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  • By Jayne Anne Phillips
  • Issue 19
  • EssentialJune 2017

We lived out a rural road, a distance from other children, and our fenced acre of lawn was surrounded by fields. My two brothers, three years apart in age, constructed whole landscapes during their childhood summers, digging out a weedy corner patch of the yard that my mother called the “garden.” They shoveled a network of deep “roads” and paths, moving the spaded dirt back and forth in their big Tonka trucks, smoothing the way for caravans of smaller vehicles: their prized Dinky Toys. Imported from the United Kingdom in the early 1950s, Dinky Toys were detailed metal miniatures, collected as models by adults and as toys by children. My brothers had cars, trucks, military vehicles, and farm machines, all of them sold in individual boxes and small enough to fit in the palm.

I remember dozens of vehicles, lined up on the floor of the room that my brothers shared, or positioned in the garden. The boys organized them in careful lines, or mixed them together in what seemed an organized evacuation, a mass transport of invisible Lilliputians. I was attracted to the scale of my brothers’ enterprise, and for a time they included me in their passion for expansion, their refinement of what they called their “work.” Occasionally I helped them heap rocks and soft dirt in the big workhorse Tonka trucks, whose beds cranked up to dump their loads of soil at the far ends of the network of big and small roads. Mostly, though, I watched, reading my stack of books on the porch glider, as my brothers conquered more and more territory. They crawled along on their hands and knees in the heat, sustaining bites from numberless minuscule insects we called sweat bees. They dug and hauled, making guttural sound effects: the growl of motors, the spin of wheels, the cough and whine of engines ratcheting up. They were together, men in a man’s world, building a creation that their toys had suggested and inspired.

I’ve always loved toys that once belonged to other people. I’m drawn to the ones that have the look of being loved and left, forgotten, lost. Someone cared about them, just as my brothers cared about their Dinkys, but that someone has moved on, occupied with other things. Childhood is so brief that toys invariably survive their children. The children become adults but the toys remain, piled up in attics, shipped off to charity.

For me, coming upon a soulful toy and recognizing it is the thrill—rescuing it from a secondhand store or flea market, from homelessness. I have a small collection, accumulated over thirty years, that includes a loved and worn Steiff dog, and a Steiff windup giraffe. I was on the cleanup crew of a school auction and saw them in the discard pile. The dog, a little shepherd with bent legs, was missing most of his plush and his ear button, but the pink felt of his mouth and careful black line at his open jaw were preserved. The giraffe, wearing his green leash, still had a windup key and tiny tag. I took him from the trash and set him on his feet; his tail and neck barely turned, in tandem, like a watch winding down. I was smitten. I took the old Steiffs home and nestled them securely in a glass-front bookcase that contains editions of the novels and books of short stories I’ve written. I didn’t continue to collect vintage Steiffs. I simply remain on the lookout for special discarded toys. There’s the palm-size bear whose head comes off to reveal a tiny glass beaker with an ancient cork, and the suede windup mouse that turns somersaults, both discovered at a flea market in Amsterdam. I don’t collect Donald Ducks—that is, I don’t go looking for them—but I seem to be the caretaker of a very old Donald Duck push toy, a wooden Donald tilt toy that looks handmade, and a very small celluloid “walker” with lead feet. As a kid I never much liked Donald, Mickey’s spluttering sidekick. But now that he seems to have disappeared from cultural consciousness, I feel more sympathetic, even protective. Donald Duck was irrepressible, often wrong, destined to play the fool, yet he waddled forward, black eyes gleaming, always snappily dressed in his sailor’s blue blouse with the white trim. He’s a throwback to a 1950’s America, when movies were prefaced with fabulous cartoons rather than advertisements.

My brothers and I were launched in our adult lives and I was visiting my mother, long after my parents had divorced, helping her clean out the attic. Mixed in with packed-away clothes and games, we found a few of the Dinky Toys. Holding them was like touching a memory made definite, metallic. I took home the red convertible; a farmer on his tractor, pulling the combine that really turns; a small van gone zinc gray, all its paint flaked off; an Army jeep with rubber tires and a signature star on the hood; and one anomaly: a tin turquoise “animal car,” its windows painted full of cartoonish pigs, hippos, alligators, and elephants. Artifacts of our shared childhood, of my brothers’ relationship, of the only time in their lives that they worked together, side by side, sharing the same vision, day after summer day.

Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of six books of short stories and five novels, the most recent of which is Quiet Dell

Photograph by Jayne Anne Phillips