My mother worked at the Friendly's restaurant in Bethel, Connecticut, for the better part of 20 years. She was a fixture there. So many locals started their day in my mother's company. She was interested in who they were, she listed to what they had to say, she respected them regardless of their jobs or lack of jobs, and she could make them laugh. No wonder they wanted to be there. Who doesn't want to start the day feeling accepted and warmly greeted and served piping hot coffee?
One of my mother's regulars was a guy named Allen who was an illustrator. He was quite a successful artist. He would bring my mother his story boards and his completed illustrations to see what she thought of them. She was with him every step of the way when he illustrated Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit. He liked her support and her honesty. Mom could be non-judgmental and not like something at the same time. She was never out to get the thing she didn't like. She wasn't invested in any particular outcome. She didn't want to hurt anybody. So she could say what she wanted. Allan liked my mom. When he finished the book, he gave her a signed copy and a protoype of the stuffed animal model of the Rabbit.
Do you know this story? It is the story of God's love. It is about miracles. It's about the magic--that astounding other reality that is 100 percent love--when we live in love. This Edwardian-era children's story is about becoming Real. Let the book speak:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day....
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"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....?" he asked.
"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 thigns don't matter at all, because once you are Real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are Real," said the Rabbit....
"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago, but once you are Real, you can't becom eunreal again. It lasts for always."
This business of being real is at once a matter of becoming--taking initiative--and being made--being acted upon. You can't become Real all by yourself. Love is a way of being, a way of behaving, not a concept that sits idle in the heart.
My mother loved Allen. If you ever find a copy of this particular edition of The Velveteen Rabbit, on every page you will feel the love this man knew. It was love that came from my mother and from others.
Allen was gay. Allan was lonely because so many people refused him his Reality. It wasn't enough that Allen could breathe life into texts, thoughts, words with his amazing illustrations. Allan was kicked to the curb of Reality by so many people because he was gay. Allen was gay in the 1980s, when when AIDS was a new acronym in our mouths. Gays and Africans were the demons responsible for this horror if popular thought were anything to go by.
He eventually succumbed to the disease. Word traveled that he died of a heart problem. Very likely it was broken.
If it weren't for this gay guy who knew my mother and drew pictures for a living, I very likely wouldn't know this famous children's story. He put it into my world when he gave the book to my mother. My mother's stories about Allen, her friend who was an illustrator who came to see her for coffee every day, bring a richness and pathos to his beautiful drawings.
Read the story and you find out that the Rabbit becomes the boy's best friend quite by accident, that he is a humble stocking-stuffer of a toy, that he dies in a fire when the boy becomes ill. He's marginal, he's worthless, he's unexceptional--except that the boy loves him. Come through the fire and you find you have a spirit greater, stronger, more beautiful than you can imagine. Allen's illustrations capture that. Read the story, and think about how the marginal people in your life can transform you into something beautiful and beloved.
That's a good day. A day to stop for coffee.
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