Montreal teddy bear hospital treats beloved toys damaged by time and ‘too much love’
In tray 7 of the stuffed animal hospital is teddy bear Andy Lee. Her worn head rests on a pillow with yellow polka dots. He is lined with a blanket and a little rag owl to keep him company before his impending surgery. Stuffing trickles from his chest, indicating the reason for his visit to Raplapla, a Montreal toymaker that has earned a reputation for restoring beloved childhood dolls and stuffed animals.
Andy Lee was sent to Toy Hospital by his owner, Jackie Demmy of Langley, C. morning radio host in Red Deer, Alta. Jackie, 45, inherited the bear when she was born.
For the past 20 years, Andy Lee has been hidden away in a box of Jackie’s childhood memories. But in December, when La-Vita was due for heart and spine surgery, Jackie thought it was time to pull him out of storage so he could keep his mother company in the hospital. It’s a role he played once before, when the bear accompanied La-Vita when she had her tonsils removed as a young child.
Andy Lee is one of hundreds of toys sent to Raplapla for repair. They arrive with missing eyes, chewed up ears, holes and worn faces. Most owners ask for toys to be stuffed and cleaned, says Dominique Dansereau, the chief toy surgeon.
Dog attacks are the most frequent reason for hospital consultation. “Too much love” is another, says Annie Roy, a former Cirque du Soleil milliner who is now a full-time toy surgeon at the boutique.
Children hug toys and stuffing wears out. Some of the hardest damage to repair is the result of toys thrown in the dryer, as well as the use of glue guns and plaster when people create casts for their toys’ injured arms and legs.
Raplapla opened in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood in 2009, although owner Erica Perrot began making dolls at her home in 2005. The toy repair service grew naturally from the existing business , explains Ms. Dansereau.
At first, most of the repair work involved toys belonging to children. Adults looking to restore childhood stuffed animals account for about half of the repair business today.
Surgeons must be careful not to replace too much of a toy, thus destroying its uniqueness and the childhood memories associated with it.
There is a lot of communication about what will be replaced and what will remain as is. For children’s toys, surgeons like to consult with both children and their parents. Repairs “must be approved by those who do the cuddling,” says Ms. Dansereau.
For the Demmy family, Andy Lee’s tattered body represents memories that span generations.
When La-Vita was 2 years old, she left the bear at a motel on a trip to California. He was fired two months later. He burned his front paws while baking cookies with La-Vita and burned his back paws when she put him in the oven to warm him up from the cold. He got out of the car on one trip and was left on a train on another. But he always came home and his mother always managed to heal him.
“He was my favorite toy in the whole world,” says La-Vita.
His adventures continued with Jackie. When she was 6, she and her brother Jason leaned over the sides of the boat the family stayed on during summer weekends in British Columbia to feed the geese. One day a goose jumped up and ripped out one of Andy Lee’s eyes. La-Vita was able to patch it up after finding an exact replica.
When Jackie was a teenager, a black Labrador used the bear as a chew toy. “I was absolutely horrified,” La-Vita says. “There was my precious Andy Lee and his stuffing was everywhere.”
It will take more than 20 years for Andy Lee to be put back together.
At the Montreal Toy Hospital, Ms. Roy sits at a large wooden table, pushing the stuffing back into the bear. An electric stove is burning in the corner and a black Labrador lies at his feet. Mrs. Roy takes a roll of red fabric from the shelves behind her. Cutting out a patch, she irons and sews to cover the big hole that was Andy Lee’s belly.
Inspecting his ears, she finds a tuft of fur showing his original coloring. The hardest part will be the wear on his head and around his eyes. “He is very fragile and old,” says Ms. Roy. “I have to be very careful because the fabric can tear like paper.” She sorts a box of embroidery floss to match the previous quilt and begins to weave new skin onto her face.
The finishing touch is a special request from Jackie: a red heart to embroider on the bear’s chest. She remembers her mother making rag dolls and always sewing a red heart. While Andy Lee never got one, Jackie thinks he deserved one for all he’s done for the family.
One Sunday in early January, Jackie packs the toy for the three-hour trip to Vancouver Island, where she delivers the belated Christmas present to her mother. La-Vita is surprised to see her daughter, as she had just visited her for Christmas. But as she takes the tissue paper out of the box, she sees the red paw. “I would recognize this paw anywhere!”
To restore Andy Lee after so many years is something that cannot be measured in money, says La-Vita. “He is worth nothing to anyone but us. He has no hair on his body, just a few strings on his chin. I hope people know that toys have a special meaning that will stay with you all your life.