Slow-Cooked Sentences

Contemplations on a puppet passion

Rachael Conlin Levy

It wasn’t dolls, nor barbies, not horses, nor my mama’s high-heels that held my fancy as a small girl, but a puppet, a black, felt, hand puppet  with a red mouth that begin to talk as soon as my dad slipped his hand inside. We named it Bull Taco, although it barely resembled a bovine.

I loved it.

As I grew, my collection of puppets did, too. My passion peaked around age nine when I produced neighborhood shows where my friends and I wrote the plays, printed the tickets and charged our parents ten cents to sit through our masterpieces. But with time the theater warped, the puppets grew ratty, and all were discarded. All but Bull Taco, who was carefully folded and placed in a cardboard box that held baby slippers and fair ribbons and high-school yearbooks.

When my daughter was about two, I found Bull Taco again. The felt was matted and fuzzy. The mouth had a hole through which my fingers poked. I wanted her to love him, but she left me to converse with Bull Taco alone.

I didn’t give up.

Scorpion

When I had three small children, I wrangled my husband into building a replica of the theater I had as a child. We spent the nights leading up to that year’s Christmas sanding and painting. The gift was elaborate, more my wish than theirs, yet they played with it — with encouragement. We’d take turns: First they would slip behind the curtain and put on a show, then they’d watch as I entertained them. The moments I knelt inside the theater, I forgot I was a mother. I was just me, happy and flushed, my mind whizzing with possibilities of how the story would unfold.

Time passed. My children’s theater is tucked behind a bookshelf, forgotten. And although I still have one child young enough to play with puppets, his passion is in swords and light sabers, and I’m either tired enough or wise enough now to let the puppets remain covered in dust. That was until spring when volunteer work for my youngest’s religious education class sent me searching through the basket for a puppet to use as a model. My challenge: to design and create six animals (weasel, otter, scorpion, crab, turtle and woodpecker) plus King Solomon for a story told in Sunday School.

King Solomon

I love puppets for what they aren’t: They’re not plastic, they’re not branded and they’re not hard to make. When I visited my sister and her family in Alaska, my nephew grew interested in the otter puppet pattern I was designing and decided to make one of his own. When I returned home and began to sew, my littlest put down his weapons and picked up scissors and pins to create a queen to go along with my king. Neither boy, I believe, saw their projects to completion. And my own puppets are not without their problems: The crab’s claws are too tight for a man’s fingers and the woodpecker’s beak is hard to manipulate. I complained excessively about the amount of time I spent on them, but in the end, it’s the act of making art, as well as the possibility of kindling a puppet passion in another young soul, and not the final product that matters to me.

Last month seven puppets were carefully folded and placed in a cardboard box and given — lovingly, happily and hopefully, regretfully, sadly and reluctantly — away.

After all, it was a lot of work.

And puppets are dearest to my heart.

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3 responses to “Contemplations on a puppet passion”

  1. Christina says:

    Love this. My mom has always loved puppets and I still have all the puppets from our childhood. She has a menagerie of her own that, up til 2 years ago, she used to entertain a group of women she meets with weekly. I love the embroidered detail in your creations!

  2. Andrea says:

    Those are great! Have you considered a career as a children’s librarian? We had a wonderful one who worked the bookmobile and used puppets to wonderful effect in her storytelling. My kids have a fair number of puppets (some new, some were mine), but they’ve never gotten much mileage, sadly.

  3. Your King Solomon is fabulous and I have a special fondness for your sweet looking scorpion (I’m a Scorpio).

    I think you’d like the walk over the Gianicolo in Rome. The view is beautiful and if you time it right you will see this open-air puppet theater.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Er4-f_HR6lc

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