GOOD-BYE KITTY

 

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At Christmas time I move through stores on autopilot always hoping something will jump out and say, “Buy me!” I want the object to make me feel like I have to purchase it. For a long time there were a lot of products telling me to buy them for Quinn.

Going into my downstairs bathroom I am reminded of one of these earlier purchases. There in the corner of the soap rack, a rubber, pink bath-robed Hello Kitty toy hangs on. It’s covered in years of soap film and I periodically wash her down and prop her back up into position. When we had the bathroom renovated about eight years ago she was the first thing we bought for the new bathroom. She originally fit snugly over the top of some pink shampoo. The plumber polishing the grout off the tiles asked me about her.

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“Who’s that?”

“Hello Kitty.”

“What kitty?”

“No, Hello Kitty,” I said more slowly. “It’s a brand. Well, she’s a cat and they make a lot of products with her picture on it. Quinn loves Hello Kitty.”

He scratched his head and continued polishing. “Well I never heard of her. I’ll have to ask my daughter if she has.”

“I bet she has,” I added, knowing his daughter and mine were only a year apart.

Before he left for the day he checked in with what was left on the job and said he would return the next day to finish up. Then he said, “Hello Kitty right?”

“Right, Hello Kitty.”

“And you say I can find her on lots of things.”

“Absolutely.”

The truth is once you start looking for Hello Kitty items you can’t stop finding them. Which was good because Quinn loved Hello Kitty. She had acquired several t-shirts emblazoned with the squat little cat, lunch boxes, lamps, jewelry, socks, backpacks, pencil cases, tissue boxes, hair clips, and dozens of toys.

When Quinn was less than three we happened upon a Sanrio exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  Quinn came face to face with a live Hello Kitty and fearlessly plunged into her arms. This cemented the beginning of a long and loving relationship.IMG_1399 Initially Hello Kitty products were harder to find. We used to travel to Chinatown and visit the Sanrio store on Mott Street. One of us would distract a young Quinn while the other purchased a special item for Christmas like a Hello Kitty suitcase. When we found anything to do with Hello Kitty we bought it because we believed it was special.

Just as Quinn’s fondness mushroomed, Hello Kitty’s popularity soared nationwide and she was available for the taking. Oddly, Quinn was largely alone in her fascination for the white cat among her immediate friends. Which might explain why the plumber with a young daughter had never heard of the character. When Quinn had a birthday party you could be sure that the majority of the gifts from her friends had something to do with Hello Kitty. To know Quinn was to know her love of this character.

When we first moved to the lake house, McDonalds was having a Hello Kitty Happy Meal promotion. For eight weeks they handed out a different Hello Kitty keychain. It was the only time in memory we ate there. We ordered a Happy Meal and ate the fries but threw the burger away so we could have the key chain. A friend explained to us on the third week, “you don’t have to buy the meal, just buy the toy.”

She had DVD’s which told of animated exploits of the little animal and featured her twin sister, Mimmy. The only distinguishable feature between the two was Hello Kitty had a red bow and Mimmy had a yellow bow. Kitty was an extrovert and Mimmy was an introvert. In one story Kitty convinces herself that her mother doesn’t love her and runs away only to discover nothing could be further from the truth. The episode was title “Mommy really loves me after all.” However, whenever Quinn was mad at me it was often referred to as, “Mommy doesn’t love me after all.”kitty-and-mimmy

According to Sanrio, Hello Kitty yields over six hundred million dollars in revenue from over 80,000 different Hello Kitty branded products in more than 60 countries. That’s a lot of Hello Kitty. Maybe if we had known this, we might have stopped buying Hello Kitty products and accepted that our quest was futile. Sometime around 2003 when Quinn was ten she really owned enough but nobody took much notice, including her.

The products continued to pour into her small bedroom. When she was in the eighth grade Rob took Jackson to Miami to sing in an honors choir. Rob had a lot of hours to fill while Jackson was rehearsing, and besides photographing he shopped and returned home with a large plastic Hello Kitty alarm clock.kitty

As he was setting up the clock, Rob said, “I knew when I saw it, Quinn had to have it.” Hello Kitty was coming out of an enormous teacup and a slice of lemon lit up when the alarm went off. It took up most of the available space on her on her nightstand.

She was thirteen and still liked toys, but I think I detected a bit of the flame for Hello Kitty starting to dim with the arrival of the clock. On the following birthday her best friend gave her a large Hello Kitty lamp which we immediately set up, but she made no future mention of it. It went on this way for a while. Each time someone in our circle saw a new Hello Kitty product they thought of Quinn and bought it for her. The next year we bought her a fancy Hello Kitty watch. I think she wore it half a dozen times. I languished in a drawer before I took it over and started wearing to work. Some of my middle school students fawned over it and wished they owned one. I soon stopped wearing it as well.

The following Christmas we went to a Kay Jewelry store to buy a Hello Kitty pendant necklace. It was cute and small and we believed represented a more grown-up version of the character. We discovered the cost was over a hundred and fifty dollars and left without buying it. I decided to feel Quinn out.

