Once a year I have the terrifying privilege of preaching to children who are about to receive the Eucharist for the first time. It’s a May experience, and it took place again last Sunday morning. I am serious about both the noun – privilege – and the adjective. In fact, I told the children last Sunday that I approached them with trepidation, because I am accustomed to having a written homily lying in front of me there in the ambo, even if I seldom look at it. When I speak to the children, I have to do it standing in the center aisle, close to them, and speak informally. I’m not comfortable doing that.

In order to have at least something to cling to, I always bring a prop on these occasions. I have brought my Howdy Doody dummy, my “first communion” picture, a set of juggling balls – anything to create a focal point other than me for the three or four minutes of this enterprise.

So last Sunday I brought Raggedy Ann and Andy, two large dolls that I bought for Pat about 35 years ago. They were hand-made by a woman who at the time was about 100 years old, and they are exquisite. Pat’s appreciation of their exquisite-ness has faded as the house has become increasingly burdened with more than 40 years of such acquisitions, and she has encouraged me to sell the dolls or give them away. Instead of doing that, I have taken possession of them, and I keep them in my clothes closet where I can see them every day.

I used that image to build a homily about friends who never turn their backs on you. I began by producing the dolls out of a large gift bag and asking the children to identify these two stuffed characters. Most of the kids didn’t know. Only one girl was able to identify both dolls. My homily didn’t depend on the children knowing the names of the dolls, but I couldn’t help feeling a little twinge of melancholy as I saw the boys and girls look blankly at the once iconic figures.

Raggedy Ann was created in 1905 by a talented writer-cartoonist, Johnny Gruelle, when he drew a face on a rag doll for his daughter, Marcella, and derived the name from the titles of two poems by James Whitcomb Riley– The Raggedy Man  and Little Orphant Annie. The term “orphant” was an example of the Hoosier dialect Riley adopted in his work. The second poem was the inspiration for the cartoon character Little Orphan Annie. WhenMarcella was 13, she contracted diphtheria after being vaccinated at school. She died shortly thereafter, and the Gruelles attributed her death on the medication she had received. Johnny Gruelle became a leading critic of vaccination, and Raggedy Annie was for a time the symbol of the movement.

In 1918, Gruelle – who was the son of American impressionist painter Richard Buckner Gruelle– published a children’s book, Raggedy Ann Stories, and a doll was sold in connection with it. The brother of the original character was introduced in 1920 in Raggedy Andy Stories. There were more than 40 subsequent books, some of them written and illustrated by Gruelle and some by others. The characters spawned a wide variety of other products, many of which are still on the market — even if the parents in my parish aren’t buying them.

I heard a report on National Public Radio last fall about the closing of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. The museum once drew 450,000 visitors a year — as many as stopped by Hoover Dam — but the outlandish pianist’s appeal had no staying power, and the people who did care grew old. Who thought that would happen to reliable old Raggedy Ann and Andy, but it has. Their museum, which was located in Gruelle’s home town of Arcola, Illinois — admittedly not on The Strip — closed its doors in 2008.

"The Man in the Moon" by Maxfield Parrish

Our granddaughter Alexa hits double digits this week, and as one way of observing the occasion we took her to see “Toy Story 3.” I confess to being a little blase about the animation and the high def 3-D, but I was interested in the theme – the fate of Andy’s toys now that his childhood has ended.

Pixar/Disney

This issue has been treated in literature – notably, as far as my limited knowledge goes, by Kenneth Grahame and by A.A. Milne. Grahame, who was the author of “The Wind in the Willows,”also wrote “The Golden Age” and its sequel, “Dream Days,” which consist of a collection of stories told from the viewpoint of a family of Victorian children. The best known of these stories is “The Reluctant Dragon,” but the whole body of work is remarkable for its portrayal of a world in which adults — the children refer to them as “Olympians” — have forgotten the experience of being young. This subject also concerned Sir James Matthew Barrie (“Peter Pan”) and P.L. Travers (“Mary Poppins”).

The situation in “Toy Story 3” called to mind the final chapter in “Dream Days” in which the Olympians have decided that the children have outgrown their playthings. The toys have been packed up to be given away, but the children, under cover of night, take the toys into the yard and bury them so as to keep them close to home – Leotard the elephant, Potiphar the bull, a couple of animals spared when the ark was carried off, and Rosa, who had escaped the exile already imposed on Jerry, Esmeralda, and the other dolls.

KENNETH GRAHAME

The earth was shovelled in and stamped down, and I was glad that no orisons were said and no speechifying took place. The whole thing was natural and right and self-explanatory, and needed no justifying or interpreting to our audience of stars and flowers.

The connexion was not entirely broken now–one link remained between us and them. The Noah’s Ark, with its cargo of sad-faced emigrants, might be hull down on the horizon, but two of its passengers had missed the boat and would henceforth be always near us; and, as we played above them, an elephant would understand, and a beetle would hear, and crawl again in spirit along a familiar floor. Henceforth the spotty horse would scour along far-distant plains and know the homesickness of alien stables; but Potiphar, though never again would he paw the arena when bull-fights were on the bill, was spared maltreatment by town-bred strangers, quite capable of mistaking him for a cow.

Jerry and Esmeralda might shed their limbs and their stuffing, by slow or swift degrees, in uttermost parts and unguessed corners of the globe; but Rosa’s book was finally closed, and no worse fate awaited her than natural dissolution almost within touch and hail of familiar faces and objects that had been friendly to her since first she opened her eyes on a world where she had never been treated as a stranger.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN and POOH

Milne also confronts the crisis of separation in that touching scene in which Christopher Robin explains to Winnie-the-Pooh that things between them will some day change. It’s the fateful “Chapter Ten, in Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There”:

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?”  said Pooh.

“When I’m–when—Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much.  They won’t let you.”

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”  said Pooh helpfully.

“Pooh, when I’m–you know–when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”

“Just Me?”

“Yes, Pooh.”

“Will you be here too?”

“Yes, Pooh, I will be, really.  I promise I will be, Pooh.”

“That’s good,” said Pooh.

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever.  Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a little.

“How old shall I be then?”

“Ninety-nine.”

Pooh nodded.

“I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I–if I’m not quite—-” he stopped and tried again—”Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

“Understand what?”

“Oh, nothing.”  He laughed and jumped to his feet.  “Come on!”

“Where?”  said Pooh.

“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.

HOWDY DOODY

I have hung onto some shreds of my childhood, and I wish I had kept more. Fortunately, I wasn’t reared by Olympians. On one occasion many years ago, when I was delivering a homily to a class of children who were about to receive First Eucharist, I brought along an admittedly silent friend for moral support. At the end of my sermon I told the kids, “Some day grownups are going to tell you that you are too old for toys, and that you’ll be getting clothes and other boring things for gifts from then on. When they tell you that, you tell them that when the deacon was 50 years old, his mother gave him this Howdy Doody doll.

The children take things into their own hands as the Man in the Moon looks on / Maxfield Parrish

As we turned to go, the man in the moon, tangled in elm-boughs, caught my eye for a moment, and I thought that never had he looked so friendly. He was going to see after them, it was evident; for he was always there, more or less, and it was no trouble to him at all, and he would tell them how things were still going, up here, and throw in a story or two of his own whenever they seemed a trifle dull. It made the going away rather easier, to know one had left somebody behind on the spot; a good fellow, too, cheery, comforting, with a fund of anecdote; a man in whom one had every confidence. – Kenneth Grahame, “Dream Days.”