Old Friends: The Sylvanian Families

posted in: Art, Family, Luv, Travel 2
Sylvanian Families, shown here enacting the Sgt. Pepper album cover.
The Sylvanian Families, shown here reenacting the Sgt. Pepper album cover.

I wish I had more cause to use the word “sylvan” on a regular basis. Sylvan means “of the forest” and it’s a well-formed adjective if you ask me, a real looker. I’m also fond of it because it’s the root word in the name Sylvanian, as in The Sylvanian Families, the line of woodland creature miniatures that experienced huge popularity in the US in the late 1980s. I was a child in the late 1980s and my sisters and I had a handful of Sylvanian Family characters. Did we love anything more than these toys? Maybe we loved our mother more.


The Sylvanian Family toys are achingly adorable. They defy the laws of cute. Somewhere, there toy designers responsible for these things are doing time for crimes against humanity. For one thing, Sylvanians are perfectly sized: around two to five inches tall, depending on the character. They all wear finely made clothes — pinafores, little overalls, kerchiefs. They’re plastic, but they’re soft. They have like, a soft little pelt of fur on them. They have little black eyes that are either glistening with love for you or sparkling with general jolliness, depending on the light in the play room.

Sylvanians are grouped first into species; in my day, that meant rabbits, squirrels, beaver, hedgehogs, bears, foxes, raccoons, deer, and mice. These days, the company who makes them** has more animals on offer, including freaking meerkats. Within the species there are different families with the most wonderful names, e.g., The Timbertop Family (bears), The Dappledawn Family (rabbits), and The Thistlethorn Family (mice.) Within the families are the individuals (e.g., Brother Dexter Pepperwood, Sister Magdelena, Baby Aiden, etc.) and they all have their little character descriptions. 

As it turns out, The Sylvanian Families toy line originated in Japan. When I read that, everything made sense. The Japanese do seem to have a lock on cute. The word “kawaii” means “cute” in that culture and even the word “kawaii” is cute. You can really take those double “ii’s” into a high register. It’s perfect for those moments when you see a figurine that is a tiny mouse baby with a diaper on and her own teensy baby bottle.

There t’wernt a lot of money in the ol’ Fons household back when we were kids playing with toys, but before the divorce came in and effectively closed the toy box, we scored a few rabbits and foxes and a couple mice, I think. My sister and I were reminiscing about the Sylvanian Families today and also about taking a trip together. We could use a little bonding time, a little one-on-one. We’re all grown up now and it takes planning to make plans.

We were thinking about locales when it came to me: “Wait a minute,” I said to my sister, clicking and clacking on my computer. “There’s a Sylvanian Families store in London.”

“Well,” said my sister, “Maybe we should go to London.”

We may just. If we do go, it will be in December and it won’t be a terribly long trip. London is expensive, I’m only able to eat hamburger patties for a year or so, and it’ll be chilly at the Thames that time of year. But I can sip tea with my sister. And we can talk about the blue shag rug at the farmhouse. And we can buy a few little mice while we’re in town.

**The story of the manufacture of these toys is long, long, long and complex and confusing. Many companies have owned the line and its knock-offs and licensed etcetera. Wikipedia is there for you if you seek the deets.

That Child!!

posted in: Family, Story 3
Me, at seven.
Me, age seven.

On a plane the other night, I read the cover article in the latest Atlantic about the dangers of over-parenting. The concept that parents have been over-protecting, over-scheduling, and over-hanging out with their kids for about a generation and a half has (finally) settled into popular discourse. The idea that you don’t need to — and shouldn’t — watch your kids so closely is not new, but it’s no longer a fringey idea.

The article opened with a report on The Land, a “junk playground” in Wales which is simply a huge expanse of barren acreage where kids can go run around, burn stuff, create fiefdoms, and wage wars with each other if they feel like it. There is no hand-sanitizer, no rubberized asphalt. There are no outlets. There are trees, sticks, non-deadly snakes, and no adults to blow whistles. (The Land is monitored by capable adults, however; the article quotes one of the supervisors describing what she does as “loitering with intent.”) There are water holes, ropes hanging from trees, and there’s a lot of mud when it rains. You can stay out all day, and kids do; they disappear for hours and hours.

I love this.

My childhood was extremely dangerous. My sisters and I lived on Meadowlark Farm, which was seven miles outside of town (eight from the nearest hospital.) Though “Meadowlark Farm” sounds benign/chipper, the reality is that that 80-acre land was hazard’s amusement park. There were rattlesnakes. There were undercurrents in Middle River. There was a forest — or “timber,” which is Iowanese for “forest.” There were actively harvested corn fields. There were crumbly shale banks, ginormous bugs, mud holes, gravel roads, large rusty objects frequently sticking out of the ground, bees, lawnmowers, and — wait for it — an abandoned cemetery across the road. I’m serious. And we had several sets of neighbors that were about two years out from being huge Kid Rock fans, if you get what I’m saying.

We were always two steps away from peril. And it made for some strong children.

Being exposed to risk is important for a kid. How else will you know you can do stuff? I’m not suggesting that any child should be in danger at the hands of adults — that’s called abuse or neglect. I’m talking about consensual risk-taking. I’m talking about, “Hey, kid, take your coat and this apple and this bottle of juice if you’re going out hiking all day.”

