Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A puppet, a little girl, and a magical memory

This column was published in the Bay Area News Group newspapers in November 2010.
We are thankful for many blessings at Thanksgiving.

Most of our thanks are for big moments, such as the safe return home of a loved one from Iraq or the birth of a healthy baby. But sometimes we give thanks for little things, like a memory of mine I’ll share in a moment.

Whatever the blessing, everything we’re thankful for has an element of joy in it, and because we know that not everyone is as fortunate as we are, we feel a sense of wonder and magic in the gifts of our lives.

One such gift is my vivid memory of an evening when my now 18-year-old daughter, Melissa, was four years old and I was putting her to bed and preparing to tell a bedtime story.

Picture a little girl’s bedroom. In one corner among several dolls is the odd presence of 24-inch ventriloquist dummy in a red jacket and black bowtie. His head and hands are plastic, and his eyebrows and hair are painted on, just like the eternal twinkle in his eye.

This dummy was a toy Santa brought me when I was a little boy. While some readers will remember ventriloquist puppets such as Charlie McCarthy, Danny O’ Day, and Mortimer Snerd, this was a Jerry Mahoney puppet produced in the 1960s by the Juro Novelty Company.

As a kid, I loved this little fellow. He became my companion, keeping me company as I drew pictures or did homework. He always smiled and listened without interrupting. I learned to become a ventriloquist listening to Jimmy Nelson's Instant Ventriloquism record that taught me how, with a little practice, the letter d could become a b-sound and how the letter n could mimic the sound of the letter m. I even entered school talent shows and entertained my friends.

As I grew into adulthood, I kept Jerry stored away in closets, occasionally bringing him out at family get-togethers. He attended my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, and one Christmas morning Jerry ended up being passed around the living room as my siblings and other family members took turns pulling his string and making him say a few words. We laughed as each of us came up with something funny for him to say.

After my daughter was born and started to play with dolls, I introduced her to Jerry and I would make him talk for her. He started hanging around her room, no doubt pleased to be an active toy again.

So on this particular evening, my daughter climbed into bed and spotted Jerry.

“Daddy,” she said, “make Jerry talk.”

I pulled him onto my lap and he started to ask Melissa about her day. In his typical high voice, he asked about her friends and what games she liked to play.

I watched her blue eyes, fixed on the puppet, enchanted as she answered his questions.

And then she stopped and looked at me and asked in her sweet, four-year-old voice, “You’re making him talk, right?”

At that moment I realized the power of performance and art to transport us. Even when we know we’re watching an act, sometimes the magic feels so real. This is why the English poet and philosopher Coleridge wrote that poetry and art come alive when we willingly suspend our disbelief.

That’s what Melissa was doing, even as I answered yes, I was making Jerry talk.
For such memories and all our blessings this Thanksgiving season, let’s be thankful.

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