The rabbit lives in a suitcase in my husband’s closet and rarely sees the light. She’s grey with pink ears and her best friend is a stuffed bear that used to belong to my father and also now lives in the suitcase. I’ve sewn both of them back together several times. The bear is missing his mouth and nose. The rabbit’s fur is coarse and stained. Each winter, I open the suitcase to take out our coats and the two come tumbling out together in a ball of familiar must.
I used to buy books for the children’s section of a bookstore and my biggest love was for picture books. I watched hundreds enter and leave the section but my favorite remained The Velveteen Rabbit. Among the children’s books shelved next to our bed is the abridged Golden Book edition my parents read to me when I was young. Recently, I pulled it out and read it to my husband. I could call many passages my favorite, but one strikes me with each reading.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints, and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
The rabbit was an unusual gift from my grandmother. She’s a loving woman but not sentimental, and most of the gifts she’s given me over the years have been jewelry or clothing we picked out together at Nordstrom. Though I was getting to be too old for this, I began sleeping with the rabbit every night, and eventually, her soft fur wore down and became patchy, and her body flattened, and her white face grew yellow.
My grandmother has lived near my parents in Florida since my grandfather’s death. My aunts and uncles and cousin flew in for Thanksgiving, and at the end of the night, my husband and I drove my grandmother back to her independent living facility. She occupies an apartment in a building with 200 other people after 65 years of living alone with my grandfather, in their home in Cleveland.
The space was cluttered, though a woman comes once a week to clean it. Papers sat stacked atop the kitchen counter next to an open bag of individually wrapped Ghirardelli chocolates and two large, potted orchids. Gift bags were lined up in a cardboard box on the sofa, each containing pieces of costume jewelry she’d bought as Hanukkah presents from a vendor who made rounds in the retirement facility. Entering, I asked my grandmother if she needed us to help with anything, but – as so often happens nowadays – she didn’t answer. Instead, she led us into her bedroom, where my grandfather’s engagement photograph hangs next to hers.
“He looked like a movie star,” she said.
“He was a very handsome man,” I said honestly. I reminded her of a conversation we’d had when my grandfather was still living. I’d called to wish them a happy anniversary, and asked my grandmother how she managed to make a relationship work for almost sixty years when I couldn’t even make one last six months.
“You said he was cute,” I said.
“He was. Then he went and died on me.”
It upsets my husband when I tell him I know what he’ll look like when he’s old. I know the bones of his face so intimately, it’s easy to imagine how his skin will hang around them. His cheeks will hollow; he’s already thin. The lines around his mouth will grow more defined. Folds will deepen across his forehead – worry lines. His eyes will still be bright and curious.
We often acknowledge how lucky we are to have met at a young age. Neither of us are in the best shape, but we’re limber and energetic, can stay up late and make love for hours, and have the privilege of enjoying bodies that don’t yet know cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or any of the myriad scourges that rob people of their vivacity.
While my grandfather was dying, my grandmother would rage against the cancer eating away at invisible places inside him that she couldn’t heal. In his final days, while he lay on a Hospice bed in their living room barely conscious, she suggested we try to get him up and walk him around. It was inconceivable to her that he’d never again be the man who approached her at the Valentine’s Day dance in 1946.
It upsets my husband when I bother him about smoking. I tell him how frightened I am of someday not hearing him breathe while he sleeps. I tell him how painful it will be to struggle to inhale, how it will be even more painful to exhale. I tell him I worry he’ll suffer intensely and I’ll have watch him. Though I know it’s inevitable, I worry about our children suffering the excruciating truth that their father can die. Even before I know them, I want to shield them from this pain.
I worry this will happen before we’ve enjoyed the best years of our lives, that they’ll be stolen from us.
When I was a child, it seemed the Boy’s scarlet fever sat someplace outside the Rabbit’s story, that the fever had little to do with the Rabbit. Now I know that it wasn’t for the Boy that the Rabbit stayed with him. It was also for the Rabbit.
His face grew very flushed, and he talked in his sleep, and his little body was so hot that it burned the Rabbit when he held him close. Strange people came and went in the nursery, and a light burned all night, and through it all the little Velveteen Rabbit lay there, hidden from sight under the bedclothes, and he never stirred, for he was afraid that if they found him someone might take him away, and he knew that the Boy needed him.
