That and This

When my oldest niece was little, her most precious belonging was a bear-headed, blanket-bodied stuffie named "Ça." The bear had come by his name accidentally one day when my niece, in the care of her grandmother, Mémé, was desperately gesturing for something she wanted but couldn't name, couldn't reach. My sister-in-law's mother tried to locate the source of her granddaughter's desperate longing. Going through trial and error, speaking in her usual blend of English and French, Mémé finally spotted the bear blanket across the room. "Ça?" she said. "You want ça?" And she brought the item over to my niece, who held it tightly and cooed, "Ça. Ça." The thing that was out of reach—That—was now happily in hand.

When my daughter was born, she received her very own Ça as a gift from my sister-in-law. This Ça was an identical cousin, except for the name embroidered on his satin heart. While you can’t really predetermine your child’s transitional object—I think they choose each other just as wands and wizards do—it wasn't long before the name Ça was firmly imprinted on my daughter's heart as well. He was a constant presence in our lives—shepherding our little family through every beginning and every ending and every rough patch in between. 

That is, until one fateful night in Paris when my daughter was eight. (I'm not making this up.) 

We were there with my family, celebrating my father's 75th birthday—a whirlwind tour of first London and then Paris. Other than a few awkward moments when my father's Inspector Clouseau-ish attempts at French got us testy looks, it really was a lovely trip. 

Ça did not stand atop the Eiffel Tower or travel up the side of the Pompidou. He did not wander the Marais with us. Instead, he watched over our hotel room, where every morning I would carefully remove him from my daughter's rollaway bed and place him on a dresser. A few weeks before we left, my friend Camille had shared the story of how, when she was a young college student, she traveled to Italy and brought her beloved stuffie with her, only to have it caught up in the sheets of her hotel bed and carted off to the laundry room, never to be seen again. The story haunted me.

It's worth noting that I'm a relatively cautious mother, a protective mother—a mother who, even now, can't stop cutting fruit into smaller pieces than required, despite the fact that my daughter is 13 and very skilled at chewing her food. But on the last full day of our trip, when we were rushing to leave the hotel in order to soak in as much of Paris as we could, I looked back and saw Ça lying in the bed instead of on the dresser and decided to simply close the door behind me. You worry too much, I told myself.

You can see where this is going, right?

Yes, that was the last time we saw Ça. Later that night, when we returned to the hotel, I was Liam Neeson in a stuffie version of Taken. I pleaded with the man at the front desk to let me go down to the laundry room—fully prepared to spend my last night in Paris tangled up in piles of dirty sheets. "I'm sorry," he told me, with a mixture of pity and disdain. "We don't have a laundry room. We send our laundry out to a central facility for all the major hotels." I started to cry. I reached for his computer, searching for the website of the company where Ça originated. I showed him a picture. I explained about the name sewn on the heart. He told me he would print the picture and give it to the housekeeping staff. Maybe they had seen something, he said...weakly. Not having anything more to offer, he handed me his business card and said goodnight. 

I returned to the hotel room, shell-shocked. Amy, always better in these situations, shot me a look that said, "You need to mother up right now." So, I forced a smile and explained that Ça was temporarily missing. Somehow my daughter managed to sleep through the night. I was not so lucky. I tossed and turned, replaying the fateful decision at the door over and over. Unpacking it, undoing it. It felt as if I had not only lost my child's most precious belonging but also, in a way, a piece of her childhood itself.

The next morning was Easter, and I half-hoped for a miracle, a resurrection—a bellhop running after the taxi just as we started to leave—"We found him, Madam! We found him!" But there was no bellhop. No discovery. Just a quiet rain.

One of my daughter's greatest strengths is her tenacity. She has always seemed stronger than me—even when she was inside of me. I did not have the easiest of pregnancies. There were a number of false scares that sent us to the ER. But during every single one of these episodes, the refrain from the doctors and nurses was always the same: "The baby looks great. She's very, very strong."

She coped with the loss of Ça a lot better than I did. While I spent the days and weeks after we got back emailing the hotel in vain, fantasizing about flying back to Paris to launch a bear hunt, and contemplating a children's book about the lost stuffies of Paris's central laundry, my daughter simply moved from Ça to Ci.

Ci was our backup bear. A twin sister to Ça. She had been liked, if not loved. Though she looked like Ça in every way, she lacked one crucial physical feature: a near-imperceptible indentation in the part of the fabric where the bear head met the blanket body. Whether Ça had been born with this mark or it had formed over time from a combination of my daughter's tight grip and loving caress, I wasn't sure. I just knew that Ci, lacking the indentation, was forever doomed to be the understudy—her most important role was to stand in for her brother on laundry day. 

But the night we got back from Paris, Ci got to work. And she worked hard from that evening forth, doing her brother proud and eventually transitioning herself out of a job. She still comes back from time to time—like one day this past week, when my daughter was preparing to visit the high school she wants to attend next year. After my daughter left the house, I saw Ci lying on the living room couch. She is old and gray now, missing half an ear (the dog's doing). I picked her up and held her for the first time in a long time. I was surprised to discover a tiny indentation under her chin. 

My daughter learned to love Ci—the thing in hand, in reach, in the present—instead of simply mourning Ça—the thing she used to have, the thing she lost, the thing she would never have again. When you approach life this way, I thought, Ci can become Ça. This can be your That. My daughter learned an object lesson in transition long before I did. But now I've learned it, too.