Even before I became a parent, I always thought it was especially adorable when little kids had a security blanket or stuffed animal that they couldn't live without it. I'll never forget the night I had dinner with my dear friends Lynn and David and their boys at the Hard Times restaurant in Arlington, only to realize that their son Eric had left his beloved "curly edged diaper" behind. Curly edged diaper was an unassuming white cloth diaper to which, for whatever mysterious reason, Eric had become rather attached. 17 years later, I still remember the ritualistic way Eric would manipulate curly edged diaper, folding over a corner and working it rhythmically through the crook of his hand while fervently sucking his thumb. (A practice I've since learned is oddly universal.) David and I went back to rescue C.E.D. that night, only to realize that white cloth diapers look remarkably like white cloth napkins, of which approximately 974 had been cleared off the tables since we'd left. After explaining to the puzzled kitchen help that we were essentially looking for a rag, we mounted an exhaustive search. Somehow we found it, and all was right with the world again.
When you spend enough time around families with young kids, you start to know their lovies as well. My nephew Jake's attachment to "Bear" was the stuff of legend. His younger sister and brother took up with blankets with no less ferocity of affection. My friend Michele's three kids were all devotees as well; first came Puppy, then Bunny and then Blankie. And then there are my husband's good friends Jason and Cindy. By the time she was about four, their daughter Ellie clung -- quite literally -- to the pieces of what had once been her lovey. I'm not even sure what animal it began life as, because after many years of hard-core affection all that was left was a frayed piece of torso, and maybe an ear, if I remember correctly. But that didn't dampen her enthusiasm. It sort of reminded me of the Victorians, wandering around with those lockets filled with dead people's hair. Or the way people revere religious relics.
And so it was a minor disappointment in our lives when our oldest son, Ethan, fell into that 40% of Western children who aren't attached to a "transitional object," as the psych lit calls them. He definitely had a favorite stuffed animal -- Lambie -- but that was about as far as it went. Lambie was nice. Lambie was quite loved. Lambie was almost always there at nap and nighttime, and we made sure to bring Lambie with us when we traveled, but Lambie could also fall under the crib for days at a time and cause no great stir. Lambie was no curly edged diaper.
And then came Alec.
Alec was an abysmal sleeper as an infant, so bad that I caved and hired one of those baby whisperer people to help me after he once woke up 12 times in a 12 hour night. Oh yeah. We were even on the local news about it.
In my desperate search to figure out how to get him to sleep better -- a search motivated by the growing realization that sleep deprivation was eroding my grip on reality -- I dutifully did all the tricks that the sleep czars recommend. Including introducing a lovey.
For Alec, we chose a blue sailor bear made by Kaloo that we'd been given as a gift when he was born by our friend Tori. The body is actually a small flat blanket, about six or eight inches square, with a stuffed bear head topped with a long nightcap, the kind they wear in The Night Before Christmas. I wore it around in my shirt one day so it would smell like me, just like the books said, and then introduced it to him.
To say that it worked would be the understatement of the decade. Correction. It didn't really help with his sleeping, (neither did the baby whisperer, for that matter, despite what the news report said) but whatever mystical powers make a child attach to a transitional object worked their magic in spades. Alec and LaLa, as he has since been dubbed, are now completely and somewhat maniacally inseparable.
I'm genuinely fascinated by the the power of LaLa. When you go in to get Alec out of his crib in the morning, or after a nap, almost without fail, the first thing he does is hold up LaLa and show him to you. "LaLa," he always declares solemnly, as if he were introducing him for the very first time. It's like he's just reaffirming that LaLa is there and life can proceed as usual. When he plays with LaLa, he just keeps saying LaLa's name over and over again, deliriously happy just to be in LaLa's presence. Even better, he tells LaLa he loves him, using inimitable Alec-speak: "Lah-loooooooooo LaLa!" he sings. He buries his face in him, which is no small feat considering that LaLa, due to Alec's penchant for sucking on him, usually smells like something between a dirty diaper and a rotting carcass. (And this despite the fact that there are now actually two LaLas in rotation, a fact that -- shhhh!!! -- we've taken great pains to conceal from Alec.) And most interesting to me, though we never taught it to him, he's somehow figured out that same ritualistic manipulation, folding down a corner of LaLa and rhythmically working it through his fingers, all the while keeping him close to his face.
If LaLa goes missing, we all get a little frantic. I honestly feel a stab of genuine fear until I can locate him. (Sometimes backup LaLa is in the wash.) Alec can be a little -- how shall we say? -- insistent about most things, but nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to a missing LaLa situation. "LaLa? LaLa?? LALA???? LALA?????!!!??" he'll start repeating, with escalating anxiety. On the flip side, there's nothing quite like the pure unmitigated blast of joy he'll experience when you then find LaLa and give him back. It's nothing short of a religious experience, in which he displays the kind of unabashed affection usually reserved for returning prisoners of war. His eyes actually twinkle.
I have to say I sort of envy Alec for having LaLa. Don't you wish your life were simple enough that there could be an object whose very existence -- the mere sight or feel of it -- could absolutely elate you and instantly comfort you? And no, I know what you're thinking. Wine doesn't count.
Update. Sunday, February 7.
Just had to add that this afternoon we gave Alec one of his very favorite things to eat, hummus with pita chips. He decided to forego the chips and use LaLa's paw to scoop up his hummus. That's love, people.