van wermerTheresa’s mother is crossing the street, carrying two stuffed animals in her arms, and this is the most apocalyptic thing my mom has ever seen. Theresa was born with gummy lungs. After a while, her lungs got too gummy, and she died. Now Theresa’s mom is coming over to give my sister and me two of Theresa’s animals—things to remember her by.

I’m eight; Theresa was thirteen when she died. Though she lived close by, her home always seemed exotic, like a rainforest or Antarctica. The fridge had a cheese I’d never eaten before called “Muenster.” I wanted to dig my fingernail into its bright orange rind. The closets were messy and overflowing, unlike at my own house, where even the closet floors bore vacuum tracks. And the animals—Theresa had two stuffed animals that did a fun trick. If she turned one inside out, its animal self disappeared and turned into a colorful ball. I loved watching her flip them inside out, but the best part was when the animals reappeared. I asked her to do the magic trick over and over.

Now my mom swings open the front door, and Theresa’s mother trudges inside, squeezes in next to my sister and me on the green couch. The living room has a different feel now, like inside a wave. She says something about how much Theresa loved playing with us, what nice little girls we are, good friends. She hands us each an animal, and my mom squeezes her tight. Then she trudges back out the door.

At first I’m upset that I didn’t get one of the toys that turns inside out. But then there’s something about my mom’s words, or the way Theresa’s mother had held the animal, that lets me know it’s not a toy anymore. And that, no matter which one of Theresa’s animals I got, it wouldn’t be a toy either, but something else. A memory thing.

The animal has soft white fur, loving eyes. The kind of face that babies snuggle and drool all over without having to be taught how or why. But I toss it up on a shelf, separate from my other animals, as if it has crossed a great ocean and needs to be quarantined until I can tell if it’s treacherous. It bewilders me, this new thing that isn’t a toy but also isn’t a Theresa. Having it up high makes me feel better.

My eyes keep stalking it, though. And several years later, when my mom tells me it’s time to thin the herd—I have too many stuffed animals; a few will need to migrate to the sweet hereafter—I immediately think of Theresa’s animal. I want it gone. I’m worried my mom will think this is mean of me, so I watch her face as I slide the animal into the plastic bag. She doesn’t blink. And again, I feel better: Now this really is over. 

Still, many neighborhoods after that, I will be reading about the giant mammals that once roamed America but have since disappeared: the northern wooly mammoth, beavers the size of bears, ground sloths the size of cows. One scientist suggests it was early humans who cleared them out, picking them off one by one. He says our ancestors arrived by a land bridge, and the giant mammals—not knowing to be afraid of us, a new species—were easy prey. And I will get a sudden flash, not of Theresa or her toys, but of her mother. She’s standing in Theresa’s room, singling out more animals to give to her daughter’s many friends. Of all the desperately sad things she has to do, this can’t be the saddest. But to watch the room emptying of animals must speak of destruction. And when the dark task is finally done, the room has to echo with that loss, that shock of one thing becoming another. A bizarre creature you’ve never seen before, and don’t yet know how to flee.


Gretchen VanWormer grew up in Burlington, Vermont.  The essay above will be included in her forthcoming chapbook, How I See The Humans, published by CutBank Books.  Other essays and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch, DIAGRAM, The Laurel Review, The Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, Green Mountains Review Online, The Collagist, and PANK.  She teaches writing at American University.

Artwork by Stephen Knezovich