The Casper doll is old and wobbly and very discolored—not the ectoplasmic white he once was. And when you pull the string on the side of his neck (and you must do this very gently) his voice is much more faint than it was in days of yore. But, listening carefully, you can still make out some of his phrases, all of them are inflected with his happy, ghost-y enthusiasm:
“I’m Casper! The friendly ghost!”
“Don’t be afraid of me!”
“I like you!”
Pokey (I couldn’t say “Smokey”) was my constant companion, a denim-trousered teddy bear with a fire ranger’s hat (long lost) and a plastic face with a nose that bears my teeth marks because I used to chomp down on it for reasons lost to time.
There is also the theater my father made so that I could have Barbie fashion shows. It has a proscenium stage he painted blue and he wall-papered the inside and painted the outside and had my mother make a curtain (from Degas dancer printed fabric) that he rigged up to a pulley so I could open and close it between costume changes.
Why write about Casper and Pokey and my father’s old theater?
Because they’re icons, personal, but no less iconic for all that. And as I prepare to move from one house to another, I am coming across not only my own icons of childhood, but many more of my daughters, as well, whose childhoods are not all that far behind them: the American Girl dolls, the Beanie Baby collections, tubs of well-loved stuffed animals, metal tin of colorful Dominoes we played together sitting at our dining room table made of old barn floorboards.
In some ways this is all rank sentimentality. And yet, of all people, the social critic and imminent essayist, Walter Benjamin, best known for his dense, important and unfinished work The Arcades Project was himself not immune to the iconography of childhood.
In his book, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, unpublished in his lifetime, he creates a series of vignettes based on significant items, locations and possessions that made impressions on him as a child of wealthy Jewish parents. He writes across a range of experiences—what it was like to stare into the backlit translucency of his mother’s thimble, of the otter at the zoo, the carousel in the park, the family’s new telephone.
And of course, Benjamin had a purpose with such elegiac and personal writing. He’d begun the work when he was in Italy, just before Hitler came to power; he finished it a year before Germany invaded Poland. By then the Nuremberg Laws, stripping Jews of their rights, had been in place for a few years. In writing Berlin Childhood Around 1900, Benjamin was writing not simply of the loss of childhood—which all adults lose—but also of his homeland.
He wasn’t able to return to Germany. And though he spent some time in Paris, he wasn’t able to remain there, fleeing when the Nazis began the occupation. He obtained a US visa with plans to repatriate via Spain, but in reaching the Spanish border he was told all Jews were to be sent back to Germany. He overdosed on morphine and died in September 1940.
His reminiscences remind me of “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas’ own evocation of loss and childhood:
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
We all lose the homelands that are our childhoods. And maybe it is simply a kind of fetishism to continue to cherish those icons that summon other, earlier and different days. But it is fetishism of the most important kind; what time takes from us we mark with what we can see and touch. There will come a day when we will lose our hold on these things, too. But until then, those transitional objects of our childhoods comfort us even as they remind us of who we once were.