Why Toy Story Made Me Cry

I don’t remember having a roomful of toys when I was kid, but I still had plenty. After watching Toy Story III with my eight-year-old yesterday, I’ve been thinking about which ones I loved most, and why I can’t remember more.

At the end of movie, the tears ran down under my 3-D glasses. Andy, owner of toy protagonists like Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and Jessie (Joan Cusack), was heading off to college. Most reviews of the latest Toy Story refer to how moving it is, but I wasn’t prepared for my response. It’s like a feature-length version of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” except that Jackie Paper (Andy) is more self-aware at the end. And more kind.

Maybe finding kindness in a Hollywood movie franchise is enough reason to cry. But for me it cut deeper. My response was certainly that of a mother with a young son, who knows that all too soon he’ll be growing up and away. But it was also about the nature of memory, its strange nooks and crannies, especially if one learns to be self-protective at a young age.

I could have titled this “Proust at a Theater Near You.” But for me, the memories kicked off by toys—the madeleine of our age, if you follow the movie’s premise—aren’t always full of transcendent rapture.

One of the few I remember was a Barbie doll in a nurse’s uniform my mother got on sale. It came with no other outfits. My mother’s suspect impulse to give me a nurse to play with came to haunt me as an adult. But at the time, what I remember is hating Nurse Barbie yet feeling guilty because I wanted her to have a far prettier dress than I could concoct out of paper. When her leg broke off, a kindly neighbor put a cast on it, thinking I felt devastated. Mostly I was relieved I didn’t have to play with her anymore.

Or at least I think so. That’s the problem with memory. We swirl everything up into stories, and looking back at childhood is always through an adult lense, with a need to explain, to categorize, to stow away pain. With my one and only Barbie, I don’t remember feeling much.

But when we took a summer vacation to Denver three years later, to visit my Dad’s relatives and college friends, one of his old professors gave me a Peruvian ceramic bird as a gift. I loved that bird for a good five minutes. I loved its shiny black surface, the carvings etched in its beak, its stylized eyes.

Then, as we headed down the walkway back to our car, I dropped it. The bird shattered into way too many pieces to fix.

I began sobbing, and I couldn’t stop. I felt bereft, and as I remember this now, I’m filled with loss. Yet I don’t believe grief ruled my childhood. It’s in the forefront at the moment because my own father is fading away. I cried at the end of Toy Story III, like plenty of other adults, feeling my own grief.

But what about the kids watching the movie with us?

“How did I get into knights?” my son asked last night.

We’d seen the movie hours ago and been talking about some of his favorite toys. I told him I couldn’t quite remember, but I thought it was when we’d bought him a knight figure in a toy store in Nice. This had kicked off an almost year-long enthusiasm for knights and jousting when he was three.

“Do you remember that knight?” I asked.

He said he didn’t.

What was the name of the toy store? I couldn’t remember. What was the knight’s name? I couldn’t remember, but I would, I assured him, when we opened the bin in his closet that included all his old knight figures. He would remember, too. The memories would come flooding back.

But soon after, when we were both tired and fractious, he broke down, worried about not being able to remember his toys—or what would happen to his toys—or his favorite teachers and babysitters.

“What if I can’t remember anything?” he cried.

You will, I told him, although I don’t know what he’ll remember when he goes to college or when he’s my age. I am only sure there are certain objects, particular to every person, that evoke whole stories, whole rivers of feeling, good or bad, transcendent or not. We make of them what we can.

And sometimes there really are madeleines. Sometimes even Hollywood movies make me want to remember. In the past 24 hours, besides Nurse Barbie and the broken bird, I’ve recalled others: a Raggedy Ann from a church sale; a beat-up Lambchop puppet; the blocks we used to build marble towers; my blue-sparkle Schwinn bike with the tassles and glitter banana seat.

Most of all, there was Pinkie, the stuffed pink poodle I got to pick as my main Christmas present when I was around my son’s age. My brother chose a stuffed grey dog with floppy ears (dubbed “Greyie”). How we played with those dogs! What adventures they had. What joy and sweet sadness I can still inhale through the pink fur I wished was real.