Ode to Old Yeller

Ode to Old Yeller

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

Ode to Old Yeller

No cord nor cable can so forcibly draw, or hold so fast,
as love can do with a twined thread.
~Robert Burton

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that give us joy, but it’s often these very things that are the hardest to give up. We love them so much because they connect us to each other in special ways, making us grateful for our lives and the people in them. It was just such a special connection that I experienced with my youngest son, Chris, many years ago when he was forced to confront giving up something simple that he loved.

When Chris was small, he toted around a worn yellow blanket that our family took to calling Old Yeller. Made of fuzzy, thermal-weave cotton, the blanket had actually been given to my mom as a baby gift for me, but for some reason Mom hadn’t used it and she passed it down to me in prime condition. I didn’t remember it, of course, but that situation would soon change. I was grateful for any help Mom could give me in those early years as I struggled with being a new mom myself, but little did I know that an old yellow blanket could thread so meaningfully through three generations. Mom had folded it up neatly in its original gift box, and though the box had crinkled with age, the blanket itself looked soft and new.

That was before Chris claimed it, however. Before he dragged it across beaches and through mud puddles, before he knotted it around tree branches and wore it as his hero’s cape, before he (yikes!) dropped it in the toilet or commissioned it to make his tricycle tires spit-and-polish clean. Yes, Old Yeller became something of a legend in our house, Chris’s ever-pliable companion. He and that blanket were all but inseparable.

Even the separation during laundering seemed too much for him. “But Mommy,” he would protest in his most forlorn voice when I’d take the blanket to wash. “What if something happens to Old Yeller while he’s gone? What if you lose him and I never get him back?”

“He needs a bath, Critter,” I would say, using the apt nickname I’d given my boy. “Nothing’s going to happen to Old Yeller, I promise.”

But over time, something did happen to Old Yeller.

Old Yeller got really, really old. His color started to fade, from smile-at-me yellow to my-throat-is-parched white. His threads started to unravel, leaving gaping, ragged strands. The blanket unraveled so much that I began to worry about my son sleeping with it at night. What if one of those strands got caught around Chris’s neck and choked him? I knew the time had come to think about letting Old Yeller go—and I knew that this feat wouldn’t be easy.

“But Mommy,” said Chris, a soft sheen of tears coming into his big brown eyes at the mere hint of the suggestion. “Just because something’s old doesn’t mean you have to throw it away.”

I swallowed back my own tears. I had to admit that I couldn’t bear to throw Old Yeller away either.

So, together, we decided to retire Old Yeller and replace him with something new. We came up with a plan and went shopping.

The plan went without a hitch... initially. At the store, Chris picked out a new yellow blanket, as downy as a fresh-ripened peach. We called the blanket New Yeller, and packed Old Yeller away in a shiny plastic bag at the top of my son’s closet, where the poor old thing could finally get some rest. Chris appeared happy with New Yeller, his new faithful friend, and I felt relieved.

Problem solved. Until the next morning when I went to awaken Chris for school. He was a big second-grader that year, and though I knew there would come a time when we’d have to address letting go of New Yeller too, at least we were one step closer. We had just moved to a new city, a new home, my children were going to new schools and Chris was having a bit of trouble adjusting. I hadn’t wanted to take away yet another familiar thing, and I believed New Yeller was our short-term answer. But there was my Critter, fast asleep, Old Yeller curled up by his side, New Yeller tossed in a heap on the floor.

I sat down on the edge of his bed. “Honey,” I said when he awoke. “How did Old Yeller get here? I thought we had a deal.”

Again, his eyes brimmed. “I can’t do it, Mommy. I can’t let Old Yeller go.”

He described how, in the middle of the night, he had dragged a chair into his room, climbed to the top of his closet and retrieved his ever-pliable companion. The thought of that climb worried me, too, so I knew our plan needed some refinement.

We decided, in the end, that maybe the two yellers could live in Chris’s room side by side—with one tiny caveat. He would have to promise to keep Old Yeller folded up at the foot of his bed, while he slept with New Yeller in his arms. When I went to awaken him the next day, he and his yellers were just where they should be, as promised. I bent down to kiss his forehead, just as he wrapped an arm around my neck. “Thanks, Mommy,” he whispered.

“You’re welcome, sweetie,” was all I could manage as, again, my eyes blurred with tears.

Sometimes outcomes can seem like failures when they’re really successes in disguise. So it was for Chris and those blankets—both of which we still have, by the way. Often, in my office while I write, I rub my cheek against New Yeller, which is draped across my desk chair, and I’m transported back to those innocent, long-ago days. Chris keeps Old Yeller with him, in that now stiff-with-age plastic bag, and my daughter-in-law, Nicole, tells me that he’s quite protective of his old childhood friend.

As I look back now, I know that Old Yeller served us well. For he taught us that there are some things so comfortably worn, so important in our lives, that they can never truly be set aside or forgotten. They are the threads that bind us, that clean our skinned knees when we fall, that love us in all our faded and torn glory.

Thanks, Mom, I find myself thinking, for giving me that old yellow blanket in the first place, that I might give it to my son. Thanks, Son, for the privilege of being your mom, and the memory of your sweet little voice that reaches out to me still when I awaken in the dead of night, frightened by how swiftly life is passing: “Just because something’s old, Mommy, doesn’t mean you have to throw it away.”

Could we have asked for anything more from a ragged yellow blanket?

~Theresa Sanders

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