Wished-for Treasure

            My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. We always had a clean place to live, even if it wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods. We always had a car, although never a new one. My mom was a frugal cook, so there was food on the table and while you might feel a bit hungry, you never starved.

            When we got our first television when I was twelve, I was exposed to commercials for the first time. That’s when I became aware of all that I was missing. There were dolls and soldiers, board games and sports equipment. Sweets of all kinds and varieties of cold cereals that made my mouth water just dreaming about that first bite.

            We watched about an hour of television a day, but it was enough for me to notice what people wore and didn’t wear. They didn’t dress like me in hand-me-down threadbare clothes. They didn’t wear conservative clothes that covered a body from head to foot.

            When a commercial came on for a Barbie doll, I salivated. Oh, how I wanted one! The girl across the street who sometimes played with me had one. It was so beautiful! So fashionable! So desirable!

            One time when we were going to the local five-and-dime, I brought my saved allowance. The store sold Barbie dolls! But they were too expensive. There was a cheap replica which I could afford, so I bought that one. I understood that it was a fake, but it looked enough like a Barbie that I could use the patterns for the real thing to make clothes for this one.

            Every afternoon I carried my sewing supplies out to the backyard where there was a shady place along the back fence. I made my doll skirts, blouses, pants and dresses. When I had what could have been considered an ensemble, I worked up the courage to carry it across the street to the girl’s house.

            I was pretty proud of what I had done. She destroyed me when she laughed at my cheap plastic replica.

            When Christmas rolled around a few months later, all I asked for was a real Barbie. I didn’t get one. But my younger sister did. My parents explained, as I wiped away the tears of disappointment that streamed down my cheeks, that I was too old for a doll.

            I didn’t dream of owning anything else again for a long time.

            A television program came on with a doctor in the lead role. It was a good show, one that was popular with not just my parents, but with my peers.

            One time when we went shopping, a “doctor” blouse hung on a rack. Oh, how I wanted one! School had started by now and many of my peers had them. I knew that I had almost enough saved up to buy one for myself. My mom wouldn’t buy it then even though I promised to pay her back when we returned home. Instead she made me wait until the next trip to the store.

            I don’t recall how much time passed between trips, but when we did return to the store, the blouses had been marked down. I was so happy! I finally got my “doctor” blouse.

            Imagine how proud I was to wear it to school! I pictured my peers recognizing that I was finally wearing something that was popular. But, oh, that did not happen. You see, styles had changed. The other girls had moved on to whatever the newest fad was. That’s when I discovered that things on a clearance rack were there for a reason.

            Around that same time my dad learned of a bargain store a good hour’s drive from home. I had little expectations of finding anything there of interest. I was right. There were car and bike tires, car parts, miscellaneous household goods and clothing that a worker would wear, such as overalls and jumpsuits.

            We returned several weeks later. I remember that it had snowed but the roads were clear. Mounds of snow were piled along the sides of roads and along the perimeter of the store’s parking lot. Once again I knew there would be nothing there that I would want.

            Imagine my surprise when just inside the doors of the store was a circular rack holding a variety of white and black “leather” coats. When I touched the sleeve of one, it felt so soft that I found myself salivating at the thought of wearing it.

            When I showed them to my mom, she informed me that they were not made of real leather. They were fakes. I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

            She told me that I’d only get it dirty, that I’d ruin it by spilling something on it and it was be a complete and total waste of money.

            I didn’t care. I still wanted one.

            My mom refused to buy it for me even when I begged. I promised to work jobs around the house to earn enough money to reimburse her if she bought it right then. She refused.

            I cried all the way home.

            I had never had a new coat or one that mirrored what other girls wore. I had seen girls wearing similar coats, so in my mind I pictured myself walking the halls of my high school wearing that jacket, feeling proud as all eyes smiled with appreciation.

            No matter how much I begged or tried to finagle a way to pay for it, my parents refused to take me back to the store.

            Dreams of that coat haunted me. It was all that I cold think of, all I wanted. My hopes for popularity depended upon having that coat. I sensed its power deep inside.

            The next time we went to the store, the coats were still on the same circular rack, but there were none left in my size. I walked about the store with tear-filled eyes.

