When I was a child, there was nothing more thrilling than getting a new box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers. The small rectangular box that hung from a string on my wrist looked like a little pocketbook and made me feel grown up. (Back then, every woman carried a pocketbook).
I did not know that the red box with the pictures of animals in cages had been around since 1902. Or that the string was originally intended to hang from a Christmas tree, not a wrist.
But I did know that the animals inside the box always made me feel magical. Elephants, tigers, bears, and lions kept me company as I walked around my Philadelphia neighborhood. I remember one early evening, strolling down our block of row homes and seeing a neighbor watering his patch of lawn with a hose. The hose’s spray looked like a ballerina’s skirt to me, and I imagined dancing with my animals in the spray.
When I got into bed at night, I would often place the box on my nightstand and tell the animals about my day.
I did not have a lot of fun in my childhood. I sensed that something was missing in my family, but I couldn’t have told you what. Sometimes it felt like those animals on my wrist were my only friends.
You might think I wouldn’t have needed animal crackers after I’d grown up, but I ended up turning to them again when I was a sophomore at college. I was having a hard time figuring out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. As I grappled with these problems, I found myself going to the supermarket and buying box after box of animal crackers. I didn’t throw away the empty boxes. Instead, I stacked them up in a corner of my dorm room, as if I were building some kind of a fortress.
I wasn’t particularly religious. Still, what I was doing made me think of a phrase from Corinthians. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
When I was young, the box of animal crackers hanging on my wrist had made me feel grown up. Now at college, I was straddling both worlds — facing the sobering realities of life, but still yearning to hold on to the magic of childhood. Obviously, a box of animal crackers could not solve all my problems, but they did bring me comfort.
At age 30, animal crackers came into my life yet again as I struggled with intense feelings of rage from unresolved issues in my childhood. What I couldn’t understand as a child became painfully clear in adolescence: my parents’ unhappy marriage; a distance between me and my twin sister, Carol, who my mom seemed to favor; my dad’s preference for my brother, Ben.
When I tried as a teen to tell Mom how unhappy I was, I felt like she wasn’t hearing me. So I wrote her letters about my feelings of isolation, hoping it would sink in. Ben had already left for college, and writing to him helped some, too. But I sat alone in my room each night feeling like I was at a funeral — Dad snoring at 8 p.m. in the next room, Mom and Carol chatting and watching television down the hall. Even as the noises filled my ears, my heart was torn apart by Mom’s silence in response to my letters.
When I was a child, I sometimes stuffed so many animal crackers in my tummy that it felt like I would burst. As an adult, I had stuffed myself with so much rage from the loneliness that it felt as if I would explode.
It was scary.
Some might have turned to alcohol, recreational drugs, or pharmaceuticals. I reached once again for my beloved animal crackers.
They had always been my protectors. I realized they could also be my teachers. As I gobbled them down, something in me knew that I had to tame the animals lurking inside of me, or they would consume me.
These days there are a lot more animals in the box. Bison. Camel. Cougar. Giraffe. Gorilla. Hippo. Hyena. Kangeroo. Koala bear. Monkey. Rhinoceros. Seal. Sheep. Zebra. So many potential new friends!
But I’ve changed too. I’m stronger now and haven’t felt the need to revisit my old companions in decades. Will they return at a time of great challenge? Will they keep coming back to me like a recurring dream until I finally outgrow them? Of course, I don’t know what the future holds.
All I know for sure is that their magic and comfort are there if I ever need them again.
Joan Leof is the author of “Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing.”