Sunday, October 18, 2020


She stared back through the window, lips glistening, eyes wide open looking directly at me. I couldn’t tear myself away. Her perfect blond curly hair and rosy cheeks were an eye-magnet. Everything about her, from her impeccably ironed organza dress to her dainty little shoes called to me—Are you the one? Will you rescue me? 

 My parents slowed their pace but didn’t stop. “Come along, dear, we have a lot of errands to do.” Begrudgingly I followed them into the record store next door, but even the brightly colored posters and strains of music leaking out of the glass listening-booths didn’t distract me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. 

 “All right,” Mother sighed an hour later after several errands had been accomplished, “we’ll stop by the store on our way back to the car . . . to ask how much she costs.” Once inside Fifth Avenue Toys, I hastily made my way past mounds of alluring items—stuffed animals and Teddy bears, Lincoln logs, Parcheesi games, Erector sets, and model airplane kits—to the doll corner where her twin sat with a price tag of $25. 

 “No, absolutely not!” said my mother when I started to ask the inevitable. “Don’t be ridiculous! You’ve almost outgrown playing with dolls, so you’re not getting a doll that costs that much,” as if a doll’s value could be amortized over the months it was played with. Wisely, my father stayed out of our discussion, although I sneaked peaks at him to see if I could detect a glimmer of empathy. No dice. This was girl talk and he had intentionally disconnected. 

 All the way home from the backseat of the car I jabbered. “She’s so big, almost the size of real a two year old,” I speculated. “Isn’t she beautiful? Her cheeks are so rosy, her hair is so blond.” 

 “We are not spending that much money on a doll, period,” said my mother again. Her tone wasn’t mean, just decisive. By the next morning I’d devised a scheme. Trying it out first on my father, I asked, 

“Will you go halvsies with me? If I save my allowance until I have $12.50?” Maybe because my math was impeccable, more likely because he was an entrepreneur himself, he smiled. 

“That’s a possibility,” he conceded. “Better talk to Mother, though.” Now that I had Dad in my camp, I approached Mother with confidence. 

“We’ll see,” she said. 

 As an old woman nearly seventy years later, I don’t think of myself as a person with a lot of drive, staying- power, focus, or determination. But that summer I was one-track-minded and consumed with focus. Stashing about three dollars a week in allowance and chores, I decided I would name her Cynthia and call her Cindy for short. She would be my playmate, my best friend, my confidante and my little sister. By mid-July I had twelve dollars. “You still need fifty cents more and there’ll be tax,” reminded my mother. “You’d better save at least thirteen dollars.” Even though I was so close to achieving my goal, she must have hoped I’d still change my mind. 

 When I finally had enough money, a new worry overtook me. What if Cindy wasn’t still at the toy store? What if she had been bought by someone else? But miraculously, she was still there, on the shelf, not in the window. “I have come for you, at last, Cynthia,” I whispered as I lifted her off the shelf. She was as beautiful as I remembered, radiant in her human-like softness. I patted her crunchy nylon hair and ran my fingers over her smooth vinyl cheeks into the crevice of her mouth. Her fingers and elbows were dimpled, her body was cuddly, made from soft flesh-colored fabric. I carried her carefully to the counter and opened my wallet. My father opened his, as well. 

 For an entire week I thought of nothing else. She slept next to me during the night and came to the breakfast table. My mother, softened considerably about the doll once she was sharing her roof, located some old baby clothes for Cindy to wear as pajamas. The doll was too sophisticated to be wearing toddler overalls or V-necked T-shirts during the day, but those items were perfect as sleepware. After breakfast, I changed her out of her pjs and put her in her store-perfect organdy dress, delicate shoes and lacey socks. When I brushed her hair, a few shiny strands of her nylon wig (glued to her head) came loose, but it didn’t matter. She was still the most alluring doll I had ever seen—and she was mine! She sat by the window when I went out to play with my neighbor in the next-door vacant lot. Cindy couldn’t play with us outside because her body was cloth. I was not going to let her get dirty. 

 Every night she joined the family for dinner. Her straight, unbending arms thrust out beside her or rested on the table edge. Although her feet stuck out straight ahead of her when sitting in a chair, I made sure she was included in the conversation. My parents and my sister must have become exasperated as they waited out my obsession, hoping I’d lose interest in her and discover something (anything!) else. But nothing made me waiver from my inordinate affection for Cindy. 