Which is just how my mom and dad handled things. As a result, my sisters and I, young as we were, were antifragle: we exposed to stressors that resulted in strength. We were good in an emergency (even if that “emergency” was that the crik was too low to cross in our usual spot.) We were physically healthy, which almost goes without saying. Our imaginations were almost freakishly developed and developing. Essentially, the joy of that sort of kid-rearing is that it yields children who are able to become decision-makers without constant guidance from some adult figure. Hovering adults think they know better and are helping. They might know something, but until there’s blood, actual stranger-danger, or engulfing flames…I tend to think kids don’t need that much help. Remember, before the Industrial Revolution, eight-year-olds were drinking beer, visiting brothels, and workin’ jobs. I’m not suggesting we return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but I do think a big field of rural nothingness on a cold autumn morning is about the best thing that ever happened to me (at least till I went to San Francisco on spring break my junior year in college.)

Please read the next post, “There Will Be Mud.” It is a story that illustrates my point and is hopefully as funny and painful to you as it is to me and my older sister Hannah. 


Gravel Roads

posted in: Family, Paean, Story 4
Nan is the composed, chill child. I am the crazed dancing child. #stilltrue
Me and my older sister, Nan, carrying on the living room of the Yellow House. Circa1982.

I grew up on a farm. Sort of.

Many of the kids I grew up with in Winterset, IA, grew up on actual farm-farms, with birthin’ fillies and steamin’ cow pies and fresh eggs. Our farm had an orchard, an oak grove, a pasture, two houses (a white one and a yellow one), a timber* to the north, Middle River to the east, and cornfields around allll of that as far as the eye could see, but the land was farmed by people other than my pop and Uncle Randy. I don’t even have an Uncle Randy. It just sounds like someone who would farm the land with my dad.

But we called it a farm and it even had a name, “Meadowlark Farm,” because when my parents were doing the whole back-to-the-land thing in the 1970s, they moved out there, declared it Meadowlark and proceeded to live for an incredibly romantic year without plumbing. They were very young. They did have chickens! And a pig for two seconds, but all that went away quickly; selling organic eggs for three times the price of a normal egg had not yet become okay.

Yes, it was a different time. The only tweets were those of the birds, none more lovely than the meadowlark’s, and the charming “toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo, toodle-toodle-DOOT-doo” was the melody of the place. The cicadas in summer, the wind in the rushes, the chimes Dad hung in Possum Hollow (more on that in a moment) and the bark of our dog provided the rest of the soundtrack. Oh, and for awhile there were the shouts and yips of three little girls, too.

It was a perfect place to be a child. Many adults view childhood through an Instagram filter, but because the farm was honestly so lush and because we kids were ripped from it so abruptly, the place has taken on near-Narnian qualities with Neverland-level magic. The truth is as good as all that, though: we caught bunnies and patted them. We ran through fields of cattails. We swung on swings. Dad built a seriously awesome tree house and he built Possum Hollow, too. Possum Hollow was a house for possums. A big tree in the oak grove had died and Dad cut it down with his chainsaw. The base of the trunk was probably four feet across and hollowed out, which appealed greatly to a family of possums, who moved in at once. Dad put a peaked, wood-shingled roof on the thing and named it Possum Hollow. My family is always naming things.

And we were in love with it all. Nan made bows and arrows from sticks, and Rebecca and I played school in the room off the bedroom we all shared. Everyone was in shorts. Hair was long. Thunderstorms would roll in and we girls would sit on the porch swing, our mouths absolutely hanging open, watching the thunderheads mobilize and get darker and darker until CAA-RACK! the skies opened up and the world got wet. We held kittens during all this, protecting them.

One day, I got a note in class to go to the library after school, rather than take the bus home. I got to the library and my mom was there, followed by my sisters. My kid sister Rebecca had a red backpack, I remember that. She was no more than six. Mom told us that we would’t be going home that night, that we’d be staying with friends. Dad had lost his mind; it wasn’t safe to be so far away from town. He wasn’t violent, but he might’ve been. He wasn’t ever an alcohol or drug user, but there’s a first time for everything. He was the opposite of stable, that much was certain, and the game-time decision my mom made had to be made.

And we never went back.

Mom and Gramma and Grampa and friends packed up our stuff and we moved into Aunt Katherine’s old house in town because she was dead and it was available. It would be years before I would go back out to the farm. It lived like a cemetary out there, just seven miles from Winterset but a universe and a century away.

One time in high school I drove my Honda CR-X out there. I walked around. I swung on the swing. No one was living there that year, so I could explore Meadowlark Farm as long as I could take it, which was not very long. It was that afternoon I came the closest I have ever come to seeing a ghost. I cupped my hand and peered into the picture window, and my body froze. I swear I could see three little girls playing on the stairs, whooping and yipping calls up and down the steps, beloved animal figurines strewn about. If I couldn’t see them, I could feel them, and the feeling was strong, muchachos.

Years later, we got word the yellow house had burned down. I wept, and my mom hugged me. And we went back to whatever it was we were doing.