For most people, a beloved attachment to inanimate fluffy objects was an indispensable stage of childhood.  Ask anyone you know about who their favorite stuffed animal was growing up, and chances are you’ll get a sheepish grin, a faraway gaze, and a corny nickname in response. Those were simpler times; life revolved around juice boxes, nap time, building blocks, and hours of quality time with Stan. Or Butterscotch. Or Wilbur, Comet, and Brownie.

Oh, to be three again…

For my little sister and I, that beloved attachment was a scratchy-eyed, fluffless bag of fur named Dort Thomas Teddy. Dort for short.

The origin of the name is hotly contested. Laura swears that in her infancy she recalls a conversation in which my parents referenced Dordt College (highly improbable); I believe it was simply a made-up word that sounded appropriate for a lovable, dopey stuffed bear.

We certainly didn’t lack the imagination to make that up. For a teddy, Dort was a wildly complex individual, full of habits, quirks, and complaints. Looking back, I’m amazed at the world we crafted around him. He could be comically imbecilic at times, and have the IQ of a brain surgeon the next, but this was due mostly to the strict storyline we held Dort to, contradictory traits that Laura and I both thought humorous but were too stubborn to budge on, so Dort simply exhibited both. He was eternally enrolled in preschool, and yet he could drive his own car and had a girlfriend named Cindy. He rOTE eveRYthiNg wikE Diss…but still, he could write! As a preschooler! When we forgot to take him along on car rides, Dort could conveniently transmogrify himself into nearby inanimate objects: the seatbelt strap, the backseat magazine, the Taco Bell cup on the floor… Although we celebrated about twelve birthdays a year for Dort, he inexplicably turned zero every year, to his everlasting chagrin.

Dort also had a huge family, the “Teddy Family,” in which Laura and I were the parents of our colossal brood of various stuffed animals. Only six were actually bears; Rusty was a dog, Comet was a reindeer, Tomico was a horse, Tiger and Zebra (who were curiously twins) were a tiger and a zebra, and Sun was simply a ball of fire with arms that some toy manufacturer decided would make a great sleeping companion for children. They had their distinctions as well—Tiger played football, Sun was mute, and Tickatweet was obsessed with Halloween—but Dort was always the favorite, and the most played with. If the “Teddy Family” had ever been a TV show, Dort would’ve had the lead role in just about every episode.

To say that Dort was “well loved,” as people do when toys and clothes become worn out, was a dramatic understatement. As the years went by, both of Dort’s eyes had been pecked and smacked into a score of indistinguishable spider cracks, before ultimately falling out. The holes in his fur grew bigger, and the more stuffing he lost, the more we refilled him with milk duds, pocket lint, and spare change. After one too many flings into the pond, rainy nights left outside, and one malicious dirt-biking incident involving my older cousin Adam, Dort looked like your typical horror movie puppet.

And yet we still played with Dort like nothing was wrong. My parents must have been a little concerned by this, or at least sympathetic, because they actually bought us a brand new replica of the same bear. Down to the green ribbon that Dort once wore around his neck, this new bear was Dort’s doppelganger!

But Laura would have none of it. The bear was accepted as an additional member of the Teddy Family, but just so Mom knew exactly who called the shots, Laura elected that we name him “Old Bear.” We made a rare amendment to the Teddy Family narrative, changing the history so that Old Bear had always been part of the family. In fact, he was the oldest member. Take that, Mom!

But then a terrible thing happened: We lost Dort.

He wasn’t anywhere in the house, we couldn’t recall leaving him at a park somewhere, and we didn’t have a dog that could’ve eaten him. A full year passed in suspicious distrust of our parents, who insisted time and again they did not, and would never, throw our beloved Dort away. He might as well have been abducted by aliens; his disappearance was a mystery that will never be solved.

For a year or so, Laura and I continued our playtime in childish denial. Dort wasn’t gone, he had simply turned into…the couch cushion for a few days! After that, a wool mitten! That wily Dort, always goofing around…

But there was an unspoken pall of defeat slowly settling in. We might not ever find Dort again. And as trivial as it sounds, that was one of the first moments of true sadness I recall feeling in life.  I was starting to get a little old for this whole teddy bear thing anyway—at least that’s what I told myself—but Laura was still reveling in little kid prime. She shouldn’t have to experience something this sad so young.

Here’s where it gets weird. We started looking at Old Bear in a new light. He started getting dopier, less bossy, and more whiny when we played with him. More… Dorty. One day, I tentatively brought up the idea to Laura that we sort of… write Old Bear out of the story. Dort transforms into Old Bear, and Old Bear ceases to exist, and we move on like nothing ever happened to Dort. The idea clearly made Laura uncomfortable. We were basically addressing the reality that if we didn’t do this, Dort was gone for good, and that would be tragic. Old Bear, on the other hand, was expendable.

With all the somber gravity a child could muster, I told Laura it was for the best.

Like mad scientists playing God, we made the transformation quickly and discreetly one night, and moved forward like nothing had ever happened. Out with the Old, in with the Dort.

Perhaps the craziest part of this whole story is that Laura has absolutely no memory of that switch. It actually worked, and Laura lived out her childhood in blissful ignorance.

That was a long time ago. Somewhere around Laura’s twelfth birthday, Dort 2.0 also became lost, though the second time around was accepted with casual indifference. It wasn’t until recently that I asked Laura if she remembers that dark day in the basement when we offed an adopted family member for the preservation of a more lovable one, and she had no recollection whatsoever. To her, Dort was always Dort.

And yet, Dort still sort of lives on. He’s basically a self-depreciating inside joke at this point—I’ll be the first to admit we played with teddies for far too long—but we still amuse each other now and then with imaginative, sadistic concoctions of where Dort is now and what he’s up to. Haunting a landfill in rural Ohio probably, maggots falling out of his mouth as he crawls over garbage, wheezing, “Yyyooouu cccaaannn’ttt dessstttrrooyyy mmeeee…” He’s still turning zero every month, but the Dorian Gray curse is taking its toll on him. Most recent Dort impressions are either a babble of demential nonsense, or a long, drawn-out “BLAH!!! (pronounced like “bland” without the -nd).”

I still chuckle to myself when I encounter reminders. Laura sent me a picture of a beer she found called the “Dortmunder Lager,” made by Great Lakes Brewing Co. Driving through Flint, I was amused to see signs for the Dort Highway and the Dort Mall, apparently named after the short-lived Dort Motor Car Company. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, the webpage shows a picture of a quirky-looking boxcar bouncing down a flight of stairs. It struck me as very fitting, something Dort would do. Even at her speech for our older sister Maria’s wedding, Laura made a reference to our habit of annoying her with our ratty old teddy bear, and I couldn’t help but blurt out of a beer-fueled “BLAH!!!” to the reception attendees. Five immediate family members laughed; everyone else thought I was going nuts. Worth it.

I suppose in some ways, Dort will never die. He’ll always be there in the back of my mind, turning into inanimate objects and whining about never getting to turn one year old, causing me to smirk during boring business meetings and laugh on roadtrips. We really can’t detroy him. Not completely.

How the hell we turned out to be semi-normal adults, I’ll never know.

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