Since the coronavirus pandemic began, people have been using the extra time at home to reorganize closets, take sledgehammers to decks and refinish cabinets. My husband? He's been hauling boxes of toys from our storage unit and turning our dining room table into a sea of unexpected surprises for our three young children.
We’ve lived in our home for nearly three years. We have a formal living room, a guest bedroom and a roomy linen closet. But we're still renting a storage unit to house Brandon's overflow of action figures, Pez dispensers and Batman memorabilia. You know, the ones that couldn't fit inside our three-car garage.
"When do you think we're going to empty that unit?" I asked, on an almost weekly basis before the pandemic. "Maybe even sell a few things so you have more space?"
Inside, I was screaming, "That 1984 Super Powers Batmobile nets $325 on eBay!"
Recently unemployed and now a full-time dad to our boys while I work overtime, Brandon's trips to the storage unit have become a daily affair. He drives the kids to the unit, returns with a stack of boxes, and unloads them one-by-one on our dining room table, each kid taking a turn at guessing what's inside. A Darth Vader Lego set? A Two-Face bobblehead? Beatles action figures? It's a magical mystery tour for all of us, with each child hoping to uncover their favorite comic book characters.
"It looks like Christmas morning," I say, on the way to my home office.
Brandon started the collection in 1996 when he was 18 years old. It began with a motley crew of six Star Wars and Batman figures standing shoulder-to-shoulder on his bookshelf, all of which vanished when his home was robbed in 1998. "Soon, I began collecting Obi-Wans of different sizes and shapes, not to replace the one I lost, but to pay tribute to the character who ignited my passion in Star Wars," he says.
Now, his eclectic collection not only boasts 21 Obi-Wans, but also more than 450 Pez dispensers, 20-plus Batman models, and a six-foot-tall Styrofoam Spider-Man. "A family friend won that from a Blockbuster Video sweepstakes in 2002 for the release of the first Spider-Man movie," he says. "Then she gave it to me. She had nowhere to put it."
Nearly 20 years later, it's still one of his most prized items. When the boys ask Brandon about his affinity for Spidey, Brandon explains that Peter Parker is just a normal high school student who lost his parents. He works hard to take care of his Aunt May and pay her medical bills, but he also has a "can-do attitude" and frequently cracks jokes while fighting crime. "His Uncle Ben told him that 'with great power comes great responsibility' and Peter owns that," Brandon says.
When California's shelter-at-home order was in place, the treasures inside those boxes occupied our boys for hours. Our sons take the toys out of the moving boxes, mentally catalogue them, and help Brandon put them on display in the space freed up from newly unpacked boxes. Sometimes Brandon even lets them play with the items that aren't still preserved in their original packaging. For them, that's like winning the lottery.
It turns out, Brandon's toys are more than just action figures, models and novelties. They're a vehicle for storytelling. In addition to sharing the origin story of nearly every Marvel and DC superhero, complete with elaborate impersonations, Brandon has taught them about each of the 45 presidents through his collection of Presidential Pez dispensers.
The education they're getting from unpacking decades-old action figures isn't about He-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or even American history. It's an opportunity for Brandon to impart his morals and values and give the boys and up-close-and-personal view of their father.
He tells them his brothers re-gifted him the 1995 Batmobile for Christmas in 1997. He reminisces about watching our niece, Cassidy, put together the fold-up '50s muscle car while we ate pancakes at Ruby's Diner circa 2008. And he shows them the knight I gave him during our early days with the message I penned on a sticky note still attached to the back: “Free training to prospective knights in shining armor," it said.
The boys have made their way into his collection, too, starting with the Halloween wind-up toys Brandon and I played with when I was hospitalized during my pregnancy with our 8-year-old twins (me in a wheelchair, him chasing after the Grim Reaper). He also kept the Mickey Mouse cake toppers that adorned our twins' 2nd birthday cake and the stuffed Elmo we received when our third son made his grand entrance.
I discovered that the legacy Brandon leaves behind, hopefully several decades from now, will be something our sons understand and know how to manage. When the four of them sit around our dining room table with boxes of toys spread out before them, Brandon earmarks almost every item for a specific person.
He has even started proffering portions of his collection to our children. On Father's Day, Brandon gifted each of the boys a Ninja Turtle complete with accessories. And on a busy day when I desperately needed quiet, he gave them Transformers — Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and Shatter — and a set of DC action figures to share.
I used to fixate on how much money and space his toy garage sucked up. The fact that I can’t park a car in our garage. Ever. Or the ever-present danger of knocking something over while accessing our freezer, which incidentally is one of the few non-toy items housed in his "man cave." But in the midst of this global pandemic, I'm letting the toys take precedence.
While Brandon explains who the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is and why he appears in the first Ghostbusters film, I watch all three kids sit transfixed. One of our sons leans over the table to grab the "Ectomobile." The other two ogle a 2-inch Peter Venkman. Brandon? He catches my eye with a wink and a smile as I pass through the room.
In the chaos of pre-pandemic life, I'd forgotten how my husband can build a compelling narrative with perfect comedic timing; how he can impersonate everyone from the Shredder to Batman in a way that demands a double-take; and how the most important experiences of his life are on full display in his collection of toys.
The pandemic is exhausting and we're over it, of course. But being on lockdown with a bevy of toys has brought us all closer together. Plus, by the time COVID-19 hits the history books, we may no longer need that storage unit.
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