Sunday in the Park
December 14, 2007
It has been so noisy downstairs in my house this week. I live alone, so it is especially noticeable when the volume level is increased in my tiny home. It started when I brought in all the Christmas boxes filled with ornaments and decorations. There has been such a ruckus since I started unwrapping and unpacking that I finally had to take a break.
Right now, the couch is covered; ditto the reading bench and the dining-room table and half the dining-room and living-room floors. There are shiny glass balls and thin glass icicles and brass bells all lined up. Skinny-legged Santas and round-faced angels and my old friend of thirty years, Ralph, the Elf. There are mice dressed for the season and tin airplanes and robots and cars to hang on the tree. The simple clay nativity set is silent on the buffet. Not drawing attention, just making the same calm, quiet statement is has for decades – well, I guess centuries, really.
But the bears – oh, my. The bears are everywhere. I had no idea I had collected so many. Tiny bears, maybe an inch high, fully dressed like toy soldiers. Bare bears maybe two inches high with jointed arms and legs. Threadbare bears that have moved with me from state to state. There are bears on the stairs. Bears with airs. Fully dressed, rather elegantly, in faux furs and knit sweaters and fine hats and long scarves. I let visiting children choose from those bears and then replace them every year. They are amusing but entirely replaceable bears.
But sitting on an antique steamer trunk from Boston is a family of bears. Blonde wool bears, fully jointed, in three sizes – the obvious baby, mommy and daddy sizes. I see them and think first of a speaker I just heard at a conference. A PhD from MIT who retold the three bears story. He said we all knew the little girl found papa bear’s porridge too hot and mama bear’s porridge too cold and baby bear’s just right. He said the story always bothered him, even as a small child. This analytical child had no problem suspending belief about talking bears making porridge, but the thermodynamics of which bowl should have been "just right" always bothered him. I have to admit it had never bothered me before, but now it seems so obvious.
The steamer-trunk bears are serious bears. Elegant bears with carefully stitched faces and brown glass eyes and believable black rubber noses. They came to me naked from China in the ’70s when we first started trading with that country after a very long boycott. No one thought about any dangers with such toys from China then, just excitement at what had been so long forbidden. I owned a children’s clothing store in Lake Tahoe and I ordered the pricey bears, mostly for myself and my children, but hoping I would sell a few to customers as well. They were so beautiful that people were happy to pay the elevated import cost for them. In fact, by Christmas Eve, I only had one set left. I took them home and did the thing that young, very young, foolish mothers do, I stayed up all night making them clothes, by hand, because the sewing machine would wake the children.
In the morning, under the tree, the three bears from our store had been magically dressed by elves. I think I invented Ralph the Elf that year, who could leave the North Pole and help with special projects when moms needed him. I think I told the kids that Ralph had seen to it the bears had elegant clothes for Christmas morning. We knew Santa had been busy all night delivering presents. Papa bear was simple, a red velvet vest complete with pockets and tiny white pearl buttons and three buttonholes. It was fully lined with red and white gingham. Mama had a red velvet skirt and white lace pinafore with ruffles. Baby had black velvet short pants with suspenders held on with pearl buttons and a white stiff collar and a green velvet bow tie. It was hasty job but theatrically perfect for small children. And for the past thirty years, when I pull the bears out of their reused-to-a-fabric-softness-tissue-paper, I think maybe this will be the year I’ll sew them new clothes.
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But I don’t. These were never bears that were played with much. They only came out for the holidays and while I saw them as open to any, my adult children tell me it was pretty obvious these were Mom’s bears. Off limits in an unspoken passive-aggressive kind of way. Set apart. Set up high on pianos and mantels and bookshelves, out of easy reach. They could be gently placed on the couch for a story, apparently, but were returned to a place of honor after they had a small excursion. I admit I have always loved these bears.
The grandchildren know none of this. The bears are undressed and redressed and tossed around the living room with glee. Their parents take not-so-secret pleasure in this.
And yes, while there are tales from fabric angels and popsicle-stick sleds and glass snowmen, it is the bears who want me to slow down and listen to a story. "Once upon a time," they always begin, and then they remind me who I used to be. Who my little family used to be. My fears upon leaving Tahoe and moving here as a single mom. My fears for my children, and then teenagers, and then college students who then became gainfully employed parents of their own children. They remind me of dreams deferred and dreams completed. Of illness and wellness and sadness and gladness. There is an Asian wisdom to the bears that came over with them all those years ago. They demand my attention in quiet powerful way.
So I brewed a pot of tea last evening and placed angels on greens next to brass bells. I put on the new Josh Groban Christmas album, which is a bit a cheesy but perfect for such thoughtful placing of objects. The bears on the steamer trunk looked wise, as always, and I tried not to notice their clothes are looking a bit tired. Then I sat in front of them on the floor and asked for a story. Their clothes perked right up, I swear they did. Baby started right in with a "remember the time you thought something, something was sooo important at Christmas?" and we both giggled at the foolishness of it all. Papa had a reminder of what to watch out for and I took his words seriously as I always have. But this year I heard the wisdom of Mama, who let the foolish be foolish and the serious be serious and somehow in her own simple, perhaps thermodynamic way, whispered something and I realized she was "just right."
I still have plenty to do. Put the lights on the tree and get the ornaments hung with care. But I’ll try not to be too busy in the next few weeks for the occasional story time. The bears have seen a lot. I’ll get quiet now and again and listen to their memories, maybe not every day, but certainly on this very Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. Orr is also a former editor of The Park Record.