This is a long shot. An absurd long shot.
So be it.
For the past month, I’d seen a mushed, orange stuffed animal – no bigger than a shoebox – by the right-hand side of the highway headed toward Charleston. After the southbound confluence of I-26 and I-77. Before St. Matthew’s Exit 119.
The creature looked a little like A.A. Milne’s Tigger, the optimistic tiger and friend of Winnie the Pooh, but I could never get a good enough look as I sped by.
Drive after drive, I kept seeing him. I started anticipating him, exactly where he would be. And then, I started worrying about him. Such an awful place to be. Eighteen-wheelers scorching past. Cars doing the same. The rain. The heat. The gritty asphalt.
How it got there? Well, who knows.
But as a mother of two children who had their chosen comforts – my daughter, a small blanket called “Bankie” and my son, a stuffed lion named “Old Wy,” I couldn’t shake the unsettling notion that the mushed, stuffed animal by the side of the road belonged to a child who was surely missing it. Who could hardly be consoled when it was discovered that the critter was gone. Who went to bed that first night without him. Miserable. Tearful.
Though I was less concerned about the parents of said child, I suspected they were suffering too.
How many times had they searched the house for the beloved stuffed animal? How many times had they seen this creature tucked into their child’s arm as he slept peacefully, comforted as only this orange bundle of material and stuffing could comfort? How many times had they put it in the wash as it went everywhere and got into everything?
And how many times had they wondered, “What will we do if it gets lost?” “Should we buy another one just in case?”
But if you’re a tried, tired and true parent, you know this: There are no stand-ins. No replacements. No second string.
There is but one sweet, chosen, loved thing.
And while it might be a stuffed animal to you, it has untold value because it is real to the one who loves it. The child who embraces it. Sleeps with it. Wakes with it. Drags it here and there. Finds comfort in its black eyes, rubbed-off fur and tail hanging by a thread.
A writer named Margery Williams said it best in her lovely story “The Velveteen Rabbit.” It’s the tale of toys that become real to those who love them. The Rabbit and the Skin Horse are in the nursery and the Rabbit wants to know what being real means.
“ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with you, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’ ”
Real with a capital “R.”
So on a Sunday morning, I pulled over by the side of the highway and grabbed the little orange fellow.
He was not a Tigger but a fox. He was filthy. He smelled terrible. He was torn asunder and what little stuffing he had left was wet.
I wrapped him in a towel, took him home, put him in the wash, dried him in the sun, added fresh stuffing and performed surgery with needle and thread.
He did not say a word.
But I know what he was thinking.
Who is this woman? Where am I? Where is my best friend? The one who drags me everywhere. The one who holds me close at night. The one who made me Real.
My answer to the little orange fellow is that he will always have a home here at my house.
And my prayer is that someone will read this story and know where he belongs and who he belongs with.
It’s a long shot.
A Real long shot.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia, S.C. in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com.