One night, while my grandfather was dying, my father and I agreed to sleep in shifts so one person could always be awake in case he needed to be made comfortable. We were exhausted from days of constant vigilance, and it was already very late when I lay down and my father took the first shift. At seven in the morning, I awoke to realize that my father had never let me take my shift. I felt he’d denied me the chance to care for someone I loved and for whom I was already grieving.
Returning from my grandmother’s apartment at Thanksgiving, we found my family gathered around the television. They were watching a home movie from Christmas ‘94. I am nine years old and camera-happy, bounding around my uncle’s Salt Lake City living room in sweatpants, handing out presents. My grandfather is wearing one of several Coogi sweaters he loved so much. Each of us claimed one after his death. My grandmother is loquacious and witty, wearing a pair of cat-eye glasses and the same stud earrings she’s worn every day for as long as I can remember. She’s talking nonstop to my cousin, then less than a year old. I had forgotten she could talk so much.
I watched my younger self remove the wrapping paper from a red velvet box and hold it up for the camera. “It’s jewelry!” I’m saying. “A bracelet!” Inside, a gold chain of S-shaped links encircle a round, white platform.
“Ooh,” says my mother. “Esses!”
“That’s right. S for Sarah,” says my grandmother, who had given me the present.
I’ve never worn the bracelet. Not even once. It stayed shut up in the jewelry box my grandmother also gave me that Christmas, the one I tried to keep bugs in when I caught them in the yard. They inevitably died suffocating and starved.
The jewelry box stayed at my parents’ house when I went to college, but the bracelet came with me. Though even there, I never wore it. It still fits me today but is hidden away in its original, red velvet box inside another, wooden box, that sits among a stack of other wooden boxes under a set of shelves next to my side of the bed: an object among other objects.
There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the rabbit was quite the best of all. For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.
Watching the video, I thought of the costume jewelry she’d given me just an hour before, the weight of the gold bracelet juxtaposed against the cheap disposability of the almost weightless plastic. A profound sense of guilt overcame me. What else, even now, was I failing to appreciate?
When we returned to New York, my husband screwed a makeshift set of hooks into the wall for me to hang my necklaces on. Among them hangs the plastic costume necklace, but of course, I never wear it.
My father looks the most like his father. In my grandfather’s final days, his skin was thin and white like tissue paper. He was childlike in the way his features seemed to be too big for his head and the world seemed to be too big for him. His shoulders stooped like a boy’s, ashamed of a small misdeed, embarrassed to be someone who won’t live forever. Even in the end, his eyes remained searching and compassionate, never shying away from contact, always honest, frank, if often – very often – full of worry.
My father has his father’s eyes and I have my father’s eyes. In Florida, I asked my father to read me The Velveteen Rabbit. We sat on the couch and I listened, slipping in and out of sleep next to him, the way I used to do. He stopped now and then to ask questions, amused at the task, and it dawned on me in the midst of his reading that despite my having read an abridged version of this book as a child, I still understood its meaning.
My father and I were pallbearers for his father. With white gloves, we bore my grandfather’s weight from the chapel to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave. The casket was heavy and more than once, I thought the handle would slip. As they lowered him into the ground, I dropped my glove in after him.
In the Jewish tradition, we bury our own dead, so I shoveled a mound of earth onto the casket. Inside, my grandfather lay with a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue: his favorite. My grandmother sat at the end of the front row, an American flag in her lap, folded into thirds.
In the forest, the nursery magic Fairy visits the Rabbit.
“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.
“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”
My husband often misses his grandmother. I wish I had gotten to meet her.
One night just after we married, I found a Walkman in his parents’ spare bedroom with a cassette tape inside it. On it, his grandmother speaks mostly in Italian, but there is one phrase in English: “I die happy. I don’t have no regrets.” I tried to play the passage back for my husband, but I couldn’t find it again.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the chapbook Things I Told My Mother and the forthcoming novel, Binary Star. Short works have appeared in the New York Times, Joyland, Bookforum, Music & Literature and other journals. She oversees circulation for BOMB Magazine and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the filmmaker David Formentin.