“Oh look at this pretty necklace,” I said, pointing out the object in a sales flyer.

“Please don’t buy that for me,” she said.

“Really?”

“Really.”

On her next birthday her cousin dropped off a large stuffed Build-A-Bear Hello Kitty that talked. “Is she kidding?” Quinn complained rolling her eyes. She never took it out of the box.21948Alt1LR

I had to admit it was an odd gift for a sixteen-year-old but in all fairness Quinn had never announced the infatuation was over. It had been over for a few years but maybe she didn’t have the heart to tell anyone. She had long stopped asking for these items, but people assumed once in love always in love. And they were so damn easy to find now.

When she cleaned out her room all of the Hello Kitty items were piled into a box and sold at a tag sale or given away. The small items were brought into my classroom and placed inside my prize box.

“You have an awful lot of Hello Kitty things in here,” a sixth grade girl remarked as she picked over her choices.

“Yes, that’s true,” I said. “Do you like Hello Kitty?”

“Not really,” she said.

Lots of people have childhood attachments to characters and retain a few of those things into adulthood. Rob’s niece loved the character Snoopy as a little girl and still appreciates receiving birthday cards with his image on them. Not Quinn. The shampoo cap is the only thing that remains because I can’t bring myself to toss it. I still have to stop Rob from buying anything Hello Kitty. He see’s one and say’s “Oh look,” and then stops himself. We remind ourselves that Hello Kitty is no longer part of our lives and we move on. They still talk to us but we’re trying really hard not to listen.

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THE PERFECT GIFT

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In 1993 my father stepped off the airplane carrying an oversized wrapped birthday present. My husband Rob loaded it into the back of the car and noted how heavy it felt.

“That’s the perfect gift,” my father had said proudly. “The perfect gift.”

I was expecting my second child in a few months and imagined the box contained a massaging pad for my sore back.

The next day after dinner and cake I opened my presents. Rob gave me a pair of Birkenstock sandals. “See, you can adjust the straps as your feet get wider.” Obviously the fact that I had removed the laces from my sneakers had not gone unnoticed.

Our three-year-old son Jackson kept asking when he would get his present. Rob unsuccessfully tried explain that it was his mother’s birthday and there weren’t any presents for him. Jackson thrust his head in my large lap and sobbed.

My father, always eager to keep the fun moving, had the answer. “Hey Jack,” he said, gently tapping his shoulder. “Wait till she opens my present. You can share it with her.”

Realizing this was his best shot at a gift, Jackson stopped crying.

“This is really for everyone,” my father proclaimed as he rested the box at our feet.

Jackson and I unwrapped it together and stared at the contents, which included four heavy red balls and four green balls and one tiny white ball.

“Oh, it’s a bocce ball set,” Rob exclaimed. Rob, who is of Italian descent, is always approving of anything made in Italy.

“That’s right!” Dad said. “Isn’t this the perfect gift?” he said again. He suggested we go play.

“Right this minute?” I asked, feeling weary at the thought of it.

This prompted my father to dive into our exploits of croquet from when I was a child. Our lawn in Illinois had been large and flat and covered in an even bed of perfect grass. The court had been regulation and my father always won.

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Our current apartment was in a house that faced the Palisades and the terrain slanted downhill towards the Hudson River. The yard was bumpy and filled with plantains and crabgrass. My father explained that unlike croquet, bocce could be played on any surface. We paired off and played. As the shiny wooden balls bounced along our yard my father rewrote the rules of bocce.

“You see,” he said, pointing as a ball hit a divot and bounced off course. “That’s just part of the game now.” After we had finished he said, “You’ll play this for years to come.”

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A few years later we moved to an apartment in a small neighboring city and sold off all our lawn items except the bocce ball set which we stored inside an opaque plastic box. A few years after that we bought our first house which was on a lake in Putnam County. The house sits fifty feet above the water and the yard snakes down to the dock along a foot path that runs through a wooded lot. A friend remarked during our housewarming party, “This isn’t the kind of yard you could ever play anything on.”

Once when my father was visiting he pointed out the only level strip of land in the terraced yard and we bandied about putting in a skinny bocce court. In the end we abandoned the idea because of cost and size.

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The summer before our daughter left for college she held a yard sale. She was told she could keep all the proceeds from the sale for herself in exchange for doing all the work involved. As she gathered up our junk she discovered the bocce set under the basement steps.

“What about these?” she asked, peering down at the dusty balls.

My father, who had been dead for almost four years, wouldn’t have known the difference and we hadn’t played with them since before my daughter was born. I picked up one of the heavy balls and wiped away a thick layer of dust with the edge of my t-shirt. I tried to picture all the gifts my father had ever given me but could only remember this one. The weight of the ball transported me back to that birthday and how pleased he had been with his gift. I admired the red wood that still contrasted against the patterned white lines circling around the ball and saw for the first time how utterly beautiful the balls were.

“No,” I said, returning the ball with the rest. “I want them.”

“But you never use them,” she argued mildly.

“Well your father and I plan to start playing just as soon as you leave for school.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” I said.

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