Love Well Played

I worried that my husband's toy collection meant he didn't want to grow up, but it turned out to be his way of cataloging life

When I met my husband Brandon online, we covered most of the essentials over email.

I knew he was a widower. His wife died two years before in a car accident. I knew he had been drowning his grief in beer. He spent evenings mourning alongside her beagle Charlie. I also knew he had a freezer stocked with Hot Pockets, meaning he didn't cook.

Hardly an auspicious catch, I mused. And while I hadn't met Brandon in person yet, I was still drawn to him. Then I got this:

"There's something else you should know about me," he wrote. "I have a unique hobby."

I prepped myself for an elaborate collection of Civil War-era guns, a fascination with vampires, even a VIP membership in the Justin Bieber fan club. So when his next email came through with a series of photos capturing a tricked-out three-car garage, I was somewhat relieved.

Turned out, his hobby involved filling and organizing shelves packed with toys. His collection of more than 450 Pez dispensers, 20-plus Batman models and a six-foot-tall Spider-man seemed more appropriate for a 40-year-old virgin than a 29-year-old bachelor. I even spotted a prominently displayed action figure of "Die Hard" hero John McClane.

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When I asked about his affinity for Bruce Willis's illustrious character, Brandon said, "John McClane is a reluctant hero. He's a regular guy who goes through this incredible ordeal because he loves his wife. I like that."

I decided I wouldn't run for the hills … yet.

Still, I worried his toys represented a boy who didn't want to grow up, that our collective earnings would be poured into action figures and Disney collectibles rather than stocks and bonds. I even wondered if I could share a bed with someone whose most prized possessions included bobble heads and vintage lunchboxes.

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A few weeks into our relationship, after we put my signature lasagna in his oven on a Friday night date, Brandon led me to the garage for my first tour. A large hammock hovered next to a pool table, Batman movie posters hung from the rafters and an old-school boom box played the blues on a shabby end table.

The sheer volume of stuff looked like something out of "Hoarders," but meticulously organized. Every shelf was categorized by character and collection: Marvel on one side, DC Comics on the other, with books telling the stories of Dick Tracy, Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe in-between.

As we boarded the hammock, side by side, he gave me a brief history lesson: His collection started in 1996, when he was 18, with a bookshelf sporting half a dozen "Star Wars" and "Batman" figures, all of which vanished during a 1998 robbery of his Michigan home. Soon, he began collecting Obi-Wans of different sizes and shapes, not to replace the one he lost, but to pay homage to the character who ignited his life-long passion.

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"See that?" he said, pointing to a foamy pint in the left hand of one of a dozen Obi-Wan figures in his collection. "That beer mug was the cake topper on my 21st birthday cake." We walked a few feet and stopped again, this time in front of a cleaned-out aquarium fashioned into a "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" diorama.

"I picked up that rock as my friend John and I descended into Devil's Hole at the base of Niagara Falls," he said, pointing to a reddish stone beside Little John.

Next, we stood before an entire wall of Pez dispensers, everything from Elvis to the first 15 presidents. What started as a gift of 10 "Star Wars" dispensers from his late wife evolved into an eclectic shrine to all things Pez.

"She was hoping to interest me in something simple, easy to find and cheap," he said.

Wise woman, I thought.

Soon, it became clear his collection was more than just action figures, models and novelties. It was his way of cataloging life—changing moments, special memories and important relationships.

Eventually, I made my way into his collection, too, starting with the Matchbox cars we raced on one of our early dates. Later, when I realized he was more promising than originally thought, I bought him a toy knight. The sticky note I penned is still attached to the back: "Free training to prospective knights in shining armor."

Over time, my contributions became more substantial: a life-size replica of the Dark Knight cowl, a medieval sword with the bat emblem embedded in the base and original artwork featuring myriad superheroes.

While I never anticipated spending thousands of dollars on comic-related memorabilia, seeing my hubby dance around the kitchen upon receiving these gifts is well worth the cost of admission.

Of course, Brandon's hobby doesn't come without drawbacks. His collection takes precedence over almost everything else. Whether we're honeymooning in Venice, Italy (where he purchased a Joker mask), or wine tasting in Santa Barbara (where he bought Spider-man comics), he's always on the lookout for toys.

When we started shopping for a house, square footage and upgrades became an afterthought. His mission was finding a garage that could not only accommodate his collection, but also give him creative freedom to display it in a way that commands attention. The rub: I can't park a car in our garage. Ever.

Despite the inconveniences, this esteemed "man cave" (ahem, "boy cave") will be a refuge for our sons. It's a place they'll be proud to show off to their friends. A place their dad will secure with an industrial-strength padlock to ensure nothing breaks or disappears. A place where they'll glimpse firsthand the collection of memories that display how deeply their dad loves them.

When I walk through the garage now, I see the Halloween wind-up toys we played with when I was hospitalized during my pregnancy with our twins (me in a wheelchair, him chasing after pumpkin heads). The wagons we received the day they were born and the Mickey Mouse cake toppers that adorned their 2nd birthday cake.

As the years pass, I will continue to embrace Brandon's passion and try not to begrudge him the time he spends in the garage. While he isn't physically with us during those times, I know he's organizing the best of our family memories. It makes him a better husband, a better father and a happier guy. And when he shows me another impulse purchase or a new eBay find, I'll remind myself that someday, if we have to, we can hock it all to fund our kids' college tuitions—or an encore trip to Venice. Without the Joker!

A version of this story originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times

Tags: marriage