Two men and their bears

This post originally appeared on the Jungle Red blog in August, 2017. I'm reprinting it here in honor of what would have been my father's 91st birthday.  

When I first spotted a photo of Michael Bond holding a Paddington Bear who adored him, I gasped. It was the noise that might result from being slugged in the stomach, but I'd been punched in the heart. Or had it squeezed so hard that sound spurted out.

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I couldn't figure out a way to tie my need to write about the death of Paddington Bear author Michael Bond with a blog about Mystery and Thriller writing. But I couldn't think about anything else.

 Michael Bond died in June 2017. My father had died weeks earlier. Born six months apart, they grew up in the Great Depression and served in World War II. And both had bears they loved, with photos to prove it. Both had enormous respect for children and bears and were dispensers of the unconditional love some people connect to only in dogs or stuffed animals.

 My relationship with Paddington is a meandering one. He wandered into my life several times. At age eleven, inching beyond the age of wonder but with one foot still firmly anchored in childhood, I discovered the Paddington books. I don't remember the text so much as the illustrations, which looked nothing like bears, as far as I was concerned. With his ears covered by a slouchy hat and a nose that was far too pointy, I thought Paddington resembled a porcupine or muskrat more than a bear. I wrote to the author and told him so. I don't remember receiving a response, but Paddington was a refugee in London and as such needed a hat to keep his ears warm and dry. He's also not the sort of bear who worries about keeping his hair coiffed, or who bothers about spilled marmalade.

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 Eight years later, I embarked for a year at a British university. While I immersed myself in academics, I didn't skimp on sightseeing or gastronomic exploration. I made friends and became part of a community. When I left, I was given a stuffed Paddington, which had recently taken toy stores by storm. The shopkeeper instructed my friends that his boots were "specially made for him by Dunlop." My housemates were quite taken by Paddington's wellies, and by the idea that "when you have children, they can wear them." At 19, the idea of offspring was terrifying, but in little more than a decade, my kids stomped around in Paddington's wellingtons. (Paddington was happy to share.)

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 Paddington now supervises my writing desk. He kept me company in the days following my father's death, when creativity and sleep escaped me. Bond knew similarly difficult days and credited Paddington with pulling him through, “There is something so upright about Paddington. I wouldn’t want to let him down."

 Which brings me to my father's bear. I don't know whether he had a favored soft toy as a child, but he certainly honored those my brother, sister, and I chose as companions. He conversed with them and instructed them to watch over us. He solemnly tucked them in at night when he put us to bed. Many years later, when my husband's mother was diagnosed with dementia, my father suggested a stuffed animal might provide comfort. In her case, we chose a snuggly elephant who protected her when she was in the hospital among strangers and surroundings that were stranger still.

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 A year or two later Dad's memory began drifting. His hallucinations included gang members who lived in his living room and threatened my mother. As his doctor struggled to find a medication that would banish the gangs, I lived a continent away and scrambled for ways to help. In the wee hours one morning, I decided Amazon could provide a bear to protect my Dad from his demons. (My stuffed Paddington supervised while I logged into my Amazon account. Paddington hales from Peru, which is home to the Amazon River. Coincidence? I think not.)

 Did my Dad believe the bear I sent him was real? I don't think so. But, partly to entertain me, he spoke to him in "bear language" and made sure he was tucked in at night with a view of the front door he guarded. When I learned my dad thought 24-hour protection service might be too arduous a chore for one bear, we adopted a friend. The second bear was smaller, fit under my Dad's chin when he slept and became known as Rusty. On a dark, rainy night when my Dad fell out of bed, we called paramedics to tuck him back in. When they handed him Rusty (with all the respect a proper bear companion deserves), raindrops shed by their turnout gear had dampened Rusty's fur. My dad noticed. "Rusty! You're all wet! What happened to you?" Full of concern, he dried Rusty gently with a corner of the sheet. "He gave Firefighter Jim a hug," I told him. "Jim's coat was wet because it's raining outside."

 "Ah," said my father to Rusty. "Well, you're safe now."

 Years ago, I learned many law enforcement officers stash bears in the trunks of their squad cars to give to youngsters in trouble. In comforting stuffed toys, children feel stronger. And while a child might not admit her fears to a stranger, she might be willing to reveal the terrors stalking her bear.

 And that brings me full circle, back to talking about writing, characters, and the community we all need to feel safe and connected. Community arises spontaneously among humans even in the direst situations because we all feel that need to give and receive comfort. My mysteries look at what happens when our sense community takes a damaging blow, and what members do to restore the balance between good and evil. While my characters aren't based on real people, I strive to make them seem authentic. Michael Bond felt the same way about Paddington,  “Unless an author believes in his character, no one else is going to."

 Both my father and Mr. Bond respected bears and people, particularly people in danger of being overlooked. In 2014 when tempers erupted in Europe regarding the influx of refugees, Bond said, "Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”

 Bond didn't shy away from Paddington's illegal entry into the UK. In the books, the bear's adopted family is ever aware of his risk of deportation. (Paddington reached London after stowing away on a steamer from Darkest Peru.)

 After my father's death, friends, neighbors and former co-workers wrote to my mother. Nearly all of them penned some version of this description, "He was a kind and genuine man who helped me when I needed it most." I think the same was true of Michael Bond and any man who is beloved by a bear. My Dad and Mr. Bond had a capacity for unconditional love and the ability to embrace the imaginary world that means they both will live forever.