What a forty-something bear might know about the meaning of life.
Most of us grew up with a beloved stuffed animal, to which we pressed our tiny noses as our tiny hearts swelled with adoration. Mine was Laika, a white bear semi-explicably named after the famed Soviet space dog that became the first animal to orbit Earth. Psychologists call this a “transitional object” — an attachment bridge that helps us separate from our mothers without feeling an overwhelming sense of lonesome insecurity. What’s both perplexing and endearing, however, is that many kids continue to love their “transitional objects” well past the toddler stage, many even into young adulthood, bringing said teddy along to the college dorm room or even setting it in a sacred place in their grown-up bedroom. That’s precisely what Dublin-based photographer Mark Nixon explores with equal parts fascination and tenderness in his project Much Loved (public library) — a moving portrait gallery of people’s beloved bears and the occasional rabbit, monkey, or giraffe, many hugged and kissed down to bare threads to emerge as affection-ravaged amputees and bittersweet survivors of the immortal combat of growing up.
It all began when Nixon witnessed the complete adoration with which his own baby son enveloped his Peter Rabbit, a gift from his 99-year-old grandmother — “the way he squeezed it with delight when he was excited, the way he buried his nose in it while sucking his thumb, and how he just had to sleep with Peter every night.” Inspired by his newfound insight into the emotional world of childhood teddies and fueled by his admiration for legendary photographer Irving Penn’s ability to illuminate the dull and familiar in new and entrancing light, Nixon put out a call for people to bring their own beloved bears and other beings to be photographed for an exhibition at his studio space.
But what had begun as merely a fun creative project soon took Nixon by surprise as a psychological experiment with far more depth and dimension: He had expected mostly children, but the people who showed up were primarily grownups, and they brought with them not only their stuffed animals but also an outpouring of highly emotional memories and stories. Nixon writes:
It was as though they had been keeping a long-held secret and could finally tell someone what their teddies really meant to them. Their strength of feeling took me by surprise. They would tell some usually funny story about their teddy … or would speak emotionally about what it meant to them. So the stories and memories became integral to the photographs, adding significance to them and bringing them to life.
Daragh’s father was given a pound from his parents for his birthday and he bought Teddy Moore for her. Under his hat and clothes, Teddy Moore is held together with nylons.
Although he looks like he was in a fire, in Daragh’s own words, she kissed the fur off him.
He lives in the locker beside her bed; she doesn’t like him sleeping in the bed in case she smothers him.
What makes the project most compelling, however, is that as we look at these inanimate creatures, we can’t help but peer into the souls of their soulless fabric bodies and imbue them with human feelings, confer upon their manufactured mugs human expressions: How joyful some look, happy to have been loved this hard, and how sad others, confused and devastated by their inevitable replacement with a child, a husband, a dog, or some other token of what Tolkien called “grownupishness.”
Ted lost his eye defending me from a terrier at day care. (That’s the short version of the story.) He also keeps all my secrets in the compartment created by his flattened nose.
I knitted Giovanni (formerly Joe) in primary school when I was about eight years old. When Joe was completed, he had a misshapen head and a too-large nose, and I didn’t like him very much.
Many years later when I was in medical school, I took pity on him and performed some cosmetic surgery, giving him a new nose and a better head. My mum made him some new clothes (as he had been attacked by a moth.)
To celebrate his new look, I have him his new name, Giovanni. He is best friends with Pedro.
Teddy Tingley belonged to my oldest brother, who gave him to me the day I was born.
I remember when I was three years old and we were heading off on holiday by train. I had just settled down in the carriage with my brothers for the journey and as the train started moving, I glanced out the window to see, to my horror, Teddy sitting on a bundle of my comics left on the station platform. Thanks to my mum roaring like a madwoman out the window, “The teddy! The teddy! I just want the teddy!” some kind person picked up Teddy and ran with him as the train picked up speed, reaching up to the window just in time for Mum to grab him. She then had to sit down and face the other passengers for the rest of the journey…
Among the private stories are also little-known fragments of popular culture, like the story of the bear U2’s Bono and his wife Ali inherited.
Ali Hewson writes:
This little bear is a memory of one of the most incredible men in my life. Greg Carroll became a great friend to me and Bono in the early 1980s. In 1986 he died at the age of twenty-six in a motor accident in Dublin, and he left a giant hole in our lives. Greg was a Maori, and at his tanti, the traditional Maori funeral rite, a mate of his handed us this one-eared teddy bear. It was Greg’s, and it has been with us ever since… a fragment of Greg’s reality, gone but never forgotten.
U2’s “One Tree Hill” was written for Greg and all the great men and women whose river reaches the sea too quickly. Greg’s teddy smiles when his good ear hears it played.
Much Loved is impossibly endearing in its entirety.