By Jody Mace
Most people dislike Frederick at first sight. To start with, he’s ugly. His gray hair and beard are tangled and dirty. He wears what looks like a random piece of fabric as a shirt and he has no arms or legs. I should mention here that Frederick is a puppet.
Worse than his bedraggled appearance is his personality. He speaks in a high-pitched voice and he doesn’t pull any punches.
When he met my friend, Lynn, for the first time, she introduced herself in the tone one uses with a small child. “Hello, Frederick. I’m Lynn.”
Frederick screeched, “I don’t like your name!”
He has a checkered past. With little prompting, he tells the story of how he was in Alcatraz, and how he “escaped, knocked out a guard, and swam to safety!”
When asked why he was in Alcatraz in the first place, he scolds, “Well, that was rather ruuuude.”
I can’t blame Frederick for his behavior. When I found him at a children’s theatre costume and prop sale, I thought he looked charming and grandfatherly, if a bit raggedy. He had been passed over at the annual costume sale for years but he caught my eye. He cost just three dollars.
It was only after he met my eleven-year-old son, Charlie, that he developed his personality problems. Charlie is a nice boy, a polite boy. But when Frederick is on his hand, a dark side emerges. Frederick has no respect for people’s personal space. He frequently perches himself on people’s heads, his greasy hair brushing against their faces, or gets within an inch of their noses during conversation. Frederick voices the thoughts that Charlie knows better than to say.
“This song is boring!”
“I’m your ruler! Bring me a popsicle!”
Once, for a joke, Lynn kidnapped Frederick for about an hour. It was not funny to Charlie.
“How would you feel,” he asked Lynn, “if I took Cooper?”
Cooper is Lynn’s two-year-old son. A human. Not a puppet.
His reaction made me realize that Frederick meant something to Charlie. That’s the only reason I didn’t ban him outright. But it worried me a little. There’s quirky and then there’s just disturbing, and having a misanthropic puppet permanently affixed to your hand is at least a little disturbing.
So before we left for our Thanksgiving trip to my sister’s house in Arlington, Virginia, a six-hour drive from our North Carolina home, I laid down the law. “Frederick stays home.” Thanksgiving is the one time of the year that our whole family is together. We were used to his oddities, but the rest of my relatives deserved to have family time with us, not with a rude, cranky puppet. We were going to be meeting my brother’s fiancé for the first time. What would she think? So the puppet stayed home.
It was only after we passed Raleigh that I saw a shock of dirty gray hair slowly rising to fill up the rear-view mirror. My husband I exchanged exasperated looks. “Frederick!”
“Put him away,” my husband said.
“But Frederick loves to travel!” Charlie protested.
“I’m serious. If I hear Frederick’s voice on this trip, he’s going to end up underneath a truck on I-85.”
So Frederick reluctantly returned to Charlie’s backpack. He emerged only briefly in Arlington. He greeted my two-year-old niece in that loud, screechy voice.
“I not like Frederick!” Gia announced.
“Yeah, me either.” I glared at Charlie. “Put him away.”
He came out again to meet my brother and his fiancé, who was too sweet, and possibly shell-shocked, to criticize the puppet. “No, really, he’s cute!” she said.
“It’s nap time for Frederick,” I told Charlie.
So Frederick retired to Charlie’s sleeping bag. He slept through Thanksgiving dinner. He slept the whole next day when we met up with some cousins in Baltimore. We walked the dogs, watched TV, videoed Gia dancing to some garish electronic toy. Frederick didn’t make a peep.
Without Frederick, Charlie was delightful and charming. His voice was not grating. He didn’t insult people or plop on their shoulders. He was a perfect eleven-year-old gentleman.
But with Frederick in his forced isolation, there was just something missing. Kind of like that relative who drives you crazy. You may complain about his boring stories and tasteless jokes, but Thanksgiving isn’t the same without him. Also, what if by next Thanksgiving, Charlie had relegated Frederick to the floor of the toy closet, among the army men and pirate swords? It wasn’t so much a sappy “every moment of childhood is precious” feeling, but, rather, that maybe we should value the un-precious moments too, because they’re part of who the child is for a short time, and that means they’re part of who the whole family is, too. That year, that Thanksgiving, that November night, we were the parents who had a son who had a possibly unhealthy attachment to a hideous puppet. Our family, our son, our ugly puppet.
It was our last night and we hadn’t yet visited the monuments in Washington, D.C.
The words came from my mouth like someone else was speaking them. “Hey, Charlie, want to take Frederick on a monument tour of D.C.?”
So we piled into the car, me, Charlie, his dad, and my sister. The first thing we did was buy Frederick an “I love D.C.” t-shirt, size 2T, from a vendor, who didn’t quite know what to make of a puppet ordering a shirt. Then we hit all the high points, taking Frederick’s picture with each. The White House, the National Christmas tree, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument. The few other tourists smiled at Frederick, at the happy boy holding the puppet high.
Charlie, laughing, skipped beside his dad, with Frederick sitting on my husband’s shoulder. At that moment there was nothing odd about the tattered puppet. I didn’t feel annoyed, just thankful. Thankful for my funny son, who is like nobody else I know, and for my family, who embraces and accepts him no matter what. Thankful for this cool, clear night, and this beautiful city, with its white monuments bathed in light. Thankful for a holiday that asks nothing of us but to spend time with people we love, even people like Frederick, who might not deserve it.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. This essay was written several years ago and rumor has it that Frederick is on the bottom of the toy closet. He’s missed, a little.