Toys are her weakness, and her legacy
As a child, bounced from foster home to foster home, she never got to keep any of her toys. She didn't want her own children to have to grow up so quickly.
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published July 28, 2006
Tonya "Cookie" Wideman was 10 years old when a rocky home life led her stepfather to put her in state custody.
"I woke up one morning and there was no family," Wideman said. "There were no toys. There was nothing."
She bounced from foster home to foster home, and what bothered her the most was that she never got to take her toys with her.
"Nobody kept anything that said you existed," Wideman said. The only remnants of her childhood are two snapshots.
Now 42, Wideman has made up for lost toys. Since 1983, she has collected more than 23,000 plush dolls, action figures and prizes from fast food restaurants, which she individually preserves in plastic bags so she'll never have to lose her toys again.
Touring her small Port Tampa home is like walking through the past two decades of kids' pop culture - Pound Puppies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Muppet Babies, Power Rangers, Pokemon and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Wideman fills up on all the fads, but when it comes to collecting, she's always had a sweet spot for M&Ms memorabilia. If it's a plastic, smiling chocolate candy playing a saxophone or driving a race car or saying "Merry Christmas," she's got it.
Wideman doesn't care much for the candy itself. Her two teenage children don't like chocolate, and even neighborhood kids are growing tired of the stuff.
The result? The candy lingers in unwrapped Easter baskets for years and years. M&Ms may not melt in your hand, but after years of sitting around, they crumble into brown dust.
"I've got to go through and dump, dump, dump," Wideman said. But it's hard to keep track of what's fresh and what's not, and with some of the toys, she doesn't want to disturb the packaging.
Wideman started collecting because she wanted her kids, Erika Hayes and Earl Sipp, to have things she didn't. She wanted them to have keepsakes of their childhood, like the ones she lost.
Erika, 15, likes Usher. Earl, 18, likes sports. But their mother's M&Ms toys still clutter their bedrooms.
"They look at it as, 'Okay, Mommy's gone crazy,' " Wideman said.
Soft-spoken Erika gave a more gracious response: "If it makes my mom happy ..."
Employees at Target and Wal-Mart know Wideman and call her every time they get a new M&Ms product. When they do, she can't resist.
Wideman's longtime partner, Phillip Hayes, tried to get Wideman to reduce her collecting, so Wideman started secretly storing stuff in the attic.
She does adhere to his one strict rule: No plush googly-eyed creatures in the bedroom.
"That's where he draws the line," Wideman said. But she still wears her M&Ms pajamas to bed.
One night, as Hayes walked through the house in the dark, he heard a voice coming from Wideman's toy room.
"I see you," it said. "Peek-a-boo."
"There's someone in the house!" Hayes yelled to Wideman. After that, she had to give away her motion sensor talking baby Big Bird.
The toy collection has moved with Wideman from the now closed Rembrandt public housing development, where she and her family used to live. In their old place, she used her collection to remind her children of what they had. Her motto: "It's not where you live, it's how you live."
Wideman moved to Port Tampa six years ago. She got involved with the civic association and became a neighborhood watch owl.
Wideman keeps thick three-ring binders with family photos and mementos, from her children's report cards to a photo of young Erika with a Tweety Bird doll she still owns.
It's her mom's legacy.
"When they grow up, they can say, 'I have a lot of pictures, I have a lot of toys, and it increases in value over the years,' " Wideman said.
And to Wideman, that's priceless.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or email@example.com.
Nickname: Cookie. She weighed 2 pounds when she was born, and her sister couldn't pronounced the name, so she called her a little cookie.
Digs: Port Tampa
Gig: It's obvious she works at Michaels, the Arts and Crafts Store - her household appliances are decoupaged in M&Ms scrapbook paper.
Toys collected: 23,000
Money spent: About $17,000
FARTHEST TRAVELED FOR A TOY: Chicago
Next on wish list: A $60 toy limousine M&Ms dispenser with the colorful cast of candies riding in style