There was a time my dad went crazy for a little while. Our house was overrun with gerbils. My mother brought home two, assuring my dad they were both males. I guess gerbil gender identification is a tricky art, because it was only a matter of days before the cage had a half dozen thumbnail sized pink rodents of whom I immediately felt protective.
My dad went out to get another cage to separate the male. Too late — the mom was knocked up again. Just as the first batch began getting fur, there was a new brood. Dad went out to buy yet another cage.
And so it went, until my brother’s and my room had no less than six large aquariums spread throughout the bedroom. On top of our dressers, on the bookshelves and on top of the radiators until the heat came on. They were then transferred to a toy shelf on the opposite side of the room. My brother and I fell asleep each night to rustling and scurrying and the sound of a metal wheel.
So it should have come as no surprise to me when I came home from school one day to find my father sitting calmly at the kitchen table, chewing on a toilet paper roll. But I was ten and not used to seeing my father, a prominent film critic and historian, in anything but a suit and tie even while editing in the wee hours.
“Daddy, why are you chewing on a toilet paper roll?” I asked, as calmly as I could muster.
“Why, I need to file down my teeth!” he replied in his impeccable English accent, without skipping a beat,
I noticed the small pile of shredded cardboard in front of him. Clearly, he had been at this for a while.
“Daddy, you have false teeth,” I reminded him. This logical statement went by unnoticed. At that moment, my brother Griff, age six, appeared. He was carrying a shoe box, a ruler and an empty paper towel roll.
“Here, Dad,” he chimed gleefully “Chew on these!”
I promptly pushed the items aside and punched my brother in the arm. Unfair, I know, as he had no comprehension of the magnitude of this situation.
My mother appeared. She had a smirk on her face that I knew well. It told me she would be of no help whatsoever with this issue. She had yesterday’s newspaper with her and began tearing the paper into strips.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Making some bedding for your dad to sleep in,” she giggled, obviously enjoying the whole situation. I went into my room and cried.
A few days later, I returned home to find all the gerbils gone. Maybe my mom brought them all back to the pet store as she claimed, but I rather doubt it. By that point, there were well over fifty. We lived directly across the street from the Museum of Natural History and there was a play area and dog run we frequented often. For months afterward, I kept a watchful eye on the rodent population, looking for our lost pets. It would not be the first time my mother unilaterally disposed of something that was annoying her.
A week or so later, there was a birdcage on our bookshelf with one blue and one green parakeet. I named them Danny and Keith after my favorite characters in “The Partridge Family” but my brother always referred to them as Megalon and Ghidrah.
Those two little birds were much noisier than the army of gerbils. My brother could sleep through anything, but I was kept awake by the click-clack of their claws on the metal bars, their soft warbling (even under the night blanket) and the constant snapping of sunflower seeds. I am sure my lifetime of sleep issues are a result of living amid nocturnal creatures.
I needed my own room. My father permitted me to move into the maid’s quarters (we had no maid for a myriad of reasons) off the kitchen. At the time, it seemed a very promising solution. The great move of 1970 began in earnest.
Fast forward a few days or weeks; my timeline gets a little fuzzy here. Dad was once again spotted at the kitchen table. My mother was uncharacteristically washing dishes at the sink. This time he was noshing on one of our bird’s toys. A seeded bell on a small metal chain. I was overwhelmed with love, pity and frustration.
“Daddy,” I said “why are you eating a birdseed bell?”
“I like to hear music while I eat.”
“Then turn on the radio!” I yelled.
My brother ran into the kitchen at turbo speed.
“Hey Dad!” he called, “Why don’t you try flying out the window?”
My mother laughed uproariously.
“This is not funny!” I shouted, and ran into my new bedroom off the kitchen.
This was no escape at all as my door lacked a doorknob, so from my bed I had a porthole view of the table and the hideous red flower my mother painted on the wall for the sheer joy of irritating my father. My mother continued talking. My dramatic departure once again yielded no results.
“What is the matter with that girl?” My mother commented. “She is way too sensitive…”
“What an idiot!” my brother announced to no one in particular.
I heard the soft tinkle of the birdseed bell as my father, undeterred, continued pecking at his snack. Clearly, no one was upset by my father’s descent into madness, least of all my father. I needed a better coping mechanism.
It was a while before Happy appeared. Happy had been my father’s first Teddy bear given to him when he was two in 1931. It was the depression and my father was a boy of few luxuries, so he doted on that bear, carrying it everywhere. I don’t remember where he found his replacement 38 years later, it may have been a gift from dear Auntie Betty who loved bears herself and indulged his whims even now.
I was often both lulled to sleep and woken up by the sound of Dad’s RCA projector and the muted sounds of an old film. This night was no different. I crept out of bed in case it was an old favorite, or perhaps something forbidden. It appeared harmless — a British musical from the early thirties.
“What are you running?” I whispered.
“Shhhh…” my dad admonished me. “Happy hasn’t seen this one for 30 years!”
I said nothing and took a seat on the couch next to Happy. My dad always sat at the far end of the couch so he could hop up and fix focus or change reels quickly.
The next morning, I was asked to accompany my father to the laundromat. I noticed Happy had joined us. Happy also joined us on various trips to the supermarket, the Chinese restaurant, the stationery store and even to Paul Killiam’s office to pick up some prints. I came to the realization that I was serving two purposes. Of course my father enjoyed the company of his young daughter, but I had now also become his “beard.”
I had legitimized Happy. No one questioned a father-daughter outing to the park with a Teddy bear in tow. Obviously, this doting father was carrying it for his young daughter. This deception did not really bother me, because I assumed deep down my father was aware that it might be considered odd to be out about town with Happy on his own. Not that it didn’t happen… but I was sure if confronted, Dad would undoubtedly come up with a believable excuse.
Happy stayed with my father throughout his life and I respected and indulged his whimsy. When I was in England in 1990, I came across a Happy and Jafed annual from 1933 at a flea market. It was one of the few presents I got him that seemed to give him real joy.
My father passed away in 1996 with his second wife and Happy at his bedside. My daughter Sarah soon began carting her beloved Peanuts dolls everywhere. They were lost at school when she was eight and were replaced with Kenny the underdog from the South Park series. Sarah is now 20 and Kenny still makes most appearances with her although I was able to talk her out of bringing him to her senior prom.
How could I possibly not respect and indulge that?