"I'm not going to tell the story the way it happened. I'm going to tell it the way I remember it."
- Ethan Hawke as Finnigan Bell, Great Expectations
When I was young a long time ago in the late seventies and early eighties, the world was a very different place. There were no cell phones, no one had the internet, and cable tv was a luxury afforded only to those who lived In Town. I did not live In Town. Far from it. I lived about as far from In Town as one could get. Out in the sticks is what some folks called it. Way out there in a very scary world is what I would say.
It was, in fact, half way between two very tiny towns in the most southern part of Hillsborough county Florida. It always boggled my mind that the city of Tampa actually existed in the very same county in which I lived. I grew up a very long way away from Tampa.
Back then there were still parts of Florida that could be called rural. I grew up in one of these places. Orange groves and strawberry fields were common sites on the long, long drive home from the grocery store. I never even noticed them unless there were pickers in the fields. Vast expanses of crops were totally normal. So were homes spread far apart. I say homes because most of them were not, in fact, houses. Most were trailers masquerading as mobile homes. They existed everywhere and in various states of shabbiness. Every so often there would be one that looked brand new, sporting a shine that would soon be lost within a year or two of Florida's oppressive heat and humidity. But these trailers were the exception more than the rule. Usually, trailers were small, faded things whose flimsiness did not inspire a feeling of safety nor comfort. In fact, quite the opposite. I'd be hard pressed to call them shelters because I always felt that given one strong hurricane, the whole thing would be blown off into the Gulf of Mexico. I grew up in one of these.
It's a long way from the country to town in more ways than one. First of all, it's a freakin' long drive. Often it felt like we would never get there and anywhere but here is always where I wanted to be. We would only make the trip to town once a week and would make the rounds to all the hot spots: the grocery store, the library, the thrift store, and possibly my grandmother's house if I was getting dropped off to spend Saturday night in order to attend church with them the next day.
When I was little I was glad to get out of the trailer and have a chance to see other things. But I never felt comfortable at my Grandmother's house. I always felt weird there. Thinking back on it now, I guess it had less to do with my grandparents then it had to do with my having lived in that house a few years before with my mother. We were just back from the Philippines then and needed a place to stay. My great-grandmother, whose husband built the house, let us stay there. Unfortunately, she also let her son and his family, a wife and two boys, stay in the house. At least my great-grandmother wasn't still living there too, having moved in with one of her daughters and her son-in-law. It would have been even further over the top of overcrowded had that been the case. As it was, my very young and inexperienced mother was feeling the pressure. Even my six year old self could tell that.
Unable to endure the situation for long, my mother hooked up with the man who would eventually become my step father and she moved us out of that house and into a trailer with him, his mother and two brothers. For me, that just made things go from bad to worse. The stress of sharing cramped quarters with differing personalities drove my mother to get out no matter where she and I would end up. But my great-grandmother's house was never a home to me and, in fact, had been the scene of some of the scariest moments of my life up until that time. I had no idea that soon I would come to know real fear in a way that was unimaginable to my six year old self.
But before I jump off into the land of eternal doom and gloom let me spare some words for a few of the happy moments I remember back then. There were indeed a few of those despite the seemingly impossibleness of it. The trip to the U.S. was exciting for sure, although I really hardly remember hours of waiting in the airport during the PanAm air strike. Its just a flash of groovy sites and sounds that parade by in about a nanosecond in my mind. I do remember getting one of those fab toy airplanes to play with. It'd probably be worth a fortune today if I still had it. I'll have to check ebay later.
Anyway, I am told that the first thing I asked for when we finally hit the land of the free is a hot dog. Now I, myself, do not remember this request but it is a story that has been told to me, with great laughter, all of my life. I'm also told that I did get the hot dog. I also got a stuffed panda bear that I loved with utter abandon. He was my friend and my favorite toy and I loved him. He came from the thrift store and I used to feed him fake milk from a blue plastic baby bottle whose milk would magically disappear as if actually being drunk by a baby doll. I hardly remember ever having baby dolls but I do recall my love for that bear. He was mysteriously lost during our move to the trailer. I still miss that bear today. Hello Panda Bear, where ever you are! I miss you.
It wasn't until I was eighteen years old and living on my own that I got another Panda Bear. That bear is still with me, more than two decades later, and I sleep with him every night. He's also gone missing a time or two and one of these times was discovered hundreds of miles away. But I've always managed to get him back. We never did find my first loved Panda Bear. Thinking back about that now I wonder how that could be. How did we lose a prized and beloved stuffed bear during a move of about twenty miles when all our possessions could fit in a Ford Falcon with plenty of room left over for three passengers? The love and loss of that bear is one of my strongest childhood memories and the beginning of a very long, lonely country road of hard life lessons.
My love for plush making must certainly come from that first stuffed panda toy. I've been making plush creatures for a few years now and in the past few months I've had a bagillion ideas of different plush things I wanted to make. They all seemed to be random objects or people and I couldn't figure out a way to make them all fit together. Finally, it dawned on me what they all had in common. Me. I've decided to tell my stories through plush. This Autobiography in Plush series is a way to share the stories of my life. They're meant to celebrate the good times, help deal with the pain and everything in between.
Making this plush trailer was not a fun experience. It reminded me of my impoverished and sad childhood. The entire time I was making it I questioned if I was doing the right thing and wondered if I shouldn't just go back to making happy creatures that make me smile. This morning I put my recently created plush baby owl in a nest on top of the plush trailer and left for work. I was dreading coming home to put one finishing touch on the trailer and finally being done. But I still didn't feel like I'd accomplished or learned anything by making it. It was making me depressed to work on the thing! But when I got home, I took one look at the trailer with a bird on it and laughed my freakin' head off. Suddenly, that trailer's power over me was broken and I saw just how funny it was.