As a toddler, Nick had a fierce need to acquire more and more stuffed animals. They lived on a futon in his bedroom. The pile got larger and larger.
Nick only began talking in his fourth year. Our first talking game was “Pet Shop.” I always took the role of store owner. The pile of stuffed animals was my store. Nick was a customer looking for a new pet.
“Oh, hello. You’ve come on a good day,” I would say. “We have lots and lots of animals looking for a home.”
He regarded the pile for a time, then picked up an animal. Looking into its eyes, he said with relish, “No, I don’t think so. Not you.”
“You don’t want me?” I said in the voice of the animal.
Then he put it down and went on to another. He rejected five or six this way before settling on one.
“You!” he said, “I’ll take you.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
I named a price. Sometimes we haggled. Finally the sum was paid in imaginary coins.
“Now tell me your story,” he said to his new pet.
The story Nick wanted to hear was always the same. As the chosen pet, I had to tell Nick how I had become orphaned. How I had waited long and long in that store for him to come.
“How did it feel when nobody wanted you,” he would always ask.
I would tell him. And I would add how happy I was that now I would have a home with him. Nothing else would satisfy. The game wasn’t over until the story was done.
Nick knew that he was adopted. He had never been an orphan. Nora and I were present at his birth and took him home the next day.
I had made a book for him, The Story of Nick, which told how he had come to us. We began reading The Story of Nick to him when he was less than a year old. Not having words, he wasn’t able to ask questions. “Pet Shop” was his way of working out feelings that he’d been having for years.
We played “Pet Shop” frequently until Nick was five or six. Gradually his interest in stuffed animals diminished. He still loves role playing games where he acts out stories. But he’s taking on the parts of great warriors nowadays. He has dangerous adventures with his friends and fights desperate, bloody battles.
Nick claims not to remember much about when he was a toddler. But he remembers “Pet Shop.” The pile of stuffed animals is still there on the futon in his bedroom. He hasn’t looked at many of them for years, but he won’t hear of giving any away. Not a single one.