Ode To Ralph
By Margaret Renkl
Parenting, October 2007

It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’ve had a bad dream, the kind that makes you afraid to go back to sleep. So I’m padding around the house, checking on my brood. Sam, 15, is all knobby legs and elbows sticking out of the trashed bedclothes. Seeing him now reminds me of the tiny clutch I used to feel standing in his doorway when we first moved him out of the crib: how small he seemed, how vulnerable, his knees tucked under his chest. “As long as he sleeps with his bottom in the air, he’s still a baby,” my mother used to say. But no one at my house sleeps with his bottom in the air anymore. Even Joe, 9 the baby of the family, is a smaller version of Sam, tangled up in the sheets, and the corners of his room are stuffed with bike helmets and baseball bats and lacrosse sticks.

Only when I tiptoe into Henry’s room is there any sign that my house was once filled with babies. Jumbled up in the covers beside Henry’s bed is Ralph, a stuffed giraffe with only one ear and a threadbare tail, who’s been Henry’s trusted confidant for 11 years. I stoop to pick him up.

Sam and Joe didn’t have a special lovey, and we never knew what made Henry latch onto this particular stuffed animal from among the dozens and dozens already in the house by the time he was born. Technically, Ralph (or “Raff,” the closest Henry could get to “giraffe” in toddlerhood) was Sam’s toy, but Ralph had been soundly ignored for five years by the time 6-month-old Henry laid claim to him.

It was love, intense and unalterable, and who can explain such a thing—whether it happens at six months, or 26 years? Somehow Henry just knew that Ralph’s nubby coat, soft but not silky, was exactly right for sopping up tears. That Ralph’s elegant neck would fit snugly into Henry’s armpit, allowing Ralph full view of every adventure but leaving Henry’s hands free to explore it all himself. That Ralph’s stub of a tail would be just the thing when Henry needed something to fiddle with. That Ralph’s mouthless face was a kindly blank slate, mirroring Henry’s feelings—happy, sad, astonished.

Long before he was sleeping through the night, Henry would wake up crying and stand impatiently at the crib rail with Ralph tucked under his arm, looking as though he were peeking over the crib rail, too, waiting for me as urgently as Henry. While I rocked Henry back to sleep, Ralph would be nestled between us, his puff-ball horns tickling my neck whenever I peered down to see if Henry’s translucent eyelids had finally fluttered still.

Holding Ralph now, after my own bad dream, I think about all the places we’ve taken him—and left him, turning back for miles to rescue him again, including a frantic search through one hotel where the room had already been cleaned and I had to beg the housekeeper to let me hunt through her bag of dirty sheets. Which was only slightly more disgusting than the time I spent nearly an hour going through our own garbage to find the piece of Ralph’s ear that our puppy had chewed off and I’d unknowingly thrown out.

I think of all the nightmares and illnesses and accidents Ralph has seen Henry through, and of the way my husband, Haywood, holds Ralph up to his ear and translates the giraffe’s ridiculous thoughts—“Ralph says he would really like some Barbie underwear for Christmas”—to get Henry to laugh when he’s upset about something. Even now, Ralph is often the only one that Henry will talk to about how he feels, like when Granddaddy died and everybody else in the house was too busy crying to listen.

Ralph has become an unremarkable member of the family. If we’re heading out of town, Joe will say, “Don’t forget Ralph,” and then Sam will say, “Hey, did you pack Ralph?” and then I’ll double-check the car before I lock the door, and then Haywood will glance in the rearview mirror before he puts the car into drive, and I know exactly what, or whom, he’s looking for. Even Clark, our puppy, quickly learned what a good game he could start just by walking into a room with his mouth clamped around Ralph’s wobbly neck. When Clark gets hold of Ralph, the whole family screams and tries to tackle him at once.

Loveys are sometimes called security—or transitional—objects because they help children feel secure as they make the transition from Mom’s safe embrace to the bigger, scary world. So maybe Henry’s baby brain was saying something like “If I can’t have Mom, at least I have Ralph.”

But that was a long time ago.

Henry still sleeps with Ralph every night and snuggles with him during Saturday-morning cartoons, but he wouldn’t be caught dead taking Ralph to a sleepover or a Cub Scout camping trip. I know that Ralph’s days are numbered.

But tonight, as I tuck him back under Henry’s arm and pull the covers over them both, I know one other thing: Whenever Henry lets Ralph go for good, if it’s next week or next year, I’m keeping him. I’m going to need a transitional object, too.