 One morning in late August, just days before fifth grade was going to start, I put Cindy in a patio chair on our veranda. When my neighbor came over, we ran off to play. (We had formed a gang called “The Monkeys,” which did mischief—things like helping ourselves to a Coca-Cola from the basement storage room at her house.) While I was gone, a summer storm blew in and when I arrived home for lunch, I was dismayed to see a fine layer of soot all over Cindy’s face. Although she was damp from rain, she desperately needed a washing. Carefully carrying her to the upstairs bathroom, I pulled my washcloth down from where it hung over the bathtub. I soaped up the cloth and began to scrub her vinyl face. My mother was calling me for lunch. As I hurried my task along, I noticed slivers of red on the washcloth. When I looked closely, I saw . . . paint! Her mouth color was flaking off in front of my eyes. Little bubbles were rising up from her lips, then popping and peeling off. 

 Tears welled up in my own eyes, and I let out a yelp. My mother, assuming the worst—perhaps I had fallen on a knife—was up the stairs in moments. “What’s wrong? What have you done?” She was ashen. The combination of the horrifying disintegration of Cindy combined with my mother’s reaction set off my sobs—bellowing sobs. I scared myself they were so loud. I gasped through spurting tears, “I washed off some of Cindy’s lips.” My mother who had, until that moment, been the epitome of a caring mother, was no doubt so relieved it was only the doll and not her daughter who was losing red substance from her face, and brusquely snapped, “What? You’re crying over your doll? Oh, for heavens sake! Stop crying and come to lunch,” which made me blubber all the harder. Now my mother was shouting, something she rarely did. “She’s just a doll, for heaven’s sake, Sallie! Get a-hold of yourself.” The more Mother reacted, the more I cried. I couldn’t stop, I didn’t know how. “Take a breath and hold it—or you’ll have hysterics,” she commanded. 

By now I felt as though I was in another place, inside someone else’s body. I no more knew how to stop crying than I knew how to fly. Finally, Mother suggested that I lie down in the guest room. She pulled the shades halfway down, making the room calm and shady. “You have to get a-hold of yourself,” she said as she left the room and closed the door. “No one but you can stop your crying.” I heaved big sighs and started all over again, terrified by my inability to stop. A few minutes later, my father came into the guest room. 

“We can fix Cindy, I’m sure, Sallie. She’ll be as good as new.” 

 Then I heard my mother say to my father, “She’s having a case of hysterics,” which frightened me even more. As I lay there, someone put a cool wash cloth on my forehead. Eventually I must have slept because the next thing I knew, it was nearly dark outside. I woke up exhausted. When I went downstairs, both parents were very solicitous. Mother gave me supper and brought my pajamas downstairs, then offered to read to me until I was sleepy and ready for bed. Within moments of awaking the following morning, I remembered something unpleasant had happened the day before. When I entered the kitchen, Dad was sitting at the breakfast table. He looked up from his plate. “We can buy nail polish in exactly the same red,” he began, “and paint Cindy's lips with that. I think it will look quite professional.” Thinking about Cindy made me feel queasy, but I trusted my dad’s assessment. He could probably repair her just fine. 

 After breakfast while Mother did the dishes, my dad and I went to the local dime store to select nail enamel. I picked out a deep coral without worrying if it matched her current lips because—my dad explained—it would be best to remove all the original lip paint so the color would be smooth. After we bought the polish, he spent the rest of the morning gently washing off her flaking lip paint, picking off the splinters with a wash cloth. Eventually her lips were unadorned and pale. Dad repainted her mouth with a great flourish, the way a surgeon would prepare a patient, carefully covering the rest of her body so as not to get a speck of unwanted nail enamel on anything else. I watched. He decided to let the paint dry for at least an hour. 

"Come on, Sallie--let's go to the arboretum to feed ducks while we wait." When we got back, Cindy’s lips looked fine, but I knew we could never go back. We were both scarred. Cindy had sustained lip damage; I had had my heart broken. Although Cindy looked like herself . . . I knew she wasn’t. She was no longer the most beautiful doll in the world, she was just a doll, my doll. And I was a girl who knew what it meant when mothers lowered their voices and whispered about someone, “Then she became hysterical.

end of Part I . . . to be continued

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