In tray No. 7 at the hospital for stuffed animals lies teddy bear Andy Lee. His worn head rests on a yellow polka-dot pillow. He is tucked in with a blanket and a tiny rag-doll owl to keep him company before his impending surgery. Stuffing spills from his chest, indicating the reason for his visit to Raplapla, a Montreal toymaker that has gained a reputation for restoring beloved childhood dolls and stuffed animals.
Andy Lee was sent to the toy hospital by his owner, Jackie Demmy of Langley, B.C. The bear originally belonged to Ms. Demmy’s mother, La-Vita Demmy, 72, who was given him as a newborn in 1949. He was named after a morning radio announcer 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 mementos. But in December, with La-Vita due for heart and spinal surgery, Jackie thought it was time to pull him out of storage so he could keep her mom company in the hospital. It’s a role he played once before, when the bear accompanied La-Vita when she had her tonsils out as a young child.
Andy Lee is one of hundreds of toys sent to Raplapla for repair. They arrive with missing eyes, chewed ears, holes and worn faces. Most owners ask for the toys to be restuffed and cleaned, says Dominique Dansereau, the head toy surgeon.
Dog attacks are the most common reason for consulting the hospital. “Too much love” is another, says Annie Roy, a former milliner with Cirque du Soleil who is now a full-time toy surgeon at the shop.
Children hug the toys and the stuffing wears out. Some of the most difficult to fix damage is the result of toys being thrown in the dryer, as well as the use of glue guns and plaster as people create casts for their toys’ injured arms and legs.
Raplapla opened in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood in 2009, though owner Erica Perrot began making dolls out of her home in 2005. The toy-repair service grew naturally out of the existing business, Ms. Dansereau says.
In the beginning, most of the repair work was for toys belonging to children. Today, adults looking to restore plush toys from their childhood represent roughly half of the repair business.
Surgeons have to be careful to not replace too much of a toy, destroying its unique character and the childhood memories associated with it.
There is plenty of communication about what will be replaced and what will be left as-is. For kids’ toys, the surgeons like to consult with both the children and their parents. The repairs “must be approved by those doing the hugging,” Ms. Dansereau says.
For the Demmy family, Andy Lee’s tattered body represents memories that span generations.
When La-Vita was 2, she left the bear in a motel during a trip to California. He was returned two months later. He burned his front paws baking cookies with La-Vita, and scorched his back paws when she put him in the oven to warm him up from the cold. He flew out of the car on one trip and was left on a train on another. But he always came home and her mother always managed to patch him up.
“He was my favourite toy in the whole world,” La-Vita says.
His adventures continued with Jackie. When she was 6, she and her brother Jason would lean down the sides of the boat the family stayed on during summer weekends in B.C. 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 him up after finding an exact replica.
When Jackie was a teenager, a black Labrador retriever 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 would take more than 20 years for Andy Lee to be put back together.
In the Montreal toy hospital, Ms. Roy sits at a large wooden table, pushing the stuffing back into the bear. An electric stove burns in the corner and a black Labrador retriever lies at her feet. Ms. Roy pulls a roll of red material from the shelves behind her. Cutting a patch, she irons and sews to cover the large hole that was Andy Lee’s belly.
Inspecting his ears, she finds a tuft of fur showing his original colouring. The most challenging part will be the wear on his head and around his eyes. “He’s very fragile and old,” Ms. Roy says. “I have to be very careful as the fabric can tear like paper.” She sorts through a box of embroidery thread to match previous patchwork and begins to weave new skin onto his face.
The finishing touch is a special request from Jackie: a red heart to be embroidered on the bear’s chest. She recalls her mom making rag dolls and always sewing on a red heart. While Andy Lee never had one, Jackie believes he’s earned one for all he’s done for the family.
On a Sunday in early January, Jackie packs up the toy for the three-hour trip to Vancouver Island, where she delivers the belated Christmas gift to her mother. La-Vita is surprised to see her daughter, as she had just visited at Christmas. But as she lifts the tissue paper from the box she spots the red paw. “I’d know that paw anywhere!”
Having Andy Lee restored after so many years is something that can’t be measured in money, La-Vita says. “He’s not worth anything to anyone but us. He doesn’t have any hair left on his body, just a few strings on his chin. I hope people know toys have special meaning that’s left with you all your life.”