When I was a little girl, probably five or six years of age, someone gave me an old, cheap plastic doll. It’s arms and legs moved and I could rotate its head a bit to the right or left. Its hair was painted auburn and its lips a light shade of red. It was nothing fancy, but it was mine.
And when you’re poor, you appreciate those hand-me-downs more than a rich kid receiving another shiny toy. So that doll meant a lot to me and I brought it everywhere I went.
At the time we lived in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, in a housing development that I later understood would have been called projects.
My older brother was the bain of my existence even then. He teased me, pushed me around, took things from me and ridiculed my appearance and my parents did nothing to stop him. As a small child, I understood the power he held over me and the lack of presence I had within the family unit.
Anyway, my mother’s parents lived in Galipolis, Ohio, a long drive from home. They lived so far away that we usually only visited them once a year. While we had little, they had even less. We had furnace heat, they warmed their house with coal. We had running water in the bathroom and kitchen, they had an outhouse which terrified me and a pump in the kitchen that poured out the coldest, most refreshing water I’d ever tasted.
On one journey to visit my grandparents I brought along my doll, as usual. During the ride, my brother took it away from me several times which brought me to tears. He would eventually give it back, only to steal it away almost immediately.
When we arrived at my grandparent’s house, after getting hugs from Grandma, I went outside on my own to play with my doll. My brother followed me. A chase began, which I lost due to my shorter legs and slower-moving body.
My brother stole the doll, threw it on the ground and stomped on it. He repeated this over and over until the arms, legs and body were little more than shattered pieces of plastic. I howled, long and loud.
My grandma came to investigate and listened carefully as I told her the tale. She chastised my brother and told him to go sit in a chair on the porch. She took me inside and wiped off my face. Gave me a cup of cold water. And held me close, brushing my hair off my reddened face.
When we left that night, of course there was no doll to take home. Months passed. In time I forgot about my doll as I moved on to other things. I colored obsessively, filling page after page with drawings that I meticulously colored, staying within the lines.
The year passed and nothing changed in my life. My brother still teased, pushed, pulled, pinched and ridiculed. My parents still did little to stop the abuse.
When summer came we returned to my grandparent’s house. As always, Grandma greeted me at the door with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. But then a most magical thing happened. Slowly, ever so slowly, she pulled something from behind her back. It was my doll!
Actually, to be precise, it was my doll’s head attached to a hand sewn body. The doll was now made of some type of beige cloth. It had lines to indicate fingers and toes. It had underpants, a slip and a dress. It was beautiful!
I brought it to my chest, tears in my eyes. The words of thanks whispered from my lips.
Then my grandma turned to my brother and told him that he had better, never take that doll from me or he’d have to answer to her, and she would not be gentle.
My grandma gave me a most precious gift. It goes beyond the doll and its clothes. She gave me a symbol of love. A toy that made me feel special. Unique. But most importantly, loved.
I still have that doll. It is now more than 62 years old and it occupies a place of honor in my house. Whenever I see it, think of it, it speaks to me of the one person who loved me as I am.