            Christmas arrived a few weeks later. My gifts were needed, but boring: underwear, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a new comb and other necessities. Nothing frivolous. Nothing fun.

            After all gifts had been unwrapped, my family gathered around the television to watch a Christmas show. I don’t recall what it was because I was heartbroken.

            We ate dinner. Don’t ask me what it was.

            It was time for bed. I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth and came out to tell my parents goodnight.

            My parents demanded hugs, which by then I felt too old for. I hated being wrapped in my mother’s arms, but it was even worse being hugged by my dad. He had a way of giving me the creeps.

            This time, when I approached my dad, he pulled a large present out from behind his chair. He said he’d found it in his closet.

            I sat on the floor, wishing upon wish that it was that which I most wanted. I wanted to rip the paper to shreds, but that would have been a sin. Every bow, every piece of ribbon and paper had to be saved for the next Christmas.

            I carefully slid my fingers under the ribbon until it came undone. I rolled the ribbon up into a ball, an expected action that had to happen before moving on. I used a pair of scissors to cut the tape on the paper. When it fell off the plain white box, I folded the paper along its creases.

            The box was taped shut. Once again the scissors broke the tape.

            I slowly removed the lid. Pulled aside the tissue paper.

            It was there! The coat of my dreams was inside that box. I didn’t believe my eyes at first, thinking it was a mirage.

            When reality hit, I pulled the coat out of the box and put it on. It fit over my fat body! I could button it all the way from top to bottom. The sleeves were the right length. It was as soft as I remembered. I was speechless.

            I wore that coat until bedtime. When it was time to take it off, I hung it in my half of the closet.

            Every day I wore that coat, even if we never left the house. I stood taller, held my shoulders squarer and my head higher. I knew that when school began, people would see me for the first time. Instead of being the fat girl who wore hand-me-downs and homemade clothes, I’d be the girl in the white leather (fake leather) coat.

            When school began in January, I wore that coat even though it was well below zero and too cold for a thin jacket. I didn’t care even though I was shivering when the school bus finally arrived.

            I smiled as I climbed the three steps into the bus. I nodded to the students already on board. No one returned my smile.

            At school when I walked the halls, I was still smiling. Not a single student or teacher acknowledged my new coat. As each class ended with no change in my status, I seemed to shrink a little bit more.

            By the time I boarded the bus to go home, my new-found confidence was shattered.

            To make things worse, sometime during the course of the day I had encountered something that left a mark on the sleeve of my coat. My mom was right: I wouldn’t be able to keep it clean.

            I had learned important lessons: don’t ask for things, don’t dream of having things, don’t think that owning something would improve my social status.

Just Another Dream

            I wasn’t the kind of kid who played with dolls. At least not in the usual way. Like most girls I had been given a few dolls as gifts, but none of them piqued my interest. I never gave them names, never changed their clothes, never pretended to feed or diaper them.

            Mostly they resided on my pillow, a line-up of meaningless plastic constructions that my parents thought I should have. Several of the dolls were still enclosed in boxes. I had been forbidden from opening them, and since I really didn’t care, I never so much as broke the seal.

            Those dolls were beautiful, too beautiful for a “little girl” as I had been told by my mom. They had glossy pretend hair. I recall that one’s was black, one was blonde and another had long wavy brown hair. I had seen what other girls did to their dolls’ hair, turned it into unruly tangles, and I understood that I was not supposed to ruin my dolls in the same way.

            Since I didn’t care, threats were meaningless.

            Dolls were also pretty boring back then. Their arms and legs might move, maybe even the heads might rotate, but they weren’t cuddly and did nothing that imitated life.

            Christmas was nearing, the year I turned eight. We did have a television then, a small black and white model that carried maybe three stations. One evening an advertisement appeared that called my name. A walking doll! Can you imagine such a thing? A doll that would follow you around. A doll that could be your best friend, something I dearly needed.

            I begged for that doll. When it was time to visit Santa, the only thing I wanted was that doll. When I went to bed, pictures of me playing with the doll, happy and laughing and having the best time of my life filled my thoughts.

            I was young enough to still believe in Santa, but old enough to understand that my family had very little money. No worry: Santa would bring me the doll.

