karen and the girls were visiting family out of state a couple of summers ago and she called to say they were headed out to see Toy Story 4, I remember replying something to the effect of, “Sheesh, there are 4 of those? What else can they do with that plot?” And that was the extent of my knowledge of the franchise.

Watching the fourth film, and then later that afternoon others in the series, with the kids, made me realize why. Sort of like Star Wars if you’ve ever tried to catch up on that universe, there’s a lot to Toy Story. And it’s actually really interesting. They’ve developed these characters over the course of the films, but there’s more there than just that.

I recently watched some of the documentary series The Toys That Made Us, which was like re-living childhood to me. Those toys…Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Star Wars…so much of that defined my childhood in so many ways. At first blush, it was that I was a collector, just as my daughters are becoming collectors now, but it’s more than that. When I think of those toys, and playing with them and opening some as Christmas and birthday gifts, I don’t so much think of the toys themselves. I think of my childhood, of the blessed journey that I had through my early years, the way that I was loved by my family and learned what family is about. I think of my parents, and what they did for me through those years. I’m motivated to give that love and support to my children, to provide for them as my parents did for me, to give them the most amazing childhood that’s within my power to give.

I ended the day of that small birthday party wistful. A lot of those toys that I grew up with as a child are still with me, either in storage or on display in my office. Many of them are invaluable to me, but not necessarily as objects…as symbols. When I think about those toys, or go through my old collection of them, I feel love. And I want to give love to my children. Love, not just stuff. These toys are serving as a symbol, in that they point to something larger than themselves, participating in that larger reality.

Part of what makes me enjoy Toy Story so much now is that it’s really a sort of love letter to those toys from my childhood, and all that they represent to me in adulthood. They manage to capture this experience that I’m having as an adult looking back, while looking at the present of my children. There’s a genius in the writing. I can’t help but think that these toys will be with my girls when they’re my age, perhaps sitting on a shelf on display, and that they will remember the loving home in which they spent their childhood.

That is my prayer.

To infinity, and beyond.

A Hope Deferred

Each weekend, I keep a now long-standing tradition of taking our oldest daughter for cookies and milk. It’s the time in which she knows that she has my undivided attention, where she’s the scheduled priority, regardless of other commitments that may press in. I began the tradition by taking her to a Starbucks for a cookie when she was younger. As her love of books grew, however, she developed an affinity for the Barnes & Noble near our apartment in New England. After our cookie and conversation, we would spend an hour or more looking through books, and occasionally returning home with new reading material. Dedicated time with my daughter, and feeding her love of books. Everyone wins.

Since our re-location to North Carolina, Barnes & Noble isn’t as close by, but we manage to make it the home of the weekly cookies and milk outing about once monthly. A couple of weekends ago, after having browsed the books and moved on to the toys, she discovered one of those toys that would be really cool at about half its price. Of course, it’s a toy that she immediately wanted, for which she professed her un-dying love, and that she pined to own in a way that one wouldn’t even imagine possible for a four-year-old.

She’s ahead of the game, I suppose.

My reasons for not buying her the toy were many. The cost was less of an issue than the fact that her grandparents are able to show very little self-control in the toy-buying area, to the point that we must routinely purge old and un-favored toys in order to avoid the cost of purchasing a storage unit or a larger house. Karen and I both wish to not raise materialistic children.

That said, I also prefer to not be the guy with a sobbing four-year-old in the middle of a bookstore because she didn’t get what she wants. Parenting is a learning curve. Sometimes you end up saying things that you realize in retrospect were not the best of ideas. In this case, that went something like, “I’ve taken a photo of it. When we get home, Mommy and I will talk about it. Maybe we can buy it for you if we agree.”

The issue is that I already knew that no such agreement would come, because I could predict with certainty that Karen would feel the same as I did. It accomplished the short-term goal of avoiding the in-store meltdown, but the side effect was frequent reminders on the drive home to remember to show Mommy the toy as soon as we arrived so that we could talk about it and then make the purchase.

As promised, we discussed the toy, and, as predicted, it was not purchased. So, I was successful in deferring the meltdown until we were in the safety of our home, but I also deferred my daughter’s hope.

I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I forget…we all do…how crushing is the potential for such an event on a child of that age. I’m not speaking of not getting a toy, but rather about being given hope and then realizing the desired result still didn’t happen. Hope, you see, is a most powerful thing. Only a small amount of hope can inspire us to get through the day, to stop obsessing over that thing that is causing us such anxiety, to believe the best of a potential diagnosis, to try one more time to keep a relationship alive. Hope is a Divinely given gift, one of the best attributes of the human condition.

Hope crushed…a series of dreams that don’t come true…can achieve the opposite. The most optimistic among us can become calloused after a certain number of such experiences.

I believe that I mis-handled my daughter’s hope that day. A small thing, perhaps, a blip on the proverbial radar of her childhood (she’s already forgotten the toy by this point), but impactful should it continue. I gave her hope for something that I knew would not come true, that I knew I would not permit to come true, and I did so because of selfish motives.

I’m quite disappointed in my actions that day. I learned in that moment that realism is always the preferred approach. I want our daughter to know that hope is important because dreams and wishes do occasionally come true to our liking.

I can’t manipulate her outlook the way I did that day because of that toy.

I won’t do so again.

“What happens to a dream deferred?


      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?”

(Langston Hughes)