66: The Zookeeper’s Mother

66: The Zookeeper’s Mother

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

The Zookeeper’s Mother

May your home always be too small to hold all of your friends.

~Author Unknown

I surveyed my handiwork with the hands-on-hips satisfaction of a woman who had restored peace, order and good government to her home. The unruly cast of stuffed animals that had been roaming wild around my house — toucans, lizards, turtles, squirrels, kangaroos — were now safely back in their enclosures. My family room no longer looked as though Noah’s Ark had docked for shore leave.

I hadn’t managed to thin the herd — the culling had been thwarted by the Zookeeper. But having narrowly escaped the ruthless downsizing that reduced the ranks of their plastic comrades, all of the soft, plush critters in my house had a newfound respect for the Zookeeper’s Mother.

The smell of fear was still in the air when the phone rang. “Hi, it’s Miriam,” said my son’s babysitter. “I’ve been going through some of my old things, and I know Joe loves stuffy toys and I have one… which is very special to me… and I want it to go to a good home.”

Her timing was uncanny. It’s as if she knew on a subatomic level that I’d been purging. (Had the inanimate animals sent out a distress signal of some kind?)

Part of me wanted to be cold and practical, to say, “There’s no room at the inn!” But in spite of Miriam’s adolescent nonchalance, I heard the faintest trace of the little girl I once knew. I figured any toy she’d hung onto through the tumultuous transition from tween to teen must, indeed, be something very special. How could I deprive this vestige of her childhood from finding a loving home?

“Bring him over,” I said. “The Zookeeper will always make room for one more.”

Joseph, the Zookeeper, had proved his loyalty to his collection of stuffed animals during the clear out. He’d made tough sacrifices with many of his other toys in order to keep the whole plush gang together. (So long Mr. Potato Head, may you rest in peace. Too bad you weren’t stuffed.) Earlier that day all the soft toys had been laid out, sacrificially, at the foot of my son’s bed. “You can’t keep them all,” I said.

But who would stay, and who was to go?

Joseph made a compelling case for why each and every one must be saved. With gravity-defying tears clinging to his lower eyelids he pleaded with me: “You can’t break up the family!” And just so you don’t mistake me for a heartless witch, I too had trouble saying goodbye to some of these fine fellows. In no time at all I’d assembled my own class of untouchables in the safety zone at the head of the bed.

“Not the Wolfe Island bunny,” I said. He is one of my nearest and dearest. “Not Doggy!” I plucked him off the pile right away. To other people, he is a speckled dog of no great importance, but in his glassy eyes I see the reflection of my Uncle Adrian buying him in the nursing home’s gift shop — a present for the baby boy I was bringing for a first, and final, visit.

Between Joe’s favourites and mine, pretty soon the whole ragtag circus had simply migrated from the footboard to the headboard. With two sentimentalists like us, there would be no letting go. These animals were connected to memories that neither of us was ready to toss in a green garbage bag.

Not long after the great purge the Zookeeper quickly began forgetting to corral his stuffed animals at day’s end. Within a few days I found New Leopard (Miriam’s beloved for whom we haven’t settled on a name) sitting on the floor of my closet with one of my bras strapped to his chest. It got me thinking about my first screenplay: Toy Story 4, starring a rogue, cross-dressing leopard having some fun in Andy’s mom’s closet.

I try not to be annoyed by the shenanigans, though. The truth is it will be a sad day when the Zookeeper is no longer devoted to his synthetic menagerie.

While the Zookeeper is at school, sometimes I gather up the wayward troupe and arrange them on his bed, mixing and matching animals that don’t really belong together. There is no lion and no lamb, but the bunny and the tiger do well as stand-ins for my new world order: Where foe becomes friend and we all live together like one big, happy family.

~Michelle Hauser

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