            Our family attended Mass and then ate breakfast before we opened the colorfully packaged gifts under the tree. Because it had snowed heavily, we couldn’t drive the miles into Dayton to attend church, so we gathered around my dad who read the entire Mass. My mind was not on prayer, not on the service, but on the gifts under the tree. Would there be a doll for me? I prayed and prayed for the doll.

            Breakfast was oatmeal. No surprise there. Almost all of our breakfasts were oatmeal. Never cold cereal. That wasn’t allowed until we moved to California. Never bacon and eggs. Sometimes the despised Cream of Wheat.

            We didn’t add anything to the oatmeal. No brown sugar, no raisins, no honey. Nothing to make it interesting or more palatable. I was a picky eater and because I hated oatmeal, it usually took me forever to get down one bowl. But that morning, that Christmas, I gobbled mine down in record time.

            After breakfast we’d gather around the tree. My brother and I would sit on the floor, my parents on chairs. My dad was the only one allowed to touch the gifts, so we had to wait patiently while he picked up one, read its tag, then delivered it to the recipient. Gifts could not be opened until each of us held one in our laps.

            When our dad sat and gave the signal, we carefully removed bows and ribbons, so that they could be reused next year, then ran our thumbs under the tape binding the wrapping paper. Once free. We had to smooth out the paper, fold it along its lines, then stack it neatly beside us.

            If the gift was in a box we again had to open it carefully so as to not bend it or crease it in any way. If the gift was in its own box so that the contents were revealed with the unwrapping, we were forbidden to open the box until after lunch Christmas Day.

            I don’t remember anything I opened except that none of them were the doll. When there was nothing left under the tree, my eyes filled with tears. Santa had disappointed me.

            We helped Mom sort ribbons, bows and paper into neat stacks. When the job was complete, we were set free to play. My brother was older and therefore determined what toys we played with, what games we chose. Most likely we played with his green Army men. He loved lining them up in formations and sending them to attack the meager Army I was given. My men never won. Instead they “died” gruesome deaths of his choosing.

There was something satisfying in watching my men die that day. Their misery was a metaphor for my own. Those plastic men had wishes and dreams that would never come true: my one wish had also not come true. Each death mirrored the death of my dreams. In some perverse way, it was comforting.

            Before we could move on to another activity, the Army had to be cleaned up and put away. Because I was lower on the pecking order, cleanup was always left up to me. My brother had most likely moved on to another of his preferred activities, abandoning me to place the Army in the storage box in which they lived.

            Lunch must have been served. Most likely bologna sandwiches with a slice of pretend American cheese. No chips. No soda. Maybe, if we were lucky, homemade applesauce that Mom had canned in the summer.

            Free to play with the new toys, we were set free. I wish I remembered the things I had received, but I don’t. I was having trouble learning to read and tell time, so there might have been something related to that. Most likely not. We owned no picture books. No books of any kind except for an old bible that we weren’t allowed to read.

            I did have coloring books and crayons, but no plastic dishes with which to set up house. I hadn’t wanted plastic dishes, so I didn’t miss them at all.

            My dad and brother were into trains, so I bet there was track and at least one train car or engine. My dad was trying to turn my brother into the skilled athlete that he was, so there might have been a new glove or baseball. I would have loved my own glove! Girls didn’t play ball back then, so there’s no way a glove would have been under the tree for me.

            We did play board games. Because we were often trapped at home during snowy Ohio days, my brother and I spent hours playing games. I love getting new games. Each presented a new challenge, a new experience. Until my brother dominated my pieces. He won every time.

            By this time it would have been late afternoon, early evening. At some point I probably sank into one of the two chairs in the living room, crossed my arms over my chest and let the tears fall.

            Crying for me was normal. I cried every day, sometimes all day long. I cried when my brother hurt me, beat me at a game, hit me with a ball, stole my share of the Army men. I sobbed when I was punished for being me, for not knowing my colors, my alphabet, money and time. I was a miserable child: not the kind of girl that people want to cherish, to hold, to nurture.

            At some point my dad entered the room carrying a large, colorfully wrapped box. I knew that it wasn’t for me. There was no way I’d get something that large. No way that a gift for me had been overlooked.

            My brother, on the other hand, would have been given a surprise gift. He would have been the one that my dad would set the box in front of, the one who would get to open a gift while I watched.

