dani & waddles, or the stuffed penguin who loved me

I was a stuffed animal kid. Stuffed animals are the best possible toy. They offer all of the companionship and boundless playing pretend opportunities that dolls do, but they aren’t creepy nor are they an upsetting push on little girls to go ahead and be super pumped about motherhood. Dude, I am three. Can I finish this juice box before I start worrying about what to expect when I’m expecting?

When I was a very tiny thing, my main squeeze was a little Dumbo from The Disney Store. We were all playing outside in the front yard one day when the weather took a turn for the worse. In the scramble to get back inside, Dumbo was misplaced. My parents only realized the calamity as bedtime loomed, and knew that they were screwed. There was no way in hell I was going to go to sleep– let alone go on to even remotely function in society– without that stuffed elephant. My dad drove out late that Sunday night back to The Disney Store to procure me a new Dumbo. OG Dumbo was later discovered out on the porch, a little beaten up by the elements. There was plenty of room in my heart for the both of them.

A couple of years later when I was in elementary school and still thoroughly Disney’s bitch, I insisted on bringing a stuffed animal with me to the theatre to see Pocahontas. Since Pocahontas had animal friends in the movie, I believed that I wouldn’t be giving the film my full respect and consideration if I didn’t likewise have an animal friend with me. Specifically, I needed a woodland critter friend. The chosen one ended up being a little, soft, white bunny that I’d never really paid attention to before. Her name was Snowball, and she sat next to me in the movie theatre cup holder.

Snowball and I went on many more adventures over the years, cinematic and otherwise. In addition to my crushing adoration, she endured dirt and wind and the remnants of whatever people are leaving behid in movie theatre cup holders. We all know that it can’t just be old soda in there, right? Snowball started to lose her fluffy, white sheen. My mom nicknamed her “Scuzzbunny.” I didn’t care. Snowball was my friend, and don’t all of our looks start to go one day?

There is friendship, and then there is the love of a stuffed animal. Stuffed animals were always with me at the very end of each day as my fears of the dark and my shames about what I might have done wrong earlier that day started to creep into my head. As I grew up, I found more and more things to be afraid and ashamed of. Dumbo, Snowball, Shamu, Mr. Walrus, the alligator that I got at a Cracker Barrel… they never said anything. They simply listened and protected me.

When I was in college, my parents gave me Waddles as a Christmas present. Waddles is a big, fat penguin wearing a jaunty red scarf. He is super soft, and has a round, perfect face. The story goes that my mom saw Waddles at a now-defunct novelty store at Discover Mills Mall, and knew that we needed one another.

Waddles came into my life when my depression kicked into the highest gear. On some of the worst nights of my life, I do not know what I would have done without Waddles. When I have been in the deep dark places that I couldn’t tell any humans about, Waddles was there. I have clutched that stuffed penguin to my chest in the darkness, while bawling silently, unable to draw breath, and begging the darkness to make everything stop. On the nights that I felt like I was shaking out of my skin, Waddles’ fluffy body braced me and held me up.

There are heartaches and nightmares that only a stuffed penguin can weather with you.

Waddles and I are still together. He’s been with me everywhere I’ve ever lived as an adult, be it an apartment or a friend’s guest room that I was crashing for a month. He’s been with me through all of my sexual partners, good and bad and completely absurd. Anytime sexual activity occurred in our shared living space, I made sure to remove him from the bed and turn his face towards the wall ahead of time, because I’m a good person. One time I did a really cool This American Life-inspired storytelling show that involved me doing stand up with some props and set pieces. I told a story about Waddles, but didn’t want to bring him into the dusty, outdoor performance space for he is just too precious, you guys. I bought him an understudy penguin from the aquarium gift shop. Her name is Waffles, and they’re hanging out together in the living room right now. They’re both wearing hats right now.

Waddles is who I would defy all rules of safety and common sense to rescue in the event of a fire. He is a surrogate of my parents’ love. I want my parents to think that I’m over all of my college bullshit. I don’t want them to think they’re responsible for my mental illness. There’s no point in trying to trick Waddles. His eyes have never missed a thing.

Also, he’s just the cutest, most perfect penguin you’ve ever seen.

I will always be a stuffed animal kid. I’m very soft. I am afraid and I bruise real fast. I get sad and worried very easily. Sometimes there are no words to put to these fears and woes. There are days when I can’t begin to justify or rationalize anything my brain is saying to me. When I don’t feel able to connect with humanity, I go to Waddles. I lay my face on his soft belly, and stay down until getting up doesn’t feel completely impossible. And, when everything’s okay, sometimes we just hang out and watch movies together.

He’s my buddy after all.

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