The story of a red bear
Three years ago, at a flea market in a somewhat dumpy pizzeria next to the highway, Seraphina (my daughter) found and fell in love with a little bear dressed like Santa Claus. She called it “Rotbär”, red bear, and pronounced it hohtbär (with long dark “O” as in home). A few months later, disaster struck. On a cold November night, Rotbär got lost somewhere in Basel, how is anyone’s guess. We searched for it, made calls, returned to each location we might have been. To no avail. Seraphina, at three and a half years of age, was inconsolable.
“Rotbär has certainly gone on vacation for a while,” I told her, trying to explain that even bears like to take a break, that winter was coming and he had surely caught a southerly-bound, to Ticino, to Italy, Spain, later Africa… He wanted to see the world, he would be back.
It worked. For a while. But every now and then, she would burst out in tears and say, “Hohtbär is surely, surely lost forever, why would he want to leave?”
This went on for two-and-a-half years, or thereabouts. She did not forget the little bear dressed like Santa Claus. In the meantime she even pronounced him “rrrotbär”, rolling the “R”s properly. “He probably found a wonderful place to live,” I told her, “and I am sure he is happy, he must be.” It worked. For another while.
But soon after, one quiet night, my lucubration was interrupted by a plaintive cry: “Papa, I wonder where Rotbär is right now, I am sure he was stolen by pirates,” and the tears flowed and flowed and flowed, and the story of the traveling red Santa bear grew and grew, decorated with touches of real life, train rides, plane trips, seasickness on ships and joyrides in cars, visits to poor children in faraway lands, who really needed to be comforted by the Miracle Bear, because they had so, so little. And Seraphina’s little-giant heart felt this was right and Rotbär was doing fine. So it worked. For another while. Say a month or two, maximum.
About five weeks ago, Rotbear finally phoned me, I was happy to report. From England, of all places. He had decided to come back home because he missed Seraphina. And she was excited. “Really???” Yes, really, I answered, and mentioned in passing that he had probably changed a bit, just like she had changed in all those years. She had become bigger, and he, too, probably. But apparently he still had those clothes on. “He told me he would send a postcard from Hamburg,” I dropped casually at the table one day.
I knew other key parts of Rotbär that had changed, but I will not tell her. In fact, I will keep this a secret, period.
Lo and behold, a few days later a picture came in an envelope addressed in heavy, cumbersome letters: A little bear in a Santa suit, looking cocky indeed, and, oddly, sitting on a chair like the one in our living room. I placed the picture on the kitchen table. At mealtimes, Seraphina would look at that bear, and could hardly believe it. Rotbär was really, really coming home. And it must be that bear, she sort of remembered. He was in Hamburg (“Is that far?”), he is in Hannover (“Is that far?”), he is in Düsseldorf (“Is that far?”), he is taking a ship down to Karlsruhe (“Is that far?”). We did the map of Germany. Once she even asked if he was in Alsace, across the border. “No,” I replied earnestly, “The train line from Hamburg comes through Freiburg, not Alsace…
You have to be realistic, right?
Today was Seraphina’s sixth birthday. She had seven friends over. The heat was excruciating. In the afternoon, just as the party was setting off for a treasure hunt (accompanied by our flesh-and-bone cat), after the cake-eating ceremony, heavy storm clouds suddenly stacked up in the sky, menacingly. But they only broke to the north and east of the district, causing floods and all manner of havoc. We just got the dark clouds and wind and a few drops of rain. So the children could play outside for a while and dip in the inflatable pool and scream.
Seraphina was in seventh heaven. She had woken up this morning to an apartment in festive garb, with garlands strung from the beams and pink vinyl cloth on the table decked out with fairy cups and princess plates. Suddenly, at 8:20 a.m., the doorbell rang perfunctorily. She ran down the stairs. And there, on the table in front of the entrance door sat none other than Rotbär, the prodigal Santa bear, back after so many adventures. Exactly the same as on the postcard. Except in his backpack were some gummi bears. Well, what do bears snack on while traveling?
Twelve long hours later…
Before going to bed, Seraphina’s front tooth, which was very wiggly, finally came out. The tooth fairy will be along as soon as everyone is asleep. Seraphina gets to bed, undresses Rotbär, because it is still quite hot out, she points out. And once again, her voice rings out in the now quiet house… “Papa!” It carries a mellifluous tone that suggests worry. “The guests,” — she really calls her friends guests – “said that someone brought Rotbär, he didn’t come by himself.”
Somehow, I expected this. Or rather, I feared this.
Like those fragile, pearly little teeth giving way to more stable eating tools, her childhood is slipping away. The dreams, the fantasies, are ceding to reason and logic. She knows it. She is proud of those new teeth coming. Her friends all have Halloween pumpkin smiles already and boast about it among themselves. And yet two nights ago, she called again when all was quiet. (The time when one’s thoughts seem loudest, don’t they?) And she tearfully, desperately explained that she really liked being five years old, and did not want to be six. She couldn’t explain why, but having to go to school suddenly seemed too daunting. “Five is a good age!” she threw at me. And so we chatted about age, about being six, and 53, and how old grandpa is (77) and about why Joni, our neighbor in Hungary, died two years ago at around 80.
Like the child she is, Seraphina has few filters. She listens with each cell to what life is telling her. In a few years, no time really, she will be a different person, I assume. What lesson is there here? Should one obey the harsh laws of 2+2 make 4 and nothing more? Is this a charade I am playing with her? Or is it simply nurturing happiness? I believe in authentic emotion, in sadness, and anger, and joy. There is so much to say for feeling and expressing genuine emotion. It’s what make us whole and real and able to truly communicate in the end. Her feelings, I suddenly realize, have nothing to do with a little bear in a Santa suit.
“You always knew Rotbär was coming back, didn’t you?” I ask.
“Yes!” - “You believed he would? Truly, in your heart?”
“Because you really love Rotbär, right?”
“Well, your friends were not here this morning when the doorbell rang, so they don’t know. He’s here, and that is because you believed it would happen.” This is in a voice of conviction.
“Yes, and he came back to be with me.”
“Of course,” I answer,” what more do you need to know? Good night, sleep tight…”
“… and don’t let the bedbugs bite” she finishes off.
She is asleep in minutes, clutching Rotbär. Her dream is still intact, she has all the time in the world to do the growing up bit. She knows a lot anyway, so I am not worried.
But I keep thinking that it’s true, she actually willed that Rotbär back in some way. This is the genuine power that children have. It’s so unbelievably pure, so surgically precise and in some ways devastating. It takes my breath away and releases tears of wonder and longing: to be suddenly bathed in this electrifying power of dreams, to feel free of the narrow protective armor needed to survive the daily skirmishes, to just, for a moment, feel the immensity of imagination and the full force of its impact. She breathes life into any object. This is true strength. This must be protected and nurtured at all cost.
The house is quiet. Time to get back to work.