The Magic Fish

My parents, like all parents, got their share of things wrong, but they got their share of things right, too. And one of those things was definitely the Magic Fish.

The Magic Fish was more a tradition than a creature. I used to think, even as a young child, that it was clearly not magic, a thought which didn’t upset me at all. But now I can see that it was, in its own way.

The Magic Fish was, essentially, my dad. But it was much more. In my family, maybe a week before your birthday party, Mom would sit down with you and help you pick out toys that you maybe didn’t play with so much anymore — one toy for each child attending your celebration. That was the quid in the quid pro quo, the relatively meager price that you, the birthday girl, paid for your party and all its resulting new toys: You had to get rid of some toys you didn’t really even play with anymore. I’m making it sound easy. It wasn’t.

They couldn’t be broken toys, or toys with pieces missing. They had to be decent, serviceable toys that you simply never reached for. Toys you suddenly remembered getting, brand-new, and being so excited about; toys you regretted failing, by not reaching for often enough. Toys with feelings you imagined, feelings that mimicked your own, feelings of being passed-over, found wanting, rejected. It hurt to be the one doing the rejecting, almost as much as being the one rejected. Years later, when I finally saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the first time, I cried when it came to the Island of Misfit Toys. I thought of all the perfectly good toys I’d rendered misfits by my casual disregard of them, how it always ate away at me as a child. I thought of being casually disregarded, myself, being perfectly good — anyone would have told you that; even I’d have told you that — and yet somehow not good enough. I thought about the years where I’d longed for something I hadn’t even known to long for: an island of misfits.

This isn’t a sad story, though. The Magic Fish is a happy story, as much as any other sepia-toned memory is, those snapshot frozen memories of childhood where every feeling seemed larger than life, and every real problem — all the stuff that was actually wrong — seemed so small as to be invisible at the time. The fault lines between the tectonic plates of lives butting up against each other that are only visible when seen in retrospect through the shockingly clear, ugly, flourescent light of adult eyes: the hole kicked into the bathroom door (a family joke that endured through at least a decade), the ritual of the coffee beans in the nightly sambuca (“one for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” my agnostic father, who loved a good ritual almost as much as a good drink, would wryly tell me as he dropped them in), the jokes of neighborhood boys that sound far more ominous now than they did then, the casual cruelties of siblings that would only be notable once it became clear they would never truly go away.

And there, hovering over the fault lines of it all, is the Magic Fish. Literally, hovering. As you’ve probably guessed, the toys I picked to get rid of would become the party favors, but they wouldn’t just get handed out. Towards the end of the party, after the cake but before the parents came to pick everyone up (these being those mid-80s years when parents still simply dropped their children off at the houses of near-strangers), all the guests would line up single-file, and they’d approach the fishing line.

We moved around a lot, so the fishing line was always in a different place. Sometimes it draped down from a second-floor landing. Sometimes, in houses without stairs suitable for fishing, it hung over a curtain hastily strung up in a doorway. Each child would approach the fishing line and tug on it. The line would get pulled up, or over, as the case may be. It would get pulled into an unseen realm, where my father — working behind the scenes, as was his nature in so many ways — would take one of my cast-off toys, and tie it onto the line. Then he would slowly lower it back down to the waiting child.

Among the kids, the suspense in the room was almost breathtaking. The Magic Fish was easily the highlight of every birthday party, overshadowing the games and the ritual opening of presents and even the cake. No one took their eyes off the fishing line; everyone desperately wanted to see what each kid received. Even me. After the ritual was complete, and everyone had had their turn at the fishing line, we would play together with our new toys while my friends waited for their parents to pick them up. I remember looking at them all — the toys, not the kids; I was a kid myself, so I only really saw the toys back then — and being so happy. They all finally got to play together, in our created island of misfit toys.

I said it was magic, in its own way, and it was. Choosing those toys that had sat on my shelves unloved and unused, watching them descend into the hands of their new owners — I saw them become desired, loved, eagerly anticipated. The Magic Fish took unloved toys, and made them cherished. It wasn’t until much later that I recognized what magic it was. It wasn’t until even later than that, that I realized that the magic had worked on me, too: I’d loved the toys, as I saw them become lovable, as much as anyone else. I had learned, in time, that sometimes the best way to love something could be to let go of it.

And it was still later than that, when I finally realized that I — misfit, unwanted, and no one’s first choice — could be lovable, too. Even to me. 🎈

edited by carmen.

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Ally lives in the Hudson Valley with far fewer cats than she initially planned. She spends her days working in professional theatre and the rest of her time caring for her young children.

Ally has written 2 articles for us.


  1. This is beautiful! I was always super attached to my toys as a kid (I still have a shelf full at my parents’ house that I can’t bear to part with). I also work at a toy hospital now, so I have a lot of feelings about how attached people get to their favourite toys, as well as the beauty of passing them on to their next stage of life.

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