By Sheila Connolly. Are you familiar with the term “familiar”? (Sorry—I couldn’t resist the pun.)
Wikipedia says that it’s a medieval folk belief that they were supernatural entities that assisted witches in practicing magic. They could appear in different forms, often as animals. If they were evil they were labeled demons; if good, fairies. If you remember the James Stewart-Kim Novak movie Bell, Book and Candle (1958, and based on a Broadway play), you might recall that the Kim Novak character, who was a witch, had a familiar, a Siamese cat named Pyewacket. (As it happens, Pyewacket was one of the familiar spirits of a witch detected by the witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins in March 1644 in the town of Manningtree, Essex, England.)
But I digress. In the course of clearing out generations of accumulated stuff from my house in preparation for selling it, I have come to realize that my daughter (an only child) and I managed to collect a frightening number of stuffed animals, and I have a feeling they serve that familiar purpose.
I didn’t have many stuffed animals as a child. My grandmother kept a stuffed doggie (with an internal music box that played “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”) at her New York apartment, to keep me company when I stayed overnight with her. The first time I stayed at a friend’s house for the night, when I was seven, I “borrowed” a stuffed koala bear, which I still have (I apologize, Nina!). And those are the only ones I really remember—if there were more, they are long gone.
I started going through the attic of my house, and I kept finding stuffed animals. In trunks. In boxes. In bags. In dresser drawers. It became a running joke—every time I opened something else, there would be more stuffed animals. I won’t pretend that they were all my daughter’s—plenty of others were collected by adult me. The most recent are an octopus I bought at the gift shop of the National Gallery in Washington DC, and a spotted pig. I’m afraid to count them. (My daughter’s first was a panda, a gift from her aunt, which was larger than she was for a long time. Yes, Panda emerged from a plastic bag just this week and is now keeping me company on the couch.
Since there is much to clear out of the house, I let my daughter take our three live cats back to her home in Chicago. Since we’ve had cats for decades, I miss them, but I couldn’t see trying to move all the things from the house while keeping track of three indoor cats.
And then I found myself talking to the stuffed animals. I’m surrounded by them, on chairs, on tables, on the floor—just about any surface. They’re peaceful, there are no litter boxes to clean out, they don’t make any messes or shed fur, and they seem quite sympathetic. (In case you’re wondering, they don’t answer back.)
Why do I and plenty of other humans keep stuffed animals? I like to think they’re passive familiars. With my cats gone I realized how soothing to me it is to stroke a sleepy cat (and at times I had all three sleeping on me at the same time). It’s not quite as satisfying to stroke an inanimate creature, but it helps. Will I keep them all out in the open, once I know where I’ll be settling? Probably not all of them, but definitely some.
But which ones? I have stuffed cows, sheep, bunnies, a ferret, a raccoon, and a Welsh dragon with baby dragon, and that’s just the start. Oh, and a vulture I bought in Salem, MA, who sits on my newel post and acts as a gargoyle to defend the house. I talk to him a lot.
What about you? Do you have familiar creatures? Old or new? Do you talk to them? If you have live pets, how do they react to them?