            Imagine my shock when the gift landed at my feet! When I stood, the box was nearly as tall as I was. Could it be? Was it possible?

            When told to do so, I gingerly removed ribbon and bow. Ran my fingers along the edge of the paper. As I did so the contents were revealed: it was the doll from the televison.

            She was beautiful. Her golden hair fell to her shoulders. It gleamed in the Christmas tree lights. Her plastic arms were pearly and smooth. She was wearing a blue fitted dress that had eyelet trim along the edge of the sleeves and the bottom of the hem. On her feet were black Maryjane shoes like the ones I wore to church.

            My dad opened the box while I waited, holding my breath. This doll would change my life. There was something about her, something so special that I knew, I understood, that I would never be the same weeping girl. I would be as special as this doll. She would become my best friend, my only friend, as she followed me around the house.

            Once the doll was set free, I yearned to see her walk. But I couldn’t. No batteries came in the box. We had no batteries at home. Because the roads were covered in snow, no batteries could be purchased until the snow melted. All I could do was push her about. You see, on the soles of her shoes were rollers. Tiny black rollers. Four on each shoe.

            In a way, that was somewhat satisfying. I’d never had a doll with rollers. Never had a doll whose eyes opened and closed. Hers did just that. I’d never had a doll that was close to my size. There was so much about her that pleased me, that I didn’t mind, much, that I couldn’t watch her walk.

            Because I couldn’t turn the doll on, my mom insisted that she be returned to her box until batteries could be purchased. I was disappointed, but also relieved. With her in the box, her hair would not be mussed, her dress could not be torn, her legs and arms could not be broken. I also couldn’t sleep with her, but her plastic body was so hard, so dense, that there was no comfort in touching her. The box was hidden in my mom’s closet.

            I don’t remember how many days passed, how many days I had to wait to see the doll walk. But one day, after I’d nearly forgotten that the doll was in safekeeping, my dad returned home from work with batteries.

            After dinner the doll was brought out. I watched, eagerly, as my dad inserted the batteries. I stood over the doll and waited, holding my breath, while my dad flipped the switch.

            A grinding sound began. It sounded like metal on metal as the doll’s right foot slowly, almost imperceptibly moved forward a few inches. The left followed at snail’s pace. Then the right. The left. Ever so slowly she moved, the rollers allowing her to go forward to the horrible grinding sound. Then she died.

            Just like that. She moved a few inches, then died. The batteries only lasted for a few minutes. End of story. The doll was repackaged and returned to the closet.

            Sometime later, when I had definitely forgotten the doll, more batteries appeared. By now I had lost interest. This doll, this longed-for treasure, the one thing that would change my life, was just another huge disappointment in a long list of disappointments.

            I watched the doll move because I was expected to. Once again her feet moved minuscule bits to the grinding sound. Once again the batteries died.

            At this point I was given the option of keeping the doll in my room. I could play with her as long as I was careful not to muss her hair or ruin her clothes. The doll’s thrill had ended on Christmas Day when I saw how little she could do.

            Her eyes did not open or close. Her head did not turn and her arms did not move. She could not sit or bend. She was not cuddly, and since standing or lying down were the only things she could do, I no longer wanted her. She was just a cold, hard, rigid body. An image of me. Or at least what I thought people saw when they looked at me.

            My mom put the doll in her box and took her somewhere. I didn’t care. Never asked about her. Never missed her.

            When I got older I realized that the doll represented my status in the family. Like the doll, I was a disappointment. My mom had wanted a girly-girl but I was a tomboy. I hated dresses and stiff shoes. I loved being outdoors, playing on the swing, imagining great adventures as I flew back and forth.

             I never became the girl she dreamt of. And when I went away to college, like the doll, I was out of sight, out of mind. The doll’s disappearance hinted at what was to become of me.

            I thought I had gotten over the doll, but obviously not. I came to accept that the things we yearn for do not always turn out to be what we really want. Desire is just an elusive feeling that is easily subdued, easily conquered.  

            As we grow older we put away childhood toys and games. We outgrow clothes, change our hair styles, pierce our ears. We fill our hearts and minds with other, more immediate joys. We pretend that we’ve pushed aside those things that let us down, but they lie buried, deep